At the end of 2015 the number of refugees worldwide stood at 65 million. There has never been more. Most people flee from their home countries to neighbouring ones, with Iraqis and Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; the efforts of these host countries in accommodating refugees cannot be adequately appreciated. It is hard to imagine the views of people in these countries when we in Europe claim that our continent is ‘full’.

When discussing refugees arriving in Europe, people often speak of a ‘river’ or ‘stream’ of refugees; sometimes  even a ‘wave’, or a ‘tsunami’. This imagery transforms those who arrive into an indistinct mass; it deprives them of their individuality. It creates the impression of being faced with a natural disaster. But this situation is anything but a natural disaster. It was caused by humans, and the wars which forced so many from their homes. Only humans can alleviate it.

Cologne has been at the centre of public debate about refugee accommodation, notably in the light of the 2015 New Year’s Eve attacks against hundreds of girls and women by men predominantly from North Africa. Our city has, however, upheld its welcoming culture, and a wealth of initiatives continue to encourage the integration of those residents awarded refugee status, now numbering more than one percent of the city’s population.

“If integration works once, it increases the chances that it will be successful again”

Cologne has just over one million inhabitants, and our population grows by several thousand each year. Over the past two years nearly 14,000 refugees have arrived in Cologne, as well as several hundred children and teenagers who were travelling alone. Some weeks we had to take in 400 people who arrived without prior warning. It goes without saying that these arrivals constituted an immense challenge. First, we had to find safe accommodation, food and clothing. Next, language courses had to be organised, as well as school and kindergarten places.

But I believe that, thanks to a joint effort with our city’s associations and organisations, we have managed it quite well. We have set up approximately 180 preparatory classes, and about half of arrivals are housed in adequate living spaces.

We only succeeded in this endeavour because we started to create the appropriate framework conditions for hosting refugees many years ago. Over the past two decades committees have been set up to establish a collective consensus on integration measures. We worked to ensure adequate public funding from the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and the German federal government in Berlin. We established guidelines for the provision of accommodation and a roundtable to create societal consensus on issues involving refugees. We established a clear common understanding: it is worthwhile investing in all people, even if they do not have the chance of being granted permanent residency.

All of these actions have been helpful in mobilising civic power. A considerable number of Cologne citizens have volunteered to help, including many church members. Among the volunteers were those who had arrived in Cologne as refugees or so-called ‘guest workers’ – something I was particularly pleased about. They were integrated; now they help integrate others. What this demonstrates is that if integration works once, it increases the chances that it will be successful again.

For a city that grows every year the procurement of housing alone poses a challenge. Our financial resources are limited. The coffers of German local authorities are not plentiful, and this applies in particular to Cologne. We need billions of euros to invest in the creation of housing and other infrastructure to keep up with our growing population, but we do not command the necessary financial resources.

From the start, we in Cologne have aimed to house refugees throughout the city, rather than confining them to accommodation outside the city gates. But living space is limited, so we have had to resort to offering places in container villages, sports halls and old hotels. Nevertheless, it is our priority to move as many refugee families as possible into regular flats, and avoid ‘ghettoisation’. Having refugees live among us allows us to get to know each other and engage in everyday interactions, which is the best way to prevent segregation, envy and resentment. This is evident from the lack of support for right-wing populists – of which, unfortunately, there are quite a few across Germany – in areas with a large migrant population.

If 14,000 people from a completely different cultural background suddenly come to live in Cologne, whether temporarily or permanently, existing residents will experience the stress of a new situation. But we must never forget: our stress is insignificant compared to the stress of those who were forced to flee. 14,000 refugees is a lot of people, but for a city of one million this amounts to a mere 1.3%. Look at this another way: imagine 80 people sitting together in a restaurant when one more person enters. He or she will be sure to find a place.

Of course we must face the negative side: the appalling New Year’s Eve attacks, which remain unsolved. This is a bitter fact, not least for the female victims. Some of the perpetrators had fled from their countries. But they were a tiny minority of all refugees. And it is never right to blame a group as a whole for crimes committed by a few wrongdoers. The Cologne attacks have polarised the discussion on hosting refugees in Germany, and provided a platform for those who oppose it. But the influx of refugees over the past few years has neither changed the security situation, nor our willingness to welcome them in Cologne.

“Europe is first and foremost a continent of cities”

It is my conviction that refugees are an asset to us, even in an economic sense. In Germany refugees are often divided in the qualified ones that we want to keep, and the less qualified that we do not. I believe this to be wrong. In my opinion, each and every one can help us; we can provide education and training to everybody. Germany has an ageing population and will soon suffer from a shortage of skilled workers. This is another reason why we cannot afford to marginalise migrants.

We must also consider that most refugees have lost everything: their relatives, their homes, their communities. But they have not lost their skills and knowledge. They have undertaken a journey into the unknown to improve living conditions for themselves and their children.

The European Union has not yet been able to create the necessary solidarity between its member states to handle the arrival of refugees properly, and this lack of solidarity has driven the EU into a deep crisis.

We, the cities, cannot sit back and wait for this to be resolved. Europe is first and foremost a continent of cities. We have to give constructive answers each day to deal with people’s concerns and problems. The Social Affairs Forum of EUROCITIES – a network of major European cities- recently launched a ‘Solidarity Cities’ initiative. It is a model for progress and a sign of hope that European solidarity will grow from the ground upwards.

IMAGE CREDIT: strassenstriche.net