Goslar is a central German town on the northern edge of the Harz Mountains. For a thousand years, its wealth was provided by the mineral deposits of the Rammelsberg Mountain, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with many medium-sized businesses, year-round tourism and major industrial enterprises. But Goslar has been affected by demographic change and structural weakness.

The town’s population of approximately 50,000 is declining; in the ten years from 2003 to 2013, Goslar lost around 4,000 inhabitants. We have had to react to this demographic decline by exploring two possibilities. The first is to downsize administrations, which is something we have already done in Goslar. To further downsize would affect the town’s infrastructure – schools, museums and public swimming pools could no longer be well maintained by even fewer people. Furthermore, to continue downsizing would only lead to a greater population decline, and the downward spiral would accelerate – a bleak scenario indeed!

“It is economic nonsense to build container villages while flats and houses elsewhere lie vacant”

I therefore tend to favour the second alternative: to keep the number of inhabitants as stable as possible. We need people for our social activities, in voluntary work and in our clubs and associations. But we also need them for our economy. The Employment Agency in our area lists about 43,000 employed people, of which 14,500 are aged between 50-64. This means that over the next 20 years, 14,500 roles will become vacant. Who can we find to take these places?

When I talk with the entrepreneurs of this region, I often hear of their concerns that there will not be a sufficient workforce available in the coming years. Frequent questions are ‘Will I find enough staff?’, ‘Will I find enough young people that I can train?’ and ‘Should I invest in a shrinking town or should I relocate my business elsewhere?’. If the latter actually happens, it would mean that investment will no longer come to Goslar, and then this town’s history of more than a thousand years will come to an end. Goslar’s 1,700 timbered houses and 3,000 monuments will be little more than open-air museum pieces.

This is not just a problem for Goslar, or even just for Germany. The entire European community is facing a change. Statisticians think that today’s German population of 81 million people will grow slightly in the coming 5-7 years, but will then drop dramatically. In 2030, almost 5 million people more than today will be aged 65 or older. This group will represent around a third of the population, according to the Max Planck Institute. The United Nations has forecast a decline in Europe’s overall population of 8.3%, or approximately 50 million inhabitants, by 2050. The European Statistical Office Eurostat has the opinion that immigration will be the only solution for three-quarters of European regions.

“The big cities cannot by themselves provide either the accommodation or the integration of refugees”

I am of course aware that our society has some vastly differing opinions when it comes to refugees and migrants. But as early as the Autumn of 2014, I took a very clear position on the issue. I said that the big cities cannot by themselves provide either the accommodation or the integration of refugees, and I have also spoken of the big opportunity for the town of Goslar. Back then, I asked, ‘Why don’t we focus more intensively on the talents of those who come to our country?’

My basic idea was that it should be possible for regions with shrinking populations to take more refugees. The use of empty housing and lower rents, as is prescribed by the allocation formula, would help to alleviate pressure from big city hotspots. The aim is a decentralised accommodation for the people who come to us. This does not mean accommodating refugees together in a big hotel or a barracks that stands empty. It especially does not mean tents, containers or ghettos in big cities. It is economic nonsense to build container villages while flats and houses elsewhere lie vacant.

My statements in 2014 triggered quite a controversy, and the reality of today has more than outrun us. The problem now is that I do not know how many people will come in 2016 in need of social and economic care. But I am sure that solutions can and will be found. It is imperative that we not only accommodate refugees but that we offer them German language courses and provide them with everything they need to live in comfort. It is envisaged that they will stay here – in the medium-sized towns and in rural areas – for good, and will not leave us after a few months to head for the larger cities.

“Successful integration requires relationships between people and quick access to the local population and community”

However, I have not yet found a clear remedy, but if we succeed in keeping the refugees here and integrate them well, we will enrich our society and have at the same time the chance to oppose the prospect of demographic crisis. In 2015, the District of Goslar, which as a region has approximately 130,000 inhabitants, received approximately 1,540 refugees. This year, we are expecting about 1,600 new arrivals. All these people are to be accommodated in a ‘dispersed’ way. They will be accommodated in flats where there will be welcomed as neighbours, as successful integration requires relationships between people and quick access to the local population and community.

A brief look to the past tells us that integrating refugees can work. Historically, immigrants have always enriched their societies. The United States without the innovative power of immigrants would have no Silicon Valley; without its immigrant workers of the 19th century, there would be no American railways; and without the refugees and expelled persons taken in after the Second World War, there would have been no economic miracle.

The civil war in Syria has lasted for five years and yet everybody was completely astonished to find Syrian people knocking on Europe’s door as refugees. Europe is facing its first major performance test, and to pass, European policymakers have to stand together and introduce basic change. The continent will become a melting pot of cultures: younger, more intelligent and more vivid. The United States of America continues today to take their strength from this model. We too can achieve that. It is up to us whether we succeed in organising language and education, accommodation and work for the refugees and their children. As a result, Germany and Europe can only benefit, and will develop stronger than ever on a moral level, as well as economically and culturally.

Europeans must welcome and integrate refugees, accepting that they are not a burden but a great opportunity. We have to keep sight of the most essential issue: to support refugees is our most fundamental humanitarian duty.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Ralf Naegele