Strengthening Inclusion Right from the Start

The willingness to voluntarily work with refugees has never been as great as it currently is, new initiatives in Germany are set up more quickly than ever. A chance but also an enormous challenge for the sector of civil society. How the work for and with refugees can succeed was the focus of the symposium "integration means participation".
Robert Bosch Stiftung | June 2016

"Two years ago, no one would have imagined that so many people wanted to help," explains Aydan Özoğuz, German Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, at the opening ceremony of a specialist symposium entitled "Integration heißt Teilhabe" ("integration means participation"). Ms. Özoğuz was referring to the immigrant-friendly culture that took root so strongly in Germany last year.

At the symposium held by Stiftung Mitarbeit, some 150 delegates - including representatives of municipalities and civil organizations, volunteers, people with experience with migration, and organizations formed by refugees themselves - discussed how to enable refugees to take part in politics and society. The Robert Bosch Stiftung supported the symposium, which was entitled "Integration heißt Teilhabe - Partizipation und Engagement für, mit und von Flüchtlingen" ("integration means participation - involvement and commitment for, with, and from refugees") and held at the Foundation’s Berlin Office on June 21 and 22, 2016, in order to support volunteer work for and with refugees in Germany and strengthen their involvement in society.

Özoğuz agrees that politicians and society were not prepared for the large numbers of refugees. In many cases, this is why volunteers stepped in to take responsibility for welcoming, caring for, and supporting refugees. In her opening speech (listen below in German), Özoğuz talked about the role of social commitment and the current situation in terms of migration policy.

There has seldom been such willingness to volunteer and never have so many new initiatives been set up in such a short space of time. After all, refugee work takes place on the ground - in communities, associations, neighborhood centers, and schools. It is precisely this that results in new challenges for the civil sector:

How can organizations form networks?

How can helpers be given sufficient training and prepared for their roles?

How do we deal with the diverse nature of civic stakeholders?

How can we move away from simply talking about refugees to working together on social questions, topics, and activities?

These current issues were discussed in several workshops. At a talk entitled "Integration geschiet im Stadtteil" ("integration takes place in the local area"), representatives of cities and city institutions came together with volunteers to discuss ways in which participation can be facilitated on the ground. They came to the conclusion that refugees should be involved even in small decisions. "We often plan activities and events to involve refugees more closely, but often forget to ask people what they actually want," explained one delegate. Isabelle Franz from the volunteer agency Volkssolidarität Spremberg in Brandenburg agreed: "People talk so much about refugees, but hardly talk to them." When devising integration policy in her city, she suggested including someone with migration experience in the work group in order to identify the real problems.

First and foremost, the workshops revealed a need to tackle the differences in terms of how local communities accept refugees. There is also considerable disparity between urban and rural areas, such as in terms of infrastructure and mobility or facilities such as civic centers.

Some refugees told their stories at the symposium. A young man who fled from Afghanistan, for instance, asked why he - unlike refugees judged to have "good settlement prospects" - is unable to access language and integration courses and why he is still waiting for his hearing.

Professor Roland Roth summarized the various issues as he brought the event to a close: "Refugees who are here today have a right to participate." Involvement in this area, he argued, is almost by its very nature political, as we are talking about the "opening and closing of our society." Therefore, Roth believes that civic involvement should be taken more seriously at a political level.

In order to further this aim, the event finished with a discussion forum featuring veterans from the fields of politics and civil society, with the outcomes and impetuses from the workshops discussed. They concluded with an appeal to engage in conversation and share ideas, even beyond sectoral divides, and encouraged all volunteers to believe in the work they have done.

Ottilie Bälz, Head of Society at the Robert Bosch Stiftung: "As a Foundation, we want to make our contribution on behalf of social and political involvement. The developments of recent months leave me feeling confident about the future."