European migration policy and the rise of populism
"If we are to succeed in eliminating populism and defeating populists, cities must speak directly to their citizens"Dirk Hilbert, Mayor of Dresden, Germany
Where did this initiative come from, to host asylum seekers and refugees in your city?
Towns and cities are required by law to receive and provide accommodation to asylum seekers, the number of which depends on the “Königstein key”. On top of this, Dresden (the capital of the Land region) announced, as early as 2011, that it would support the “Save Me” campaign; accept refugees as part of a resettlement programme run by UNHCR and the Federal Government; and work to ensure that they became fully integrated members of society.
In addition to our own municipal activities, there have been more than 20 civil rights initiatives and “Welcome” networks created in Dresden over the past few years to help migrants in their daily life and the integration process. To facilitate integration, Dresden chose to host asylum seekers in apartments throughout the entire city. Our welcome networks ensure that refugees are well received and help their integration in their local communities, and one of the most effective ways of doing so is through volunteer work in the city’s neighbourhoods.
Can you tell us about one of the more effective measures implemented by your city?
Since 2004, our local authorities have been working on their own approach to integration. This approach sets out the key targets and measures concerning immigration. It is designed to promote equal opportunity and large-scale involvement by local people in the local community – whether they are immigrants or not. We overhauled this approach in 2015, adapting it to the needs of the surge of migrants entering the country. For the very first time, a number of specific measures were also detailed for asylum seekers.
We also created the position of “asylum volunteer coordinator” in Dresden. This person is tasked with coordinating the various local and municipal initiatives to help refugees, and to unite the volunteers with the refugees themselves. We have also massively expanded the scope for social work applicable to refugees in our city.
How did local people react to the arrival of these refugees? Did you implement a specific communication policy?
Most of the local population reacted very positively: our people were and remain deeply committed to helping those in need. The new arrivals have received valuable support from a wide range of different people, associations and projects. These included clothing donations, German language teaching support, assistance with administrative procedures and integration into the workplace. People have even volunteered to become guardians of migrant children. Our associations and projects are working hard to promote contact between the local population and the refugees in an effort to improve integration and participation in the local community. Some local citizens have also engaged in sponsorship of migrants.
However, a small percentage of the population has created a hostile atmosphere towards refugees and asylum seekers. At the end of 2014, the xenophobic and islamophobic alliance Pegida was able to mobilise several thousand people. Asylum seeker reception centres were targeted in isolated attacks, and even people supporting refugees were victims of violence.
Dresden’s local authorities are committed to informing citizens, early and frequently, about our projects and initiatives to handle newly arriving refugees. This helps guarantee that there is no surprise, and that they can be accepted by the population. By setting up “round tables”, citizens’ meetings and events at the Holy Cross Church in Dresden, we have been able to inform our citizens, report any problems we’ve had hosting migrants and work together to find solutions. We posted a wealth of information online, hosted “open days” in temporary migrant accommodation and set up round table meetings in neighbourhoods where migrants have settled. And in order to help existing and new neighbours co-exist in our residential neighbourhoods, Dresden has implemented a global social aid system for refugees, supported by four coordination centres. The coordinators are points of contact in migrant neighbourhoods, organise mentorships for migrants and act as mediators in any conflicts which arise.
In your opinion, what role can cities and towns play to host and integrate asylum seekers and refugees when anti-migrant sentiment is growing in several European countries?
Cities and towns play a vital role in integration. In addition to providing accommodation, they offer healthcare, language classes, school for children and, if necessary, professional training and integration into the labour market. However, integrating large numbers of refugees is a major challenge, which cannot succeed without support from the local community. Cities must work to ensure and reinforce the involvement of local citizens when attempting to integrate migrants into the community.
We must actively promote democracy and work to prevent intolerance if we are to defuse conflict between migrants and local communities, and to combat xenophobia. This is why, here in Dresden, we’ve developed our own local action programme. We use this to reinforce local involvement, promoting democracy, diversity and projects intended to fight racism, xenophobia and discrimination.
If we are to succeed in eliminating populism and defeating populists, cities must speak directly to their citizens and involve them as much as possible in the development of their towns. When we make complex problems clear and allow citizens to play an active role in decisions and developments, we will create an atmosphere of trust and starve populism of oxygen.
What role does Dresden play in the welcoming cities’ network to which it belongs?
Dresden is involved in a number of major issue-oriented networks. It is essential that we communicate with other areas so we can learn from one another and share our experiences.
Since 2016, Dresden has been a member of the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR), a UNESCO initiative. Alongside a number of other member towns in Germany and around Europe, we’ve developed practical measures to tackle discrimination against immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. The coalition also works to help them become fairly integrated into society. The European CitiesGROW project, to which Dresden participates since the past two years, together with 16 other European cities, and the EUROCITIES network are also working to address the same issue. Our objective is to share information on how best to integrate migrants into the local labour market. Similarly, the city is participating in the URBACT Arrival Cities project, alongside Dresden Technical University. Our experiments and results are used to develop strategies and concepts which can be used to real effect in the city of Dresden.
We held the first edition of “Dresden International Dialogue” in 2017, to provide a new platform for debate and discussion for the city. We held discussions with mayors from around Europe, focusing on challenges such as refugee movement, migration and globalisation on a European scale, leading to fresh perspectives on how to approach and tackle these issues.