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Cities and Refugees: The German Experience

Ahead of the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week, a new discussion paper from the Brookings Institution has one clear message for world leaders: There is an urgent need to focus on the role and actions of cities taking in refugees across Europe.

Written by Bruce Katz Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Germany refugee village
In this May 2, 2016 photo two women walk inside a residential house at the Sumte refugee shelter in Sumte, Amt Neuhaus, northern Germany. AP/Michael Sohn

At the U.N. General Assembly this week, national and global leaders are gathering to determine the state of the international humanitarian system and the specific lessons emerging from the European experience. Our message to these leaders is clear and simple: The European refugee project depends as much on the success or failure of dozens of cities and the actions of tens of thousands of public, private and civic leaders and ordinary citizens as on the deliberations of national leaders.

To date, the focus of European decision- and opinion-makers has largely been on the immigration policies and perspectives of host countries. As priorities shift to longer-term economic and social integration, there is an equal, pressing need to focus on the role and actions of host cities.

The urban concentration of refugees raises enormous opportunities for them and for host communities alike. Large cities are hubs of economic activity, offering jobs requiring a broad range of education and skills to new residents, who are also attracted by pre-existing networks of individuals of the same nationality or religious affiliation. Large cities are responsible for designing and delivering (and often financing) services that are critical to the integration process: housing, education, workforce development, health care, language courses, public safety and extracurricular activities like sports, arts and cultural events. And the size and density of population enhance the potential for the efficient, integrated delivery of services.

At the same time, large cities present special challenges. Population density and, in some cases, low housing vacancies and high housing costs complicate the process of providing shelter to large numbers of new entrants in a city and ensuring that wealthier neighborhoods take their “fair share.” Existing initiatives around enhancing housing affordability, for example, can be sidetracked by the need to respond to the crisis at hand. Most significantly, prior large-scale arrivals of migrants may have unintentionally created segregated enclaves that pose substantial challenges for long-term social integration.

To identify the scale of the challenge facing municipal governments, the new Brookings discussion paper first investigates the flow of refugees and migrants into Germany’s 15 largest cities, both in terms of immediate allocation and potential secondary migration. The focus on Germany reflects the central role that it is playing in the European refugee crisis: In 2015, 1.1 million refugees crossed the German border; Berlin received nearly 10,000 refugees in November alone, the peak month of that year. The paper then identifies the distribution of responsibilities and funding across Germany’s federal system, the set of tasks that municipalities must undertake to promote social and economic integration, and the ways that German cities are innovating in the delivery of these tasks in the immediate aftermath of the large flows of refugees in 2015.

The paper finds that:

  1. In the short term, refugees are proportionately distributed across German regions according to tax revenues and total population. The federal quota system for allocating refugees to states within Germany strives to be fair, equitable and efficient, as it distributes refugees in accordance with a long-standing formula for distributing federal resources based on tax revenues and total population. The predictability and efficiency of the system is illustrated by the fact that the deviations from the assigned quota norm are minimal.
  2. By nature of its simplicity, this distribution system imposes unique burdens on large cities, since it does not take into account higher population densities, special housing conditions of these urban communities or secondary migration patterns. Germany’s large cities face existing pressures around affordable housing, making cost-efficient refugee housing more difficult. Cities also tend to be destinations for secondary migration, as refugees move toward social networks or larger job markets. Finally, the three German city-states of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg face unique challenges, including their geographic boundaries, which remove the potential for greenfield development or the settlement of their allotted arrivals in less-populous regions.
  3. Similarly, the current framework for allocating funding and expenditures across federal, state and city governments imposes uneven burdens on city-states and large cities. Uniform reimbursement rates from the federal government fail to take into account variations in housing costs, cost of living and per-capita social service expenditures. Recent federal actions will help ease burdens, but more reforms and appropriations are likely to be necessary.
  4. Despite these challenges, as they pursue the numerous tasks of economic and social integration, cities such as Hamburg and Berlin have shown a remarkable ability to innovate in the face of crisis. Innovations have included an expanded role of civil society, the use of technology to engage community participation and the rapid building of nontraditional housing. The city-states have also provided an early warning system for the federal republic and helped to reform restrictive federal laws to be more responsive to local needs and circumstances.
  5. The special role played by cities in emergency response and long-term integration requires new policy reforms and institutional practices. Federal and state governments and networks of local stakeholders should explore reforms that empower cities, speed up the replication of promising strategies and give city leaders a permanent seat at the policymaking table.

Read the full paper on the Brookings website.

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