In Berlin, as in other German cities, the issue of refugees is a controversial one. Where should all the newcomers be housed? In large, centralised accommodation, where hundreds of asylum seekers from different countries live together, separated from the general population? Or in decentralised private homes, where refugees can live amidst the locals?
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 Berlin and the housing of refugees. The German capital has become a symbol of the migrant crisis. At its height, up to 10,000 people reached Germany every day. Nearly all of them had to be taken care of and housed, and that process has not always been smooth. In general, it meant central accommodation in large refugee shelters being provided in order to quickly create a lot of space for people.
Curious to know more about refugees and housing in Berlin? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).
In Berlin, refugee shelters are often in the news: too many people crammed into too small a space, with bad food, and dirty toilets. Violence is common. The police often have to intervene, and politicians regularly demand a tough response. The blame for this often seems to fall on the refugees themselves. But could it be that the accommodation is the problem?
Experts have long demanded a different form of housing; for example, in decentralised, private housing in which the asylum seekers do not live separate from the population. Or mixing with other Berliners in housing projects and shared apartments. Supporters argue that this approach would mean asylum seekers were less marginalised, with easier access to culture and society. Integration would therefore also be easier.
We had a comment from James, who agrees with this approach. For him, decentralised accommodation leads to a better understanding of the host culture and, ultimately, to smoother integration. We wanted to know what the politicians in Berlin think, and so we approached Michael Müller, the Governing Mayor of Berlin. What would he say?
Our experience in Berlin, which is shared by other German states, suggests that we need to avoid segregation as soon and as thoroughly as possible. That is why we try to integrate the children into the normal school cycle (where they attend what are called “welcome classes” at the beginning) and, at the same time, we offer language and integration courses to the parents.
For young people and especially young adults it is important to provide multiple activities. Along with school and training courses, we also have to engage them in sports and other creative pastimes. They have to have the opportunity to be part of groups, learn team spirit, and find out what they’re good at.
These activities also provide for better knowledge of other people and of the traditions and cultures of our society. Sports are an ideal vehicle for getting people from different backgrounds and cultures together even if they cannot communicate – at least at the beginning – in the same language.
And of course the most important way to achieve integration is by integrating people into the labour market. So right from the beginning, the local authorities, the social partners, and NGOs worked together to come up with ways to enable the refugees to become part of our society by becoming part of the labour force. This is made possible thanks to the joint effort of all the partners involved, first via the assessment of the capabilities and language and technical skills of the individual refugees, then by finding the right training programs and by slowly integrating people via internships or practical training units into the work process. Thousands of volunteers especially in small and medium-sized companies, in big enterprises, but also in technical schools are helping with this process and making it possible.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Andreas Germershausen, Commissioner of the Berlin Senate for Integration and Migration. Does he agree with James?
Yes, I would agree […]. We see that wherever there is no contact with asylum seekers, the opposition to asylum seekers is stronger than where people already have personal contact. On the other hand […] with the large number of refugees in 2015, we had to organise large refugee settlements.
Not everybody agrees, however. Darius thinks that it’s more important to teach refugees the German language than worrying about where they are housed. For him, accommodation is a secondary issue.
To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Klaus Lederer, the Mayor of Berlin and Senator for Culture and Europe. What would he say to Darius?
Does housing asylum seekers apart from locals increase tensions? Rather than housing asylum seekers in large refugee shelters, would it be better to house them alongside the local population? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!