Cities Collaborating for Refugee Integration

Having the right people at the table is essential to build an integration and labour market strategy to effectively address an influx of refugees.

In 2015, German cities were overwhelmed with the sudden influx of refugees. The Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation wondered how they could help. A future-focused foundation, its programs range across a number of activities from education to employment to social cohesion. Focused on strengthening society’s ability to help individuals reach their full potential, Bertelsmann develops the resources needed to achieve those goals. With the challenges posed to receptor cities, in addition to a lack of preexisting coordination and organization to address these challenges, Bertelsmann recognized it had a key role to play in providing support to cities.

Bertelsmann started a pilot project with thirteen cities, later expanding into ten more. Labour market integration of refugees was the common key focus, but cities also faced challenges in education integration, language acquisition, social participation and housing the refugees.

According to Claudia Walther, Bertelsmann Senior Project Manager, a multi-stakeholder approach was crucial to develop goals and objectives, and to have a common understanding of the situation facing both refugees and the cities themselves. Bertelsmann saw their role as a convener and moderator of a strategic process undertaken within each city.

Identifying and engaging the right mix of local stakeholders was important. The refugees arriving had a range of needs. A wide net was cast to involve labour market organizations, Chambers of Commerce, migrant-serving groups, civil society groups, municipal staff and politicians, economists and others interested in refugee integration efforts. For labour market efforts, it was essential to have employers at the table.

Each group brought their own expertise, but also challenges. Walther says that Bertelsmann initially sought to have direct refugee representation on local steering groups, but it proved more difficult than they had envisioned. Similarly, involving migrant-serving groups proved more effective when they were brought in and consulted at specific points in time. A core steering group was created and participation was expanded, bringing in additional organizations and refugees themselves to provide input when necessary.

The projects brought to the forefront the myriad of challenges stakeholders faced at the city level. The sheer number of refugees, along with a lack of adequate data and data sharing about refugees, meant that cities sometimes didn’t know how many refugees were arriving.

Asylum policies (such as restricted work permits for asylum seekers) and decision backlogs created additional challenges for cities trying to identify who was eligible for which services. For example, Walther says that many German companies were initially motivated to employ refugees, but came up against an impenetrable bureaucratic landscape and found it too hard to hire them.

In many cities, the sheer number of service providers created a fragmented service landscape, which in turn, impacted a coordinated approach to serving the refugees. These complexities added even more weight to a collaborative approach to find solutions.

The Model

Bertelsmann worked with a local Steering Committee in each city to create a vision. They collaboratively analyzed their local situation, taking the time to ensure they had the data for an effective and accurate analysis. This process allowed them to identify key stakeholders and refugee numbers, establish a clear structure (i.e., responsibilities, goals, objectives), and build in an evaluation and learning cycle.

Developing a common vision and mission was crucial to focus the group. With data challenges, it was important that cities conducted a proper analysis to fully understand the refugees and their needs. The strategy developed needed to have clear objectives, measures, and a road map that all stakeholders understood and accepted.

Bertelsmann created a structured model and process to support each city. Initially, they envisioned a four-month process to get the city organized and initiatives up and running. In reality, it took at least nine months in most cities to coordinate, build a strategy and start collaborating effectively with the diverse mix of stakeholders.

As Bertelsmann refined their model and was finding success in their pilot cities, the foundation built on what they had learned. Bertelsmann partnered with the JP Morgan Chase Foundation to work with ten additional cities in the states of Hessen and North Westphalia. All ten cities focused their efforts on refugee integration in the labour market.

Walther says that a key goal for Bertelsmann was for the cities to continue the work when the foundation left; to have sustainable and self-sufficient strategies and initiatives. Each city they worked with was better organized, had support networks in place and was bringing employers on board when the Bertelsmann pilots ended.

Sharing and knowledge exchange

Learning from other cities was a key part of the model Bertelsmann developed. Cities were at different stages of newcomer integration. Some were further ahead, with city integration plans and some policies already in place. Others were starting from scratch, pushed along by the arrival of refugees. By connecting cities working on refugee integration, the foundation sought to create a process for knowledge sharing and exchange among city leaders and peers.

Bertelsmann created an online bank of good practices to share what cities are doing. They are also working on a guidebook to share their experiences and best practices with the broader public. German cities that are still struggling with how to best integrate refugees benefit from this knowledge sharing.

Walther says that city actors are very eager to share and learn from each other. She has seen deep exchanges, sharing and learning in city network meetings. As cities connect and share in the knowledge transfer model Bertelsmann helped establish, the landscape for ideas and promising practices means they don’t have to reinvent, but can learn from each other. Bertelsmann will continue to contribute to and drive the dialogue.

Tips for employers:

  • Build structure, anticipate flexibility. Bertelsmann created a structured, highly collaborative process to work within cities. It also required a high level of flexibility to address local conditions, political and bureaucratic challenges, and information gaps.
  • Share externally. What works in one city can influence ideas and efforts in another. Sharing progress, challenges, initiatives, and outcomes is key for integration actors to learn, have their work acknowledged and bring new ideas into a community.
  • Acknowledge the local political climate. Ultimately, all city residents are part of the target audience that will make integration initiatives successful. Crafting a positive narrative of refugees both prevents the propagation of negative and toxic messages and helps support the need for integration for all in the community.

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