Do people fear refugees less if they actually meet them? If the only direct contact people have with refugees is via the media and political slogans, are they more likely to be hostile? In last year’s German elections, the anti-refugee Alternative for Germany (AfD) party did very well in small towns such as Bitterfeld-Wolfen that have suffered significantly from deindustrialisation (even if the total numbers of refugees arriving in these towns may typically be less than 1% of the population). Why is that?
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we have 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 is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany. Bitterfeld-Wolfen is a town with a population of roughly 41,000, located about 50 km from Leipzig in the east of Germany. The population has plummeted by almost 50% since the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, down from 75,000 in 1989.
Many towns in the area suffered from high levels of unemployment and declining industry after German reunification. Unemployment in Bitterfeld-Wolfen has been falling, but it is still 7.9%, which is more than twice Germany’s national unemployment rate of 3.5%.
The population is 95.9% German, with very low levels of immigration (and most of the immigration that there is comes from elsewhere in Europe). Nevertheless, there is some sympathy for anti-refugee politics. In March 2016, the AfD came first in Bitterfeld and second in Wolfen in Saxony-Anhalt’s state elections. In 2017, Angela Merkel faced a hostile reception in Bitterfeld when she held a rally their during her re-election campaign, with protests over her stance on refugees.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Adrian, who argues that, in Britain, most voters for the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) are from “remote towns where there are no immigrants”. In other words, some of those who are most strongly against immigration have had little direct experience of it. Is he right? Is fear and distrust of refugees stronger in small towns without many migrants than it is in big cities which have had lots of immigration already?
To get a reaction, we spoke to the mayor of Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Armin Schenk. What was the experience of his town? Was there more fear of refugees and migration than in larger cities?
I generally cannot agree with this statement because it implies that local people are afraid of refugees. In Bitterfeld-Wolfen, there are currently 370 refugees living here. This only accounts for 0.93% of the total population, i.e. a small proportion. It would be wrong to say that the Bitterfeld-Wolfeners who live here are afraid of these refugees.
Smaller cities offer lots of opportunities to integrate. Here you can meet in-person, and the anonymity of the big city is missing. That’s a chance to talk to each other, to reduce concerns and get to know each other. Fear always offers bad counsel…
To get another perspective, we put the same question to Dr. David Schiefer, a Researcher in the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration’s Research Unit. What would he say?
Basically, empirical studies show that people in large cities often have a more positive attitude towards refugees than in small ones. There are several reasons for this, including that they are more exposed to opportunities to make contact [with refugees], and contact between different groups is often sufficient to change their mindsets positively. Then, in more rural areas, there are often other values and lifestyles. More open and liberal people are more likely to move to larger cities. That would be the second reason for this difference.
However, one can also find very large differences in attitudes between the smaller municipalities of Germany, for example in the openness of the people and the support structures. There are very small cities with open attitudes, but also large cities with rather negative attitudes.
Next, we put the same question to Arne Lietz, a German social democratic Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Saxony-Anhalt, who lives very close to the town of Bitterfeld-Wolfen. How would he respond?
Our next reader comment came from Chris, who is angry about refugees because he feels that money which could be spent on regions with high unemployment and poverty in his own country is instead being spent on foreigners. Is he right to be angry?
How would Dr. David Schiefer from the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration respond?
This is an emotion or frustration that is often expressed in Germany. The explanation for this is that both the problems in Germany and the money being spent on refugees are highly visible. Therefore, we see this public anger. But you have to remember that, of course, more money was spent [to support refugees], but that was extra money. There were no frozen expenditures on, for example, roads or other infrastructure, nor were social benefits reduced or unemployment benefits cut. Here, again, the concern about a struggle over resources is clearly present, but it is unfounded. Strong immigration has also brought with it developments that benefit the entire population. For example, in rural areas, immigration has given rise to new ways of increasing mobility for all.
Finally, how would Mayor Armin Schenk reply?
The concerns and criticism of funding for the refugee crisis is frequently voiced. But here it must be made very clear that this funding will be decided on a different political level. My job as Lord Mayor is to bring together the people of my city. Anger does not help. It is important to approach each other and break down mental barriers. As the German writer Friedrich Schiller put it: “We might be able to do much, if we together would stand.”
Is fear of refugees stronger in small towns than in big cities? Does greater contact with different cultures make people more open to accepting refugees? Or are concerns based more on competition for public resources (and, if so, are they justified)? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!