We continue our series of articles looking at how cities are responding to the current refugee crisis with Leipzig, and we spoke to Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor of Leipzig who is coordinating the city's response.
"Nobody becomes a refugee and goes on a dangerous journey without reason. We want refugees to arrive well in Leipzig. It is our duty to provide adequate living conditions and support them on their way into our community." Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor of Leipzig
The German city of Leipzig, chair of the EUROCITIES Social Affairs Forum, did not wait for the current rise in refugee numbers to coordinate its response to the refugee crisis. Leipzig, which was a focal point of the peaceful revolution that brought down the East German regime in 1989, has for years been positioning itself as an open, intercultural and inclusive city. The city, which signed the EUROCITIES Integrating Cities Charter in 2013, has initiated or supported many initiatives on migration and integration
For example, for the past 25 years the ‘Intercultural weeks’ have been showcasing the work of numerous organisations, communities and initiatives that work to promote the city's cultural and religious diversity. Leipzig is also providing training on intercultural competences for employees within the city administration and offers language and cultural translation services to all departments and municipal agencies.
Like other German cities, Leipzig is receiving an unprecedented number of asylum seekers. At present, there are more than 5,000 asylum seekers in Leipzig. This number is expected to rise substantially before the end of the year.
Since the late 1990s, the city of Leipzig has been promoting decentralised accommodation for asylum seekers, which has allowed more than half the city’s asylum seekers to live in their own apartments, rather than spending a long time in larger residential buildings assigned to refugees. In 2012, the city developed a comprehensive concept for housing coupled with social assistance. Once asylum seekers are assigned to the city, they are housed in a variety of shared accommodation buildings across the city, varying in capacity from 35 to 200. Most of these buildings consist of three or four bedroom apartments, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. As soon as possible, refugees are able to move into their own rented apartments. These housing measures enable better and faster integration of asylum seekers. As part of the concept, the city provides social services for the asylum seekers. Social workers help with matters such as dealing with the authorities and other questions or concerns, as well as finding an apartment and other everyday issues. The social workers also organise language training and leisure activities for the asylum seekers, act as contact persons for neighbours and maintain relationships with other community actors. This year, Leipzig will spend more than €3 million on social assistance alone for asylum seekers.
The high level of voluntary engagement of Leipzig's citizens also plays an important part in the city's integration efforts. Launched in 2014 and supported by the city in cooperation with the Leipzig Refugee Council, the ‘Arriving in Leipzig, mentors for refugees’ project aims to improve integration and social inclusion with the help of volunteers. These citizens provide additional assistance to help asylum seekers get to know the city, find an apartment or learn German. Mentors are trained and supported throughout the process. More than 1,000 citizens have already signed up for the programme and more than 300 mentorships have been created so far.
Thomas Fabian, deputy mayor of Leipzig, is at the centre of the coordination of Leipzig’s actions on asylum. He answered a few question for EUROCITIES.
How would you describe Leipzig's approach to the integration of asylum seekers?
As a city, we are first of all responsible for housing and providing for asylum seekers. Yet, the central issue for us is that of integration – regardless of their legal status or the duration of their stay. We are putting great efforts into making sure that refugees have access to education, employment and society as a whole so that Leipzig becomes their home in the true sense of the word. Being a member of a sports club, for example, is a small but very effective means of integration for newly arrived asylum seekers. All these efforts need to start early and be comprehensive to ensure speedy and successful integration.
What is the biggest challenge for the city?
Alongside housing incoming refugees and asylum seekers, providing language courses is a central task because language skills are the key to any further integration. Another very important task for us is to integrate children of asylum seekers and refugees into our childcare services and schools. Children of asylum seekers have the same rights to attend kindergarten as German children and schooling is mandatory. Thus, we are putting great efforts into expanding our educational infrastructure. Because education is the best pathway for successful integration.
Do you expect to be successful in your efforts?
The successful integration of refugees and asylum seekers encompasses all areas of life. It requires efforts from our whole administration, from politicians and parties as well as from our citizens. If difficulties arise, we will face them. I am optimistic. Leipzig has always been a cosmopolitan city, welcoming strangers for trade, education or work for centuries. We do our best to provide a home to our new residents and to support them to become independent and self-reliant. And to one day maybe even obtain German citizenship as some asylum seekers in Leipzig do every year.