Concert in downtown Dortmund. Image credit: Roland Gorecki

Dortmund: former city of steel opens its arms to migrants

With just over 602,000 inhabitants, Dortmund is the largest city in the Ruhr Valley and Germany’s eighth-largest metropolis. Its prime location and history as a significant industrial centre have made it a migration hub for decades. It’s not new that Dortmund receives migrants from all parts of Europe and even the world, all in search of employment and better opportunities.

In just over 30 years – between 1875 and 1905 – the city experienced a demographic boom. It grew from 57,000 inhabitants to almost 380,000, with new residents attracted by the steel and coal industries of the then Kingdom of Prussia.

After World War II, the city has continued to expand. It has invested in high-tech industries, such as biomedical technology and services, and it’s now an important sport and culture hub as well as the home of Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s most successful clubs.

However, Dortmund continues to contend with immigration challenges and does its best to promote migrants’ integration.

Welcoming new migrants and refugees

Core projects of the city of Dortmund

A total of 114,551 Dortmund residents (19%) don’t have a German passport, and the number continues to grow. In 2013 that figure was 81,656 or 14% of the total population, so over the past seven years the number of residents with no German passport has risen to 32,895 people, a 40.3% increase, significantly higher than that of the Dortmund population as a whole.

Dortmund’s population growth is primarily due to the immigration of people with foreign roots.
— Jochen Schneider

The migration crisis that rocked Europe in 2015 and 2016 was just the tip of the iceberg. “Even after the peak phase, Dortmund’s population growth is primarily due to the immigration of people with foreign roots,”says Jochen Schneider, Social Planner and Coordinator of the Municipal Integration Management of Dortmund’s Department of Labour, Health, Social Affairs, Sport and Recreation.

Dortmund has two main structures that deal with migrants’ needs and integration and assist the “more than 11,000 people who have come to the city as refugees, including currently around 650 unaccompanied minor refugees and around 27,000 people from EU countries,” according to Schneider.

First, the Communal Integration Centre (MIA-DO-Kommunales Integrationszentrum Dortmund), a department funded by the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia working on integration policies, interculturalism, language mediation, communal conflict management, among others.

And second, the Department of Labour, Health and Social Affairs, Sport and Recreation (Dezernat für Arbeit, Gesundheit, Soziales, Sport und Freizeit), that takes care of bridging all departments and areas of the city working on migration, including NGO’s, organisations and individuals.

“We have networking groups that deal with early education, with education properly, language, ‘how-to’ when arriving in Dortmund and early integration, security, living quarters. All working groups are coordinated by one person from the city and one outside the city,” explains Schneider.

Beratungssituation im Standort “lokal willkommen” Brackel/Aplerbeck mit Ella Mönch, Image credit: Rebecca Dettling

Facing challenges

Between 2010 and 2016, Dortmund’s biggest challenge was to welcome Eastern European migrants to the city. After that, says Schneider, “we incorporated refugees into our work.” However, he says, “Eastern European migrants face greater problems than refugees as they don’t have access to social welfare. Refugees have integrations classes, 900 hours of German classes, and the state takes care of them. European migrants, on the other hand, if they don’t work for at least six months they don’t have access to any social welfare — And even after six months, they don’t have access to German classes.”

Those migrants from Eastern Europe are often poorly educated and unskilled. They don’t speak German, have no health insurance and are often caught in criminal structures, living in small apartments for which they pay high prices. Many of them are Roma.

Both the Communal Integrating Centre and the Department of Labour, Health and Social Affairs try to fill this gap. They assist migrants on their most basic needs and within the EU-funded CONNECTION project, led by Eurocities, Dortmund is trying to provide better services for migrants and refugees alike, learning from other partner cities.

“The software that Athens uses to manage migrants helped us to get a better view of how to manage migrants ourselves,” says Schneider. “A well-structured and harmonised software solution can make an important contribution to the integration process,” he says. What Dortmund also learned from Athens is that it’s best not to “overthink every little aspect in advance, but rather get started, improve and expand in the process,” Schneider adds.

Back in 2015, there was no infrastructure to welcome everyone and we had no experience with that huge influx of people.
— Jochen Schneider
Alter Markt. Image credit: Roland Gorecki

“Back in 2015, there were other problems, such as finding apartments for refugees, there was no infrastructure to welcome everyone, and we had no experience with that huge influx of people,” explains Schneider.

Now the city is much more prepared to deal with the demand and share what they have done so far due to the experience they have obtained working with migrants and refugees and what they have learned from Athens.

Schneider explains that “on the one hand, it was very surprising that Athens has similar structures or considerations in the area of integration as Dortmund. Both Athens and Dortmund have a powerful network of actors in the field of integration as well as municipal accommodation strategies.”

“Athens already has a case management system, whereas Dortmund is in the process of setting one up. Despite different political and bureaucratic frameworks, both cities have established similar structures and working methods,” he adds.

For its part, Dortmund contributed to expand Athens’ migrant management capacity by offering insights into the need and importance of on-site interpretation. The Greek city is considering hiring interpreters in the near future.

The possibilities for creating partnerships are countless, and Dortmund is keen on taking the opportunity to learn and contribute to helping other cities better manage and integrate migrants.

Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer
in numbers:
  • 16,944

    Romanian migrants (2014-2018)
  • 10,965

    Syrian migrants (2014-2018)
  • 9,057

    Polish migrants (2014-2018)
  • 6,666

    Bulgarian migrants (2014-2018)