Hamburg: citizen participation in refugee integration

  • cooperation

Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, is home to around 1.8 million inhabitants (2015). Around a third of them have a migrant background. Among children, the respective ratio is 50%. Accordingly, the issue of immigration and the integration of immigrants and their children is high on the policy agenda of the city’s government.

For Hamburg, diversity is an asset. Back in 2013, the city’s leaders drew up a concept for the integration of immigrants. Their underlying aim was to harness the potential of migration and promote an inclusive and resilient community.

In 2015, the city took in 50,000 asylum seekers. Many of them, especially those who came from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, and Somalia, are bound to extend their stay. The city also hosts the largest community of Afghans in Germany - 36,000, according to 2015 figures.

The main areas of action in Hamburg’s integration concept are as follows: 

• naturalisation of migrants
• overcoming educational barriers
• facilitating access to the labour market
• fostering social cohesion

The implementation of the integration concept is based on the identification of the key policy areas; the definition of measurable indicators and targets; and the evaluation of the outcomes to identify the actions that work well and the areas where more needs to be done to achieve good results. Currently, this concept is being refined and updated.

Regarding the integration of refugees, the main areas of action are:

• ensuring that accommodation is provided for all newcomers, which poses a major challenge for the city
• increasing efforts to provide housing for all citizens. In 2016, the number of new planning permissions reached a new record high of 11,000
• Providing childcare and schooling for all children

A new programme called W.I.R. (Work and Integration for Refugees) aims to help refugees become economically productive as quickly as possible. As a first step, they are invited to participate in an assessment of their educational attainment, and vocational qualifications and skills in order to identify specific measures related to their search for a job, apprenticeship, or training.

Volunteer organisations and entrepreneurs have also been widely engaged. Currently, more than 2,000 volunteers are working in and around refugee camps, facilitating their integration by providing German conversation courses, helping children with their homework, or supporting their parents’ daily routines. The city appreciates and supports citizen engagement by coordinating voluntary work and providing the necessary facilities.

In September 2015, Hamburg’ parliament proposed the establishment of the so-called Forum Flüchtlingshilfe. Its aim is to:

• provide support to refugees
• share information and best practice among volunteers
• enhance networking among volunteers
• provide financial support

The forum has been well received by voluntary organisations. Its September 2016 meeting was attended by some 2,000 participants.

The most significant lesson to be learnt was that both sides - newcomers and locals - have to put effort in to make integration work.
In this respect, citizen engagement has most valuably contributed by:

• providing more opportunities for migrants and refugees to better integrate socially and economically
• preventing social unrest, and fighting poverty and religious fundamentalism
• reshaping society by changing people’s views of migration, cities, population growth, prosperity, and politics

and thus promoting a more inclusive and resilient community.

Contact: Brigitte Brockmoeller,