Report: Cities and refugees: The German experience - Brookings Institution
Thursday, October 6, 2016

This discussion paper was prepared in advance of a Brookings forum on cities and refugees held in New York City during the 2016 United Nations General Assembly in September 2016.


This paper is the first in a series examining the responses of local government, businesses, and civil society to the refugee crisis.

Refugees disproportionately settle in large cities, where they have better job prospects and existing social connections. Ultimately, it is those communities, rather than nationalmgovernments, that will grapple with accommodating and integrating new arrivals. Municipalities across Europe are faced with these responsibilities during a period of great social unease given the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice; rising tension in everyday life around cultural and religious differences; and growing volatility in local, state, and national politics. In many respects, this complex and contentious environment requires greater, not less, focus on how cities design and deliver successful integration strategies.

The paper finds that:

  1. In the short term, refugees are proportionately distributed across German regions according to tax revenues and total population. The federal quota system for allocating refugees to states within Germany strives to be fair, equitable, and efficient, as it distributes refugees in accordance with a long-standing formula for distributing federal resources based on tax revenues and total population. The predictability and efficiency of the system is illustrated by the fact that the deviations from the assigned quota norm are minimal.
  2. By nature of its simplicity, this distribution system imposes unique burdens on large cities, since it does not take into account higher population densities, special housing conditions of these urban communities, or secondary migration patterns. Germany’s large cities face existing pressures around affordable housing, making cost-efficient refugee housing more difficult. Cities also tend to be destinations for secondary migration, as refugees move toward social networks or larger job markets. Finally, the three German city-states of Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg face unique challenges, including their geographic boundaries, which remove the potential for greenfield development or the settlement of their allotted arrivals in less-populous regions.
  3. Similarly, the current framework for allocating funding and expenditures across federal, state, and city governments imposes uneven burdens on city-states and large cities. Uniform reimbursement rates from the federal government fail to take into account variations in housing costs, cost of living, and per-capita social service expenditures. Recent federal actions will help ease burdens, but more reforms and appropriations are likely to be necessary.
  4. Despite these challenges, as they pursue the numerous tasks of economic and social integration, cities such as Hamburg and Berlin have shown a remarkable ability to innovate in the face of crisis. Innovations have included an expanded role of civil society, the use of technology to engage community participation, and the rapid building of non-traditional housing. The city-states have also provided an early warning system for the federal republic and helped to reform restrictive federal laws to be more responsive to local needs and circumstances.
  5. The special role played by cities in emergency response and long-term integration requires new policy reforms and institutional practices. Federal and state governments and networks of local stakeholders should explore reforms that empower cities, speed the replication of promising strategies, and give city leaders a permanent seat at the policymaking table.

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