“We regard solidarity towards refugees and support for European cohesion as our duty, and have set ourselves the goal of contributing, at local level, to the fair distribution of wealth and livelihood opportunities.” So said Belit Onay, Mayor of Hanover, upon his city’s recent accession to the Solidarity Cities initiative. This initiative highlights the political leadership of cities in addressing the migration of refugees into Europe.
We had a virtual sit down with Bettina Doering, Head of Migration and Integration at the City of Hanover, to better understand what solidarity means to Hanover, and why this was the moment to sign.
What, for Hanover, is the importance of the idea of solidarity?
Hanover has a set of goals to contribute to the distribution of wealth and opportunity. That is really hard for a municipality to do in Germany, as well as in the European Union. Only the federal government has the right to say how many refugees we take for Germany.
Therefore, we use this network to say we are prepared, we would like to do our duty. We need a better strategy in Europe to distribute refugees in every country and especially in countries, municipalities or regions who are really willing to do that. For us the network of Solidarity Cities is really important because together we can do something to reach our goals.
Why has Hanover chosen this moment to join the Solidarity Cities initiative?
In 2019 we had a council resolution about being a safe harbour for refugees from the Mediterranean region. We have this council resolution and our politicians are behind it. On the other hand, we are rewriting our integration strategy for Hanover at the moment and we’re getting more and more progressive, and also we feel more responsible after 2015 with the refugees coming to Europe. So we’re now at a stage of rethinking our strategies and goals and also what we can do for better migration politics in our city.
What are some of Hanover’s impressive practices around migration?
We have a very good network between the municipality, NGOs and volunteers working with migrants. We also have an umbrella group of 40 migrant organisations, so they get a bigger voice in our politics and what we do in our city.
We also work together not only with other organisations but also with other religions. Hanover is the only city in Germany with a ‘house of religion’, a house where all religions get together for interreligious dialogue.
Importantly, we have the ability to be critical of ourselves. In rewriting our strategy we are being very critical of ourselves, thinking about how we can open our structures and get fairer and a better distribution of opportunities in our society.
How does this tie into Hanover’s overall strategy?
That’s a very interesting question, but it’s not that easy to answer. A part of our society still thinks of integration as something that has to be done by the migrants, and we would like to change that idea. Integration is something that all people in a society have to do together.
That’s why, as we are rewriting our strategy, we are bringing people together, from NGOs, from the voluntary service and the municipality. But also people with new ideas, young people. Young people and experts are discussing everything together: what was good and what was bad. We are really critical of what was not good and how we have to change our minds when we think about migration. Until the 90s we thought about migrants having to integrate themselves, now we see that engaging migrants in social life is everyone’s responsibility.
Can you remember an interesting story relating to your work on migration?
In 2020 we started rewriting our strategy on migration. We had a wonderful event in January before the coronavirus came to Germany. We had a party with young people to celebrate that we had done a kind of okay job in the last ten years, since our first migration strategy in Hanover. In the morning after the party, we had discussions on the strategy in groups, and the young people came together, parallel to the other discussions. We did not ask for that. They asked us if they could also talk to the larger audience to represent their results.
They were absolutely brilliant, but they were also absolutely critical to us: How we organised our rewriting process, why we do not ask for a group of young people to be part of the process. And now, one year later, when we talk, we have a very stable, very critical and very progressive group of young people who have a postmigration perspective on our topics. We realised we missed out by not asking the young generation. So now we really work together with them.
What, for Hanover, does the future hold in terms of migration?
At the moment, coronavirus is really especially hard for migrants. When you’re not in school and you have to learn with your parents, but your parents do not really understand the questions… that’s really hard for those children, so I hope the education gap doesn’t worsen in the future. We have to establish a better distribution of opportunities for social participation, especially in our education system.
As well as that, I mentioned that we have this good dialogue between NGOs, the municipality and volunteers; but what we need is a real dialogue in our society that is also with those people who are sceptical on migration. That is an important topic for Europe and the whole world I think, because this scepticism is dividing our society.
Finally, we’re hoping for a better European strategy towards migration. There are countries that would like to take more refugees, they would like to take their responsibility. And there are countries not wanting to do that. Meanwhile, the countries with the borders to the Mediterranean region expected to have the sole responsibility for migrants, which is not fair.
We also have to think about intra-European migration. We have funding for refugees to take language courses, but for a person arriving here from Romania, we don’t have the money to provide the same support.