06/2005: Günter Piening

Günter Piening
Commissioner for Integration and Migration
of the Berlin Senate


Challenges and best practices in the management
of immigration and asylum policies by city authorities


Ü Eurasylum Ltd: With a current population of 3.3 million people, Berlin has a history of immigration that dates back to centuries. Today, over 13% (441,000) of the city’s population does not have German citizenship. The largest communities, Turkish and Kurdish, make up 30% of the total foreign population. The unemployment rate among foreign nationals in Berlin is currently 40.7%, more than double that for German nationals. Like Hamburg and Bremen, Berlin enjoys a particular institutional position in Germany, being both a State and a City. Within the Berlin Senate, i.e. the government of the State of Berlin, the Commissioner for Integration and Migration is entrusted with all the major functions related to the design, implementation and coordination of immigration and asylum policy. Could you briefly guide us through Berlin’s overall policy priorities and programme responses in the field of immigration and asylum today, both in relation to recent and well-established foreign communities?

Ü Günter Piening: In a multiethnic and multicultural city such as Berlin, where every eighth person has no German citizenship, immigration and integration have become fundamental policy challenges. Berlin has the flair of an heterogeneous and colourful metropolis, that lives from the impulse that different cultures bring to it. It is a city with a considerable potential for integrating people from different backgrounds. As in other European capitals, third generation immigrants are starting to introduce cultural and economic innovations that have an impact not only on the local community, but also on the communities of their respective home countries. As the Berlin Study published in 2000 indicated, immigration is one of Berlin’s main future resources.

However, despite the fact that the above-mentioned developments have resulted from a wide political consensus amongst state institutions, NGOs and the large Social Welfare Bodies, Berlin still faces some serious challenges as regards the integration and sustainable social cohesion of its local communities. Due to the economic effects of the German unification, our city has witnessed a tremendous decline in its industrial sector in the 1990s. This has affected considerably workers with low professional qualifications. The so-called guest workers from Turkey and the Mediterranean, who had come to Berlin in the 1960s and 1970s, were hit especially hard by this process. The unemployment rate amongst immigrants has risen up to around 40%, which is more than double the rate for Berlin’s German citizens. Immigrant children are achieving lower school results, and lower qualifications than German pupils, and the relative number of immigrants in apprenticeship is significantly lower than amongst Germans.

Turning to the issue of asylum seekers and refugees, Berlin has welcomed more than 36,000 civil war refugees from former Yugoslavia in the course of the past decade, two-thirds of whom have now returned home voluntarily. But there are also many people who, at present, cannot return to their home countries. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, returnees would be confronted with a situation not far from open warfare. Another topic which is of special concern to us in Berlin is the high number of persons who do not have a recognised asylum or war refugee status, and who merely rely on an insecure status of tolerance (Duldung, as it is referred to in German), i.e: rejected asylum seekers who cannot be removed because of humanitarian or other reasons; persons with undetermined nationality; and traumatised former war refugees. A large number of them have been living in Berlin for more than five years. Until recently, they and especially their children, could not have access to the means for a sustainable integration into our society. With the newly implemented immigration law, however, their situation is gradually improving. In my opinion, a lasting integration policy for Berlin should be conceived on the basis of various interlocking activities and strategies aimed at improving the economic and social participation, and the well-being of immigrants in our city. Amongst these policies, we place special emphasis on the reduction in unemployment rates amongst immigrants, and on easier access to economic activity for asylum seekers and refugees. We place further emphasis on the improvement of the educational situation of children, especially those with an immigrant background. Moreover, we are eager to encourage the involvement of regular social services with integration issues, and to strengthen the intercultural competence of these services. These measures call for more responsible action from both the majority segments of society and the immigrant communities.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Public authorities in major cities of Europe are today entrusted with increased responsibilities for the definition and management of immigration/asylum policies. City authorities are in a better position to monitor, and understand the implications of evolving migrant/refugee situations at a local level, as well as to evaluate the benefits and challenges of existing policies, and to engage in timely policy adjustments. Based on Berlin’s long-standing experience of devising and administering local reception and integration policies for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, how would you assess the respective merits and possible deficits of state, regional and local functions in this policy area, including as regards established cooperative structures among these three institutional levels? On a similar note, what, if any, has been the impact at city level of the increasing transfer of political and legislative decision-making powers from national to European levels, and in what ways are city authorities today able to inform and influence policy decisions at the EU level?

Ü Günter Piening: As we all know, national policies on asylum and refugee issues are governed, broadly, by the principles of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, along with a number of other international instruments. In line with the Treaty of Amsterdam 1999, policies on asylum and immigration policies are also increasingly determined at the European level. However, both international instruments and European directives leave a strong element of discretion to national governments.

This means that current asylum and refugee policies in Europe are still broadly determined at a national level. However, their impact is very much felt at a local level, and in particular by cities, where most asylum seekers and refugees are settled. In the case of Berlin, however, the German system for the reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees, and for the integration of labour migrants, consists of a complicated interlocking system of a range of institutions at the federal, state and communal levels, as well as non-governmental organisations. Let me explain the main features of this system at the national and State levels, and let me then give you a short assessment of the mode of cooperation between these levels.

My office is part of the Senate Administration for Health, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection. However, it has a relatively autonomous position by being able to coordinate and initiate policies on migrants and refugee matters. Moreover, the Office of the Commissioner for Integration and Migration gives legal advice to asylum seekers and refugees, and has the role of an ombudsman office. It is also a primary source of information for NGOs seeking advice, and it further administers relevant projects in the fields of migration, integration and anti-discrimination. The Commissioner steers the State Advisory Board on Integration and Migration, where State Secretaries of five Senate Administrations, NGOs and migrant organisations recommend policy strategies to improve the integration of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Moreover, Berlin has a large number of other State and local government bodies with ample experience of cooperating and sharing responsibilities on refugee matters. This sound institutional balance is supplemented by the five Cooperative Social Welfare Agencies and a wide network of large and small NGOs. Institutions and NGOs complement each other activities, for example in the area of advice covering the asylum procedure and welfare issues, as well as on the provision of support to reception centres and asylum seekers hostels.

Having a coordinating and initiating function within the government for refugee affairs, my Office has a significant impact on the actual outcome and directions of the Senates policy in this field. The establishment of the above-mentioned Advisory Board for Integration and Migration reflects our interest in initiating innovative policies in the field of refugee integration. For example, the Board is about to launch a policy paper which will provide recommendations on the integration policy in the field of employment, education and the intercultural exposure of regular state services.

At the national level, the discussion around the implementation of the new immigration law has dominated the political debate during 2003 and 2004. With the implementation of the new immigration law on January 1st 2005 Berlin has gained, albeit on a small scale, new prerogatives for the integration of long term refugees. The law provides for an improved framework for the integration of those refugees, mostly civil war refugees from former Yugoslavia, living in Berlin with a temporary protection status. Those who have held a Duldung for 18 months or longer are now entitled to obtain a legal residence permit and, with it, a working permit. However, the actual implementation of the law in terms of binding regulations is still being debated. My position in this discussion is that Berlin should favour a liberal implementation of the law, so as to give families and individuals for whom Berlin has become a home in recent years the possibility to develop long term perspectives, including the possibility to earn their living. Moreover, the new law also entitles the States to grant protection and a legal residence permit to those persons who, for special hardship reasons, cannot be returned to their home countries. In the so called hardship commission in Berlin, which, with less prerogatives, has been operating since 1990, delegates of civil society and the state administration decide on specific hardship cases, which are then submitted to the Senator for the Interior for final decision. To date, in two-thirds of the cases, the Senator has accepted the recommendations of the hardship commission and has overturned the order to deport.

Berlin’s exposure to EU policies has recently gained momentum with the signing of the City Statement A Strong City Voice in a Common Asylum Policy for the EU, which was launched in June 2003 on the initiative of London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone to mark World Refugee Day, and which to date has been signed by 16 mayors and leaders from large EU cities. The City Statement argues that migrants and asylum seekers can become a strong asset for city development. But this can only happen if asylum and immigration policies focus on social cohesion, planned settlement and long-term integration, and offer EU-level funding to support such aims. Above all, the Statement stresses that the cities experience should inform policy decisions about these issues made by national and EU institutions. Cities, in short, must have a voice in asylum policy.

Ü Eurasylum Ltd: In 2003-2004, the City authorities of Berlin, London and Rome established a joint observatory to compare their systems on the reception and social inclusion of asylum seekers and refugees, including as regards the particular role and combined effect of measures supported through by local authorities, other public bodies and their NGO partners. Co-funded by the European Commission, the Europe Land of Asylum (ELA) project aimed, in particular, to contribute to the harmonisation of EU policies on humanitarian protection and the reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees; to improve the measures for the reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees at the local level; to consolidate and widen existing relationships between local authorities and the third sector at the European level; to identify new common political strategies for the reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe; and to identify new monitoring instruments, methods and criteria for in-depth analysis of different local migrant/refugee situations. Taking account of their different administrative structures, immigration history and foreign population demographics, what are the most fundamental differences, and the possible best practices, in the reception and integration strategies, measures and implementation mechanisms of the three cities? And what are the most noteworthy conclusions and recommendations of this project?

Ü Günter Piening: One of the impacts of the above-mentioned City Statement has been the establishment of the first EU Observatory looking specifically at the experience of cities in implementing reception and integration measures. The results of the Europe Land of Asylum (ELA) project show that cities are deeply affected by national and EU policies on asylum, and that, to date, they have had very little influence over such policies. The results also show that, despite some positive elements, these policies have often had a negative effect on cities. The problem is that city authorities (although this is less true for Berlin), are often faced with a policy vacuum, and do not have clearly defined legal powers or guidance to enable them to act effectively to meet the needs of forced migrants. In this context, the city of Rome is a good example: here the city authority’s activities in the area of reception and integration have been severely restricted by the lack of an overall legal framework on asylum. For all three cities, the research identified specific areas, such as accommodation, legal advice and labour market access, where weaknesses in the national legal framework have made it difficult for city authorities to maintain adequate standards.

In more general terms, however, the ELA observatories have also found that legislation and policies adopted at national or EU level can at times coincide with the vital social and economic interests of the city. Uncertainties over the asylum determination processes, and the limited nature of subsidiary forms of protection, have often hindered the work of practitioners in the field of reception and integration. Such uncertainties obviously also affect the individual applicants themselves and limit their capacity to develop realistic perspectives for themselves and their families. But the legal uncertainties, especially for those with a temporary protection status, are also a persistent problem for city authorities and agencies in all three cities, when trying to deliver services efficiently, and to develop long-term integration and social inclusion strategies.

Among the positive conclusions of the ELA observatories, two are of crucial importance. Firstly, it is striking to note that, across the three cities, innovative, effective and long-lasting local service models are to be found, predominantly, in the areas of health and education. In all three cities, for example, school attendance is compulsory for refugee children. Secondly, the efficiency and impact of reception and integration services are likely to be enhanced by clear political leadership and coordination at city level. Here Berlin, with its clear division of service provision and the coordinating function of the Commissioner for Integration and Migration, can be considered as a good practice example.

But let us now turn to the main recommendations resulting from our research. Firstly, national state governments should liaise regularly with cities, to gather information about the impact of national policies at city level and to consult city authorities on asylum policy. Moreover, national asylum procedures should be adapted to ensure: that rejection of asylum claims on purely formal grounds can be avoided; that cities can provide accessible systems of legal advice which are able to meet demand; and that means are available to find solutions for the status of rejected asylum seekers who cannot be repatriated for legal, practical or humanitarian reasons within five years of the decision on their claim. Secondly, each city should promote complementary structures between the national, regional and local administrations, and NGO’s. Thirdly, the diversity of services offered should be supported, whilst maintaining the primary responsibility of the State towards asylum seekers and refugees. Fourthly, all asylum seekers awaiting determination of their claim should be provided with adequate means to support themselves and to maintain their health. They must not be forced into destitution by policies refusing material support and accommodation. And, lastly, asylum seekers should have access to the labour market within a reasonable time after making a claim, at most within six months. Refugees should gain access as soon as their status is confirmed.

In our view, the ELA project has confirmed that the experience of cities, and city-based information systems, are potentially a good resource for decision-makers planning and designing asylum policies. The project’s substantial findings help to strengthen the voice of the cities in the development of such policies. The project also shows how new insights and information, of a type not always available in the traditional national debate, can be produced and expanded through active cooperation between EU cities across the old national borders of Europe, to the benefit of all our citizens.