A new study “Brennglas Corona” (Spotlight Covid-19) is highlighting the serious impact of the pandemic on people with a migrant or refugee background. Study authors Petra Bendel and Sonja Reinhold detail their findings and recommendations in the following interview.
Prof. Petra Bendel: After almost three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, local integration work is more important than ever – not least as we are seeing high numbers of people with a background of migration. Local integration work provides assistance to those in need of support, especially in times of crisis. But we have found that the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions have had a deeply adverse effect on municipal integration work, including housing, education and the labor market, civic engagement, support services more generally, access to public administration, and, perhaps least surprisingly, access to health care. Nowhere is this more acute than for vulnerable persons and those in shared social housing.
Sonja Reinhold: During the pandemic, we observed a rather paradoxical situation whereby the number of support services on offer plummeted, while at the same time need skyrocketed. The need for guidance services just to help people through this difficult time, in particular, was massive. In the health sector, too, there was a widespread call for access to measures to stop the spread, but also more generally just access to doctors and hospitals. Fatally, however, over longer periods the pandemic caused the collapse of a good number of support services in many places.
Sonja Reinhold: The closure of public administrative offices, for example, meant parents struggled to register the birth of their children at register offices. As a result, parents were unable to register their newborns for child benefit or with statutory health insurers. Our interviewees told us that medical claims were not met in full or even at all because parents were unable to attend the ‘U’ examination (preliminary examinations for newborn babies). A second glaring example related to those in receipt of state benefits. Interviewees related potentially life-changing crises where their access to job centers and immigration authorities was so severely impeded that they were no longer able to claim benefits for living expenses as they should. This can very quickly cause a serious financial spiral, with many people in vulnerable socioeconomic circumstances simply unable to absorb such costs.
"Under no circumstances should we cut back on integration, because at the end of the day integration means social cohesion."
Sonja Reinhold: At local level, we recommend improving access to public administration as a matter of urgency to ensure such services remain available in times of crisis. Above all, this applies to agencies that administer central areas that secure the very basis of existence, namely job centers, immigration authorities, and register offices. Within the study, we set out specific criteria for online accessibility, including low-threshold communication, multilingualism, and general accessibility, because online government services must be user-friendly for all. At the same time, people must also be actually able to access online services, for example through providing devices and Internet connections. That said, we also observed that phone or in-person access to services is still important and should not be completely replaced.
Petra Bendel: We have identified five major action points: Administrative accessibility and digital empowerment to start with. Then there is the mitigation of structural disadvantages – for example the need to improve shared social housing. We also need to focus on combatting the educational disadvantages faced by those with a migrant or refugee background. Next, we need to continue national programs like “Aufholen nach Corona” [Catching up after Covid] or “Sprach-Kitas”, daycare centers that help children develop German language skills, which are on the brink of collapse. Finally, we recommend expanding networks across the board.
Our central recommendation, however, is the expansion of municipal expertise and scope for action. We need to make municipalities more resilient, because we will see more crises. Right now, integration is by and large voluntary for municipalities. We would go so far as to say that municipal integration work must be made compulsory. Only then can we ensure our municipalities are afforded the staff and financial resources needed as a matter of course to achieve this vital work. Under no circumstances should we cut back on integration, because at the end of the day integration means social cohesion.
Sonja Reinhold: At first we thought the municipal integration officers would no longer have time for these interviews. But in actual fact we received a great deal of interest in the study. Those interviewed made sure they took the time because this is a highly relevant topic for them and they have grown hugely dissatisfied with a situation that is no longer fit for purpose.
"The dimensions we were told about dismayed us."
Sonja Reinhold: No, we weren’t surprised by the findings. We certainly feared that the impact had been incredibly damaging. But the dimensions we were told about dismayed us. That said, we were still alarmed by some of what was reported. For example, the fact that it can have such a severe, even long-term impact on the health of those affected is extreme. Above all, we found the situation in shared social accommodation, which was already challenging even before the pandemic, had reached breaking point. It was particularly critical for children who often lacked an Internet connection or device, meaning they were totally unable to join in with school lessons.
Petra Bendel: I was shocked that administrative closures actually put newborns in situations that endangered their health, as well as by the imposition of serious hardship for those receiving benefits. Already, these have far-reaching consequences. Such basic access should never have been lost.
In the study „Brennglas Corona – Lokale Integrationsarbeit in Zeiten einer globalen Pandemie“ (Spotlight Covid-19 – Local Integration Work in Times of a Global Pandemic), the experiences and needs of municipal actors relevant to integration policy in the course of the Corona pandemic were identified and recommendations for action were formulated on this basis. The study was conducted by Sonja Reinhold and Petra Bendel and published by the Institute of Political Science, Research on Migration, Displacement and Integration at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität of Erlangen-Nürnberg and the Robert Bosch Stiftung GmbH.