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The Unequal Burden on Cities in Germany's Refugee Crisis

A new report nonetheless finds much to praise in their response.

Tents set up in 2015 to house refugees in Berlin's former Tempelhof Airport, now replaced with more permanent accommodation. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Recent events in Germany have placed Angela Merkel in pretty hot water. After state elections in Berlin on Sunday saw the extreme-right AfD party gain 14 percent of the vote in Germany’s capital, Germany’s chancellor has expressed regret over her handling of the country’s influx of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries since summer 2015. Her actual words, which have been widely misreported as regret at opening Germany’s borders at all, are telling. In a speech Monday, she said that:

“If I could, I would turn back time by many, many years to better prepare myself and the whole German government…”

It is specifically her own and Germany’s lack of preparation that Merkel regrets, and she may be right. A new report from the Brookings Institution published this week argues that, faced with an abrupt migrant influx, Germany’s cities have taken a disproportionate share of the refugee burden.

The report, brought out in the run-up to a Brookings forum on European cities’ responses to the refugee crisis to be live streamed Thursday, explores some of the extent of this burden. In terms of numbers of new arrivals and in the fiscal burden they have imposed, in some places these figures have been remarkably high. Despite their disproportionately large role in responding to the refugee crisis, which saw a little over 440,000 refugees arrive in the country in 2015 alone, German city leaders are nonetheless partially frozen out of the decision-making process. In other words, while Merkel and her government may have created and provided an international face for Germany’s asylum policies, Germany’s national government has actually had a relatively small role in implementing them.

“You read most media and you would really think that Merkel has power over not only borders, but literally programs to serve every single need that refugees have. That's not the case,” says Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution’s inaugural Centennial Scholar and the report’s co-author. “[Merkel operates in a] particular kind of federal republic, where the central government plays certain critical roles but has very little to do with issues like education and housing, which are really central to responding to the refugee crisis.”

In Germany’s federal system, these service areas are in fact covered by the country’s 16 federal states (three of which—Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen—are city-states) with considerable local fiscal powers and responsibilities. When Germany’s refugee surge began in summer 2015, asylum-seekers were apportioned to each federal state, using a formula created in the 1950s in order to allocate research grants. This old formula failed to take into account some key issues. It did not factor in the German city-states’ higher population densities and frequently higher housing costs. It also failed to take into account the fact that these cities inevitably experienced secondary migration, as refugees moved in search of greater economic opportunities and/or other migrant and migrant-friendly communities.

As the city-states had no unbuilt hinterlands to expand into (without displacing their refugee population into a neighboring federal state), the system created a density of newly arrived asylum-seekers per kilometer not seen elsewhere. The graph below shows by just how much Germany’s city-states differed from elsewhere in the country.

Brookings Institution

The amount of money from local taxes this influx required is phenomenal. The report notes that in 2015, Hamburg (population 1.77 million) spent €586.2 million on accommodating refugees, only €50 million of which was retroactively refunded by Germany’s federal government.

You might expect the result of this imbalance to be disastrous. In fact, both Hamburg and Berlin have proven impressively resourceful in managing the flow of migrants. Much of this is thanks to a heartening surge of volunteer actions by ordinary citizens, who have succeeded in creating networks providing such valuable services as language training, employment mentoring, clothing collection and distribution, and help with the health system. Hamburg’s authorities also set up a cross-disciplinary refugee task force, while Berlin employed a private company to convert its disused Tempelhof Airport into a 7,000-person capacity reception center. Both cities worked fast to provide emergency accommodation, with Hamburg retrofitting existing buildings and Berlin setting up container villages designed to create a level of comfort that at least strived to exceed the minimum.

The German response has thus shown an impressive level of resilience and adaptability despite hurdles created by its federal system. The Brookings report nonetheless recommends some policy changes that could make future responses far more dynamic. The creaking quota system clearly needs to be revised, while cities across Germany need more networks where they can share their best innovations. The paper recommends greater learning from international examples—such as Houston’s response to new arrivals made homeless by Hurricane Katrina—possibly through creating an internationally appointed “practitioner in residence.” Above all, German cities need a place at the policy table, something that is available to the three city states, but not to German metros that are part of larger federal states.

In the meantime, German cities’ rushed but often effective response to the refugee crisis is a vital corrective to the bleak image created by this week’s Berlin election results.

“What's happening in Germany is remarkable, what we call a spontaneous civil society,” says Katz. “Individuals are just stepping up and helping, not just in the immediate aftermath of people coming in last September. It continues to this day.”

Europe’s extreme-right parties may seem to be more powerful and emboldened each month—tellingly, Berlin’s largest votes for them were actually in the areas least affected by refugee provisions. If you look closely at Germany’s cities and their response to refugees, however, you’ll see that a powerful, effective humanitarian countermovement is also gaining strength.

The Brookings Institution’s forum on European Cities’ roles in refugee integration will be live-streamed Thursday September 22nd between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. EDT. Register here to watch.

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