Around a million people fled to Germany in 2022 to escape the war in Ukraine, posing new integration challenges for rural areas. Since 2018, the program “Land.Home.Future” ("Land.Zuhause.Zukunft") has been developing approaches to successfully integrate refugees and immigrants into local communities. The program now asks: how can integration in rural areas succeed for everyone in the long term?
"The war in Ukraine pushed our administrative structures to their limits last year," says Julius Fogelstaller. He is the integration officer in the district of Dachau near Munich, and he is responsible for the sustainable integration of refugees and immigrants who recently arrived in the community. The Russia’s war in Ukraine is significantly affecting his work. According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, around a million people sought refuge in Germany in 2022 from the Russian invasion – a humanitarian catastrophe that poses new challenges for cities and rural counties across Germany. Here, refugees face not only a fresh start, but they must also gain a foothold in places where administrative structures are already at full capacity. Although municipalities and counties in many places are creating a comprehensive range of services to support refugees with emergency care, online consultation hours and other assistance, administrations are also increasingly reaching their limits.
"Suddenly, huge numbers of people were using our local integration services. We first had to respond to this situation."
Claudia Neuner-Dietsch, integration coordinator in the Weilheim-Schongau district, knows this challenge well. Of the approximately 3,700 refugees living here, 1,290 come from Ukraine. "That's a big number,¬ and a lot of resources have been directed at creating the right structures for these people," says Neuner-Dietsch. From one day to the next, capacities and housing options had to be found to accommodate the many refugees in the county, which is located in Bavaria.
The mass influx of refugees in 2022 presented a huge hurdle for municipalities and districts across Germany –and at the same time revealed structural deficits. Indeed, work towards integration with its multi-layered challenges was already underway well before the war in Ukraine. The reason: there is no common mandate for implementing integration across Germany. That means financing concepts are inconsistent, and a lack of overarching structures as well as many temporary workers complicate the daily work of those involved.
"Across Germany, integration work is a patchwork of efforts that often depend on individuals who work in local administration."
"In our district, there is indeed a great integration concept that is being implemented well," Bias-Putzier says. "But that is not the case everywhere. We would like to see reliable structures and conditions across the country so the integration of our fellow human beings is not dependent on single individuals."
how can integration in rural areas be improved? What innovative approaches already exist locally – and how can they be implemented together? These are the issues addressed by the Robert Bosch Stiftung's project "Land.Home.Future" in cooperation with the University of Hildesheim, which since 2018 has been developing solutions to actively integrate newly arrived immigrants into local communities. Together with the participating counties, the project addresses the challenges of integration work. The mass influx of refugees from Ukraine has made the challenges of this commitment even more apparent.
In the long term, the county of Weilheim-Schongau takes a critical view of special offers that are only accessible to refugees from Ukraine. "We feel a great willingness to help refugees from Ukraine here," Claudia Neuner-Dietsch says, describing the reaction of people who live there. "But our other refugees also feel somewhat overshadowed. That was never our goal and should not remain like this in the long run. That's why, as part of the Land.Home.Future program, we made a conscious decision to develop our services for all refugees and immigrants and not just for a specific group." During the initial conception phase in May 2020, the project focused on women and families – groups of people who are found in all immigration cohorts and are therefore relevant across the board.
Weilheim-Schongau was part of the initial phase of "Land.Home.Future," along with nine other districts, and has already been working on expanding its integration work within this framework since 2020. A key lever for those involved is creating a network of people on the ground – which already happens during the start-up phase.
"It is important to us to develop offers together with the immigrants that they can actually use. We want integration at eye level – and with our target group," says Ingeborg Bias-Putzier. This approach also responds to structural challenges for successful integration work that the district faces: Weilheim-Schongau is a traditionally Christian rural area, also known as "the Pfaffeneck," or “parson’s corner,” due to its large number of churches and monasteries. Economically, it is characterized by trades and agriculture, small businesses and a rather conservative society.
In 2020 – at the beginning of the project – interactions between locals and immigrants were still very reserved. "This was also because there were few opportunities for contact, and they simply did not know each other," Bias-Putzier recalls. Together with her team, she wanted to create opportunities and spaces where refugees and immigrants could engage in exchange with locals.
Today, this commitment has given rise to the app "conWIR" ¬– an online platform that aims to help locals and immigrants organize joint activities and bring them closer together. "You can create events yourself or participate in events organized by others," Claudia Neuner-Dietsch explains. In various categories, such as leisure, health or education, people can plan offers and invite each other to different events -– from joint barbecues to language courses. From the start, the app was developed together with women migrants and was designed entirely according to their needs. For those involved, this approach is a guarantee of success: "We are very optimistic that the app will be well-received, because it is a product by people for people and they helped design the content themselves," says Neuner-Dietsch.
The digital offering came about during the Covid-19 pandemic. "We were catapulted into the digital space ourselves at that time and had to find our way around," Neuner-Dietsch explains. "But we soon realized that we would also like to keep our digital offering ¬– after all, this is where the future lies, and we want to help drive digitalization in rural areas."
The district of Dachau is affected by a very tight housing market, which makes it difficult for newcomers to find adequate long-term housing. The area has been addressing this challenge since May 2023 with the "Land.Home.Future" program.
While Weilheim-Schongau has already come a long way and their app is now available to the public, the Dachau district is currently working with the "Land.Home.Future" program on an approach to improve local integration work in the future. The team led by Julius Fogelstaller is addressing a basic need for all people: finding a living space of their own. "One of our challenges is that we have to house people appropriately," says Fogelstaller. "Housing that's well-integrated and has enough space is hugely important for people to meet others, feel safe and cared for, or to invite people in."
But this is currently in short supply. Around 1,500 apartments are lacking in the district for people with difficult access to housing. The waiting lists for social housing are long, with a waiting time of around seven years currently. Fogelstaller also blames the proximity to the city: "We are in the Munich metropolitan area. The housing market is extremely tight here, even for people with regular incomes. This makes the hurdles for immigrants even higher," he says.
With the "Land.Home.Future" program, he now wants to tackle this challenge – at a time when the war in Ukraine has increased tensions in the housing market even more. But, he says, "We have been approached by many people who wanted to take refugees into their homes," Fogelstaller says. "At the same time, many questions have arisen: What requirements do I have to meet? What government support services are available?"
The goal of the "Land.Home.Future" integration offer lies primarily in local networking. With numerous organizations helping refugees find jobs and housing, the district has a dense network of actors who are already working on this issue. However, the necessary connections are often lacking. "Our first step is for all stakeholders to learn about each other. In the second step, we want to develop offers to make it easier for immigrants to access the housing market," says Fogelstaller, explaining the district's approach.
However, temporary jobs for those who work on integration as well as uncertain funding make long-term planning difficult. For Fogelstaller, addressing and reflecting on these challenges together with other counties is a milestone in integration work.
For the future, Fogelstaller has a concrete wish list for those in politics: "We would like to see unlimited funding. The topic of integration and immigration will not disappear in two years but will remain a challenge indefinitely. And good integration work helps foster good social cohesion locally," he says.