Germany a Summer Fairy Tale

Germany a Summer Fairy Tale

Municipalities in Migration Policy: Integration Engine or Border Watch?



Capital: Berlin

Inhabitants: 83.155.031


Capital: Erfurt. The district town of Mühlhausen is located between Altena and Dresden.

Inhabitants: 2.1 Mio (Thuringia), 36.000 (Mühlhausen)

Languages: German, with a specific dialect variation

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In the long summer of migration from 2015 onwards, the crisis nature of the European border regime once again came to light, even though it is actually a cyclically recurring phenomenon. Yet the multiple border regime crises always seem to be upstream crises within the system-immanent crisis of the accumulation regime.1 The supposed dichotomy between federal and local government is striking. In this, the federal government pursues a contradicting migration policy. On the one hand, it emphasises national interpretative sovereignty in migration management. On the other hand, the federal government is aware of the necessity of the municipality as an “integration motor”.2 Meanwhile, in the municipalities, people on the move encounter the border regime on a daily basis, but the situation here is sometimes completely different.3 For national borders are negotiated in the community just as they are at the physical external border.4 This raises a fundamental question: How do municipalities influence the border regime? Many municipalities feel left alone and overwhelmed in the long summer of migration. However, this leads less to frustration than to a new self-confidence to become actively involved as migration experts and to join forces with civil society actors.5 Due to the helpfulness of the many volunteers and countless integration projects, the municipality is considered more humanitarian and integrative than the federal government.6 However, this local turn should not be accompanied by a romanticisation of the municipality. The municipality has neither legal, political, and organisational sovereign rights in all migration-relevant areas nor is it a power-free space; consequently, it may (re)produce existing power relations. Therefore, a critical examination must do justice to the diverse migration policy agendas in different municipalities. In the housing sector, municipalities have the greatest (migration policy) room for manoeuvre. Access to the housing market determines the degree of freedom of choice and movement for people with precarious residence status. Therefore, I concretise my guiding question above: How do municipalities influence the municipal border regime through the housing market?

Communalisation of German Migration Governance: Austerity vs. Self-Empowerment

A municipal migration policy was basically only established from the 1970s onwards due to the contradictory nature of the recruitment stop and the autonomy of migration it triggered.

As a reaction to the oil crisis in 1973, the federal government led by then Willy Brandt (SPD) initiated a general recruitment freeze. Existing work permits were not extended. This reduced the number of legally employed persons. The aim was to use migrant workers as a buffer to overcome the economic crisis in the best possible way by nationalising the welfare state.7
In fact, however, large sections of the people concerned reacted autonomously and subversively to this decision. Net migration increased out of fear of not being allowed to return to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Consequently, the political discourse at the federal level became increasingly distant from the reality of many people’s lives, as more immigrants de facto shaped their everyday lives. In addition, numerous court rulings strengthened the social rights of formerly recruited persons due to their financial contributions to the social systems.7
Larger cities in particular (above all Stuttgart, Frankfurt a. M. and Essen) realised early on that Germany had already become an immigration country.6 Individual integration model projects were developed. The problem was always the uncertain project financing, due to the dependence of municipalities on the financial support of the federal government. The 1980s and 1990s were still marked by the contradictions at the federal level (demand for return vs. time-limited integration). As a result, more and more integration projects were professionalised and institutionalised in the municipalities. At the same time, rising unemployment and discursive shifts to the right counteracted the former developments.7
Asylum Compromise and Right-Wing Terror: The 1990s are increasingly marked by a radicalisation of the political debate. This ultimately culminate in the racist pogroms for example in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Hoyerswerda. Because of the ongoing civil war in former Yugoslavia, the number of people seeking protection continued to rise between 1990 and 1993. The Christian Democratic Party (CDU/CSU) saw this as a strategic opportunity to tighten up the right of asylum in the constitution – a political goal that had already failed since the 1980s against the resistance of the liberal coalition partner FDP and the opposition consisting of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens. A meticulous campaign followed, feeding racist-social-chauvinist prejudices. Various media (e.g. Welt, Spiegel and FAZ) helped fuel the debate. In the summer of 1992, first the FDP and later the SPD gave up their veto in view of the upcoming super-election year of 1994. The result was the asylum compromise in 1993.7
Asylum compromise of 1993: The scope of protection of Article 16a “Politically persecuted persons enjoy the right of asylum”8 was severely restricted by the introduction of so-called safe third countries and countries of origin and the airport regulation. The tightening of visa requirements has since made it almost impossible to flee to Europe and Germany by conventional means, forcing people onto deadly routes. Furthermore, social assistance in the Asylum Seekers‘ Benefits Act was considerably reduced and civil war refugees were excluded from the asylum procedure.7
It was not until the 2000s that municipal migration and integration policies began to gain in importance across the board. More and more cities learned from each other in network structures, evaluated and monitored integration policy steps and included a growing number of actors. These developments created a new municipal self-confidence and the learning experience of being on one’s own. In many places, this trend manifested itself in the centralisation of integration policy in the mayor’s office.7 Despite this boom phase, corresponding programmes and structures were only created in a majority of municipalities after 2015.5 The municipal areas of responsibility in the field of integration and migration policy are education, gainful employment and housing.9 Due to the federal structure of Germany, the municipalities have a lot of influence, especially with regard to the accommodation situation. The way in which municipalities organise housing for people with precarious residence status constitutes the municipal border regime. This determines which people enjoy freedom of movement and which do not.

migration policy

Source: illustration by the author

History of federal German migration policy

Source: illustration by the author

Localisation of the border regime as localisation of crisis regulation

The municipalities are neither at the mercy of the federal government nor the state, but enjoy considerable scope for decision-making,9 along which they can decisively shape the border regime. A border regime is a negotiation process between actors and it is embedded in deeper historical-systemic structures and discourses. And people on the move also have various options with which they continuously challenge the border regime.10 For this reason, a variety of border regimes can be assumed, which differ between individual municipalities. The basis for the distribution of asylum seekers to the initial reception centres is the Königsteiner Schlüssel.
It is an instrument that originally determined the countries‘ share in joint financing between the Federation and the countries in Germany’s federal political structure. Accordingly, the share derives from population density and tax revenue. The initial distribution of asylum seekers is also based on this quota or the calculated key.

From this point on, people have reached the inner border regime, so to speak, and are henceforth subject to the residence obligation: depending on the federal state, more liberal or more restrictive freedom of movement applies in the respective catchment area of the Ausländerbehörde. In the case of insecure livelihoods, a residence requirement may apply, which prescribes living in a certain place. Corresponding violations can even lead to detention and the suspension of proceedings. Starting from this station, people are distributed to the municipalities and are to be accommodated here in shared accommodation.10

Selective municipal border regime: The dying town of Altena

In the small town of Altena in North Rhine-Westphalia, processes and structures in the field of migration and integration are established for the first time from 2015. Initially, the aim is to temporarily cushion the crisis of the federal German border regime policy. Other measures soon followed, including the provision of housing6 and even the additional admission of refugees beyond the allocated quota.11
For example, there is cooperation with the private housing company ‘Altenaer Baugesellschaft’, which makes vacant living space available.12 From the beginning, the perceived fears and resentments of the population are taken seriously, but the refugees are not accommodated outside, but in the centre of the city. In addition to a conflict-sensitive distribution of the refugees, neighbourhood mentors are employed. Nevertheless, there are isolated right-wing counter-movements13 and racist attacks.14 In Altena, the (liberal) migration discourse is strongly influenced by an economic approach. The town hall emphasises demographic challenges, housing vacancies and labour shortages.6 Particularly since the 1970s, the population trend has been steadily downwards with a parallel loss of jobs. A decisive reason is the structural change in the metal industry triggered by the oil and economic crisis.15 Against this backdrop, the joint integration efforts of social, neighbourhood, economic and local political actors in the field of housing – but also education and social services – are being made with a particular view to Altena’s economic future.6 This shows that the „national competitive state“16 has been overtaken by the local competitive municipality. Diversity, cultural openness or a tolerant image have long determined competitiveness here.17 In shrinking municipalities, this will also be the determining (economic) factor in the future – also because each inhabitant brings more money from the pots of fiscal equalisation.9

Restrictive Municipal Border Regime: Real Estate Capitalism and PEGIDA in Dresden

People who are in the midst of their asylum process are generally not allowed to rent their own flat in Dresden. The usual form of accommodation is therefore municipal mass accommodation and shared flats.10 For further accommodation after the official asylum status has been clarified, Dresden cooperates with associations18 and the private housing company WOBA Dresden GmbH.
For years, Dresden has experienced a moderate but steady increase in the number of inhabitants and thus an increased demand for housing.19 Since the sale of the former municipal housing company ‘WOBA Dresden GmbH’ – now part of the Vonovia Group – the housing situation and the development of rents have worsened dramatically, as the private company has virtually ignored the negotiated social mandate and is mainly concerned with the modernisation of premium properties. From 2007 onwards, the financial crisis unleashes the full growth potential of Dresden’s real estate capitalism.20 In the long summer of migration, additional housing distribution issues come to the city administration in the short term. Based on the distribution key in Saxony, 13.5% of all asylum seekers are distributed to the capital Dresden.10 Housing placement after clarification of official asylum status often takes place in areas outside the core city, which are less in demand on Dresden’s tight housing market. Here, however, there is an above-average incidence of racist hostility and attacks.10 In 2017, the steering committee on asylum of the Saxon state government decided on a state-wide residence requirement:
If we do not take countermeasures, there will be an enormous influx into the large cities, above all Dresden and Leipzig

Saxon Integration Minister Petra Köping (SPD), own translation21

If we do not take countermeasures, there will be an enormous influx into the large cities, above all Dresden and Leipzig21

Saxon Integration Minister Petra Köping (SPD), own translation

NGOs and committed private individuals keep challenging this restrictive municipal border regime. Since the German housing market is more difficult to access for people outside the white dominant society, non-governmental actors in Dresden provide support, especially organisational and symbolic, in the search for housing. Individual activists and initiatives rent flats themselves and then hand them over to people affected by racist discrimination.10 In various German cities, right-wing and prosperity-chauvinist counter-movements are organising as a result of the self-organised refugee protests in 2012 and the partially open borders from 2015 onwards.1
In 2012, the Refugee protests take place in several German cities, which are explicitly directed against the Residenzpflicht.3 Numerous federal states, not including Saxony, subsequently extended the residence obligation to the entire federal state.22

This also includes the extreme right-wing movement PEGIDA, which was founded in Dresden in 201423, 24 and ‘WOBA’. Of course, ‘WOBA’ does not participate in right-wing marches, but it still implicitly pursues similar goals, albeit from a capitalist logic that is oriented towards profit maximisation and the preference of more solvent tenants over less solvent ones.


The municipalities occupy a decisive position in Germany’s migration and border policy and can significantly influence it. In Altena, a rather selective border regime is established. For economic reasons, the refugees are accommodated in empty flats in the middle of town. This successfully regulates both the short-term crisis of the national border regime and the structural change that began in the 1970s. This trend also has a positive effect in the direction of refugees, because right-wing counter-movements cannot assert themselves against the overall (economically) liberal-oriented civil society. In contrast, a restrictive border regime is evident in Dresden. Already the global economic crisis from 2007 and the privatisation of ‘WOBA’ bring the communal orientation towards the common good into crisis. From 2015 onwards, the pressure on the housing market is further increased. By housing refugees outside the city, ‘WOBA’, as an actor of social control, lines up along a xenophobic welfare chauvinist countermovement, while liberal civil society cushions the failure of the state and the market. It is through this triad that the housing crisis can ultimately be successfully (temporarily) regulated.



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