Leipzig, like other German cities, has seen a jump in the number of refugee arrivals. In 2015, over 4,200 people came to the city from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere – a significant increase on the roughly 1,200 that arrived in 2014. The numbers are still small compared to the overall population of the city; half-a-million people live in Leipzig, which is the largest city in Saxony. Nevertheless, the community in Leipzig has had to adapt in order to cope with the new arrivals.
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week, we’re looking at Leipzig, in Germany. Since the 1990s, Leipzig has adopted a policy of decentralising asylum and refugee accommodation in order to encourage smoother integration into society. Over half the asylum seekers in the city live in private rented accommodation instead of larger residential buildings, and asylum seekers are therefore less-concentrated in certain areas than in other cities, such as Cologne, Hamburg or Berlin.Curious to know more about the situation in Leipzig? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
We had a comment sent in from Ioanna, who believes that citizens are often more accepting of refugees than their governments. Is this the case in Leipzig? What is the attitude of people in the city towards refugees and asylum seekers in their community?
To get a response, we approached Thomas Fabian, Deputy Mayor of Leipzig and the person responsible for coordinating the city’s response to the refugee crisis. How are the citizens of Leipzig responding to the arrival of refugees in their community?
We are still seeing wide support from our citizens for refugees. Thousands of people in Leipzig are volunteering to help with the integration of refugees. They help children and youngsters with homework, mentor individuals or families or participate in volunteer work as part of their company’s engagement for refugees. Among those volunteers are also people with a migrant background who act as cultural and language mediators for more recent newcomers.
But there are also citizens with concerns. Before we open a new home for refugees we hold neighbourhood meetings. The response from residents has been very supportive in some neighbourhoods and less receptive in others. It is important that residents have the chance to ask questions and say what’s on their mind. In my experience, once a refugee home is up and running, refugees are not only accepted but there are many examples of joint activities with and by long-term residents that further social cohesion. A discussion that does not avoid conflicts does more for the integration of refugees than assuming people from different cultural and religious backgrounds will get along effortlessly.
For another perspective, we also put the same question to Mareike Geiling, co-founder of Flüchtlinge Willkommen (“Refugees Welcome”), a digital platform that brings flatshares and refugees together. What would she say?
From our perspective people from Leipzig are relatively open towards refugees and asylum seekers. From the beginning we’ve got a lot of registrations from people from Leipzig who offered to host a refugee in their home. This totally differs from other cities which are in Saxony like Chemnitz or Dresden.
Most of these registrations are from students, people with left-wing views and alternative people though. There are also a lot of volunteers in Leipzig who support refugees and asylum seekers. We perceive the phenomenon of the “besorgte Bürger” (“concerned citizens” – which actually is a synonym for right-wing people) but we think they are from the surrounding area and hinterland and not from Leipzig directly.
We also had a comment from Gabriel, who thinks the reason why some locals are less likely to volunteer is because they’ve had bad experiences with refugees personally. Is he right? Why is it that in some cities people are keen to volunteer and help refugees, whereas other places are hostile to refugees?
We see such differences within cities as well. There are neighborhoods where the majority of citizens have a positive attitude and areas where people are more skeptical or even hostile sometimes. Some of it has to do with the characteristics of the neighborhood. People who own their homes or who live in lower-income rental buildings tend to show more concern. In those neighborhoods in Leipzig where we have a majority of regular rental houses, there tend to be fewer concerns.
In Leipzig, we have made it our goal to distribute refugee homes across the city. This is important to avoid segregation but also to show even those citizens with concerns that homes are spread out fairly over well-to-do and more challenged neighborhoods. This strategy has been very helpful in the debates that precede the opening of new refugee homes in neighborhoods.
What also plays a role is whether people have had previous experience with refugees. Where people have had the opportunity to get to know each other, there tends to be less fear and animosity. In Leipzig, refugees are becoming neighbors, class mates and colleagues, as more and more are moving out of refugee homes and into their own apartments, as their children are integrated in schools and as more refugees qualify for employment. This will help with integration in the following years.
What would Mareike Geiling say to the same question?
This a good question which we try to solve or to find out as well all the time. It seems that there is a connection to the German history because many people in areas which are in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic) are hostile towards refugees. But of course not only there – in other regions there are right-wing people as well. So we don’t have a good answer to that question.
Finally, we had a comment from Gregory, who thinks a culture of volunteering and humanitarianism needs to be encouraged in Europe. Is he right? And, if so, what is the best way to encourage this?
It takes clear political leadership. Our mayor, deputy mayors and a large majority of the city council have a clear position to welcome refugees. This is proactively communicated to the public and at demonstrations against xenophobic attitudes.
We show a positive attitude and engage in active, open, transparent communication as early as possible. That allows residents to voice their concerns but also to offer support. We also cooperate with NGOs, neighborhood organizations and other actors to further integration. We invest in preventative measures, such as social work in every refugee home. That means residents have a contact person when problems do occur or when they want to offer support. We help to provide opportunities for encounters between refugees and residents and for volunteering, for example our mentoring program where individual refugees or families are paired up with Leipzig residents that help them on their way into our society – and get to know each other in the process.
How would Mareike Geiling from ‘Refugees Welcome’ react?
We think that a lot depends on the media. In 2015, we had a lot of offers for spare rooms for refugees and also many people offered their help. This was because of […] coverage by German and international media. Many newspapers, TV and radio stations visited flat shares where refugees lived and showed that there is nothing special in living together with a refugee. This encouraged other people to open their homes for refugees and asylum seekers. So media plays an important role. Besides, it always helps to bring people in contact. An anonymous mass of people seems intimidating but learning about individuals can change someone’s mind.
Why do more people volunteer to help refugees in some cities than in others? Is it down to the local economy? Political leadership? Or a combination of factors? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!