Successful anti-racist activism despite political pressure
The story of Halle shows how a city can organise and institutionalise civic anti-racist projects under difficult circumstances, since most of East Germany is under much greater political pressure from right-wing groups than West Germany.
Halle is a good example of how civil society welcome schemes, which were set up during the “Summer of Migration" in 2015, can become permanent, undertaking long-lasting local solidarity work that has continued even since the decline in new arrivals.
What is unique about the city?
Steadfast anti-racist activism: Under difficult circumstances and despite high pressure from right-wing groups, the local anti-racism scene has worked to improve the lives of refugees at the municipal and state level for more than two decades. Over the years, its network of welcome initiatives has not only had a local impact, but also ensured that the city of Halle has consistently demanded improvements from the state government. Halle has adopted some progressive measures that have significantly improved access to individual housing for refugees.
What is the focus of local migration policies?
Committing to long-lasting local solidarity work: Local movements have focused both on targeting inhumane migration policies, as well as on building alternative structures in the absence of municipal action. From the protest against deportation from Leipzig-Halle airport, to the abolition of the paternalistic voucher system for refugees, to the citizen-run welcome centre, Halle is home to a wide range of headstrong citizens’ solidarity actions.
What are the greatest achievements so far?
A meeting café for newcomers and long-time residents: Keeping up the “welcome culture” of 2015 in a comparatively hostile environment is itself an impressive feat of the tireless activism in Halle. In terms of individual projects, the “Welcome-Treff” stands out. When Halle’s administration refused to open an integration centre that had been proposed by the city council, a civic initiative took over and opened a meeting café for refugees and locals. It has become a popular meeting spot, and it continues to offer different support services, from learning and speaking German, to filling out official paperwork and applying for jobs.
Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level
Months before the Seebrücke movement emerged in the summer of 2018, an initiative involving activist groups, institutions, individuals and city administration employees had already formed in Halle. Thanks to their relentless activism, the city council decided that Halle should join the “Cities of Safe Harbours” alliance and would sign the Potsdam declaration.
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The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches.
Political context of Germany
Migration policy in Germany
Responsibility for citizenship, immigration and refugee admissions lies in principle with the federal government. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – overseen by the Federal Ministry of the Interior – is responsible for processing asylum applications. Meanwhile, embassies – under the authority of the Federal Foreign Office – decide on immigration applications for work, family reunification and study. In terms of asylum policy, the federal states must implement federal laws such as the Asylum Seekers' Benefits Act. In doing so, they have some room for manoeuvre, which can lead to refugees being treated very differently across the 16 states. Independently of the federal government, the states can, for example, issue humanitarian residence permits via special commissions that review hardship cases, decide on temporary deferrals of deportation orders, or even arranging prospects of remaining for entire groups of newcomers. As a rule, the federal states delegate decision-making on individual cases to local immigration offices. For their part, these authorities have a great deal of leeway when it comes to assessing so-called obstacles to deportation, issuing or extending residence permits.
The idea that Germany is “not a country of immigration” shaped German political discourse for decades after World War II. Over time, this self-image has increasingly collided with reality. As early as the late 1950s, the federal government began bringing in so-called “guest workers” from southern Europe to fill labour shortages in the country’s booming industries. When the “recruitment stop” came into effect in 1973, contrary to political expectations, millions of these workers remained in the country but received practically no help with integration. Today, they continue to shape German society, whilst also suffering from discrimination, for example in voting rights or on the labour market. After the Eastern Bloc’s collapse, the number of asylum seekers from Eastern Europe rose sharply. In 1992, the Bundestag approved far-reaching restrictions on the right to asylum, fuelling in some parts of Germany in the first half of the 1990s a pogrom-like atmosphere.
Key developments of recent years
The 2015 “summer of migration” marked a watershed moment in several respects. Under pressure from the refugee movement, Germany allowed the arrival of approximately one million refugees. There was enormous civil society involvement in the reception process, which became known under the catchphrase “welcome culture” (Willkommenskultur); this helped many newcomers to make social and economic connections more quickly than previous generations. Policymakers established an integration infrastructure with substantial resources to support refugees in their language learning, education as well as on their path onto the labour market. As early as 2016, however, the mood changed and politicians promised to ensure, more than anything, that “2015” would not be repeated, and since then nearly a dozen laws tightening asylum policy have been passed. Among the most controversial political responses was the attempt to set a cap on the number of new refugee admissions per year. Since this would be incompatible with the German constitution’s basic right to asylum, the governing coalition of conservatives and social democrats decided in 2018 to aim for a non-binding “corridor” of 180,000 to 220,000 admissions per year. However, the EU's external borders have since been extensively sealed off, which has led to Germany accepting considerably less than this in recent years. In parallel to these developments, the German economy has been experiencing labour shortages for almost ten years, exacerbated by both a low birth rate and a period of strong economic growth. In 2020, a Skilled Worker Immigration Act came into force, allowing – to a very limited extent – the immigration of workers from outside the EU.
Progressive campaigns and their achievements
In 2000, migrant organisations lobbied the red-green federal government to reform the country’s existing citizenship law. Since then, a child born in Germany to foreign parents automatically receives German citizenship under certain conditions, in addition to the citizenship of his or her parents. Around ten years later, refugee organisations won their fight, following years of campaigning, to reform the law on asylum by having certain features of the “Asylum Compromise” either repealed or made more lenient. One of the most draconian and disempowering provisions of the “Asylum Compromise” was the distribution of “benefits in kind” (such as food parcels) instead of cash in asylum shelters, and the ban on working. However, some of these improvements were overturned following the 2016 backlash. A further success by progressive campaigning includes the German government's change of course on the European Dublin regulation. For a long time, it was primarily Germany that insisted on this provision, which placed a heavy burden on external border states. Since 2014, the German government has been in favour of a European distribution key. At a civil society level, a large number of initiatives have emerged – from local reception alliances to large sea rescue NGOs.