The small town influencing German migration policy
Rottenburg stands out as a result of its long-lasting civic engagement, which started in the summer of 2015 and is still going strong.
Despite its relatively small size, Rottenburg has been a driving actor in establishing a Solidarity City network in both Germany and Europe. It also takes a visible public stance against existing migration policies.
What is unique about Rottenburg?
Bringing together “Cities of Safe Harbours": Rottenburg, a small town in one of the richest regions in Germany, made national headlines when Mayor Stephan Neher made an urgent plea for the direct in-take of refugees from the Mediterranean. In summer 2019, he said: “If it comes down to it, I'll get a local bus driver to go down to Italy and pick up the people himself". Since then, Rottenburg has taken a nationwide leading role in networking with municipalities to encourage them to welcome refugees, and has taken over the management of the “Cities of Safe Harbours" alliance from the much larger city of Potsdam.
What are the key factors?
An active mayor and a strong civil society: Rottenburg is able to draw on strong civil society welcome structures that were formed locally in 2015. Through the Mayor's numerous public interventions, it has emerged as one of the most important voices in the movement for community refugee reception in Germany. These interventions have attracted national attention because Rottenburg is governed by a conservative party. As a politician from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats party, Neher was able to influence the debate in a different way from cities governed by the left.
What are the most outstanding results so far?
Combining local engagement and advocacy work: Rottenburg successfully combined local engagement and policy innovation with advocacy work not only on a national level but also internationally. Locally, Rottenburg proved how civic engagement can become an integral part of municipal integration strategies, by formalising the civic solidarity that emerged in summer 2015. Rottenburg also helped set up several national and international city networks advocating for more municipal autonomy in refugee policy.
Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level
At the centre of German and European municipal networking: Despite its relatively small size, Rottenburg has been a driving actor in establishing a network of solidarity cities in Germany. In September of 2019, Rottenburg hosted the network’s first working meeting, which, by then, dozens of other municipalities had joined. In June of 2021, Rottenburg was one of the municipalities that helped organise the first European Cities Conference on Refugee Reception “From the City to the Sea in Palermo”. Mayor Neher has spoken out publicly on many occasions in favour of a distribution key for cities willing to take in refugees.
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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.