Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders

Why German mayors are leading the migrant welcome wagon Add to ...

First came the migrants: A million are expected to arrive in Germany by the end of the year and more in 2016, many of them Syrian refugees, ushered into the country by a surprise wave of “welcome culture” from citizens and a panicked debate among Berlin officials about where to put them all.

Then came the mayors: Over the past several weeks, scores of German cities, big and small, east and west, have begun jumping over one another to receive and settle as many refugees and migrants as they can get – often for purely self-interested reasons.

Some want to rebuild their labour force or tax base; others simply want to fill up abandoned housing tracts or military bases, even if they’re in the middle of nowhere. And others are simply trying to get a slice of the funding announced by Berlin to build hundreds of thousands of homes in a few months.

To receive a million people a year (at least 30 per cent of whom will be accepted as refugees, government officials say), Germany has put itself on something resembling a war footing. Two weeks ago, ministers met to rewrite the country’s rigorous building code to allow for lower standards of housing so that hundreds of thousands of prefab homes can be built under government contracts in months.

Barbara Hendricks, the federal minister responsible for housing construction, announced last week that her ministry would be funding the construction of 350,000 public-housing units for refugees, and another 350,000 next year. She pledged $207-million in immediate funding for the crash construction project, and a doubling of the current $770-million budget for public housing in municipalities. (She said this would directly create 25,000 jobs in the construction industry.)

In a speech here in Leipzig, Ms. Hendricks called on Germany to “mobilize” to build hundreds of thousands of refugee apartments in a matter of months. “Recognized refugees will need to enter the normal housing market sooner or later – those who have the prospect of remaining here should be treated the same [in housing] as citizens with corresponding income.”

In the German system, refugees are assigned to cities by quota, in a system that takes into account each city’s housing supply, labour shortages and current immigrant mix (it favours cities with fewer immigrants). In practice, it has become something of a bidding war.

In Leipzig, a thriving city in the former East Germany, Mayor Burkhard Jung says he wants to house as many refugees as possible, on both altruistic and practical grounds. “It is both a responsibility and an opportunity for us,” he says.

For decades, Leipzig was known as a “shrinking city” – its population plummeted to fewer than 400,000 from 750,000 in the wake of the triple ravages of nazism, communism and German reunification, all of which sent people fleeing and left the city demolishing thousands of houses and searching for tax revenue. Mr. Jung, as head of the education department, was forced to close 30 schools in two years.

During the past 10 years, an industrial boom has led its populace to recover somewhat, to 500,000, but the mayor sees the refugees as a one-time chance to rebuild the population. This, he explained, sounds better to voters than simply charity, especially in a city that houses a vocal anti-immigration movement.

“There certainly is racism and there is intolerance in Germany – not everyone embraces this ‘culture of welcome,’” Mr. Jung said. “So if we don’t explain this refugee situation as a way to deal with shrinking cities, we are going to lose people’s support.”

At least Leipzig has opportunities for refugees: Its Porsche and BMW factories and its status as a hub for courier-shipping operations have made it an employment centre, and it has enough labour shortages to handle a considerable number of newcomers.

Other cities vying for refugees have no such opportunities. Many half-abandoned cities in the former communist East Germany, devoid of industry, are looking to refugees as a way to fill empty apartment blocks without having to pay to demolish them. And some cities in the west see the refugees using sprawling military barracks left behind when the United States pulled its large-scale military presence out of Germany a decade ago.

For example, the town of Manheim, in western Germany, was slated for outright demolition after its lignite coal mine closed; it is a place where, according to the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “cigarettes are all you can buy.” Yet it has postponed its own demolition to receive 73 refugee families.

The result of this municipal contest for refugees could see hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans living in places with little or no economy, no pre-existing community of people from their background and no municipal services tailored for immigrants, in places with little or no experience with newcomers. This could be a recipe for social disaster and failed integration – though it is more likely to provoke refugees to make a second move into urban centres where there are job opportunities and clusters of existing immigrants from similar backgrounds.

“We’re expecting a lot of Syrians to be moving here,” says Franziska Giffey, the mayor of the Berlin district of Neukolln – an urban enclave with the country’s highest proportion of immigrants. Because more than half of Neukolln’s people do not speak German as a first language, it has not received any refugee quotas. But for that reason – it is populated mainly with Germans of Turkish or Arabic origin – it is likely to become a place of final settlement for refugees.

“You could say that we’re full, we don’t have room for any more migrants,” Ms. Giffey said, “but we also have the kind of educational resources and social services designed for immigrants that most other places don’t. We have experience in helping people become integrated successfully, so we are ready for people to come here.”

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular