Hamburg, Germany: A Case Study of Refugees in Towns

Jessica Sadye Wolff

Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, April 2018


This case study explores the spatial, ethical, social, and economic implications of Germany’s new refugee housing policy and its impact on integration. The report begins with an overview of the refugee situation and asylum process in Germany. In Hamburg, the influx of 55,000 asylum seekers exacerbated shortages of social housing units. Consequently, the national government approved an unprecedented land use policy enabling land-constrained city-states, such as Hamburg, to construct refugee and asylum seeker accommodation in non-residential zones. There has been widespread opposition to the development of proposed social housing sites, since residents did not want large numbers of asylum seekers (more than 300 individuals) in their neighborhoods, and the selection of sites did not include typical public engagement processes. Neighborhood organizations successfully petitioned the government to limit the number of asylum seekers living in any one location. The distribution of asylum seeker housing in Hamburg is disproportionately skewed towards poorer neighborhoods, quite far away from other residential developments, and often not integrated with the existing street grid network.

The report documents integration challenges cited by asylum-seekers including: (a) uncertainty in the asylum process; (b) the inability to work or rent housing while asylum claims are being processed; (c) increasingly lengthy stays in initial reception facilities; (d) lack of control over location of government provided housing and lack of privacy; (g) lack of affordable houses in the city’s real estate market, and landlords who are unwilling to rent to refugees; (h) risk of exploitation by employers in “black market jobs”; and (i) lengthy procedures for obtaining work permits. While local residents of Hamburg are generally eager to support asylum seekers, there is little opportunity for interaction due to the physical locations of asylum seeker and refugee accommodation. The author concludes that as Hamburg continues to require additional follow-up housing, greater consideration regarding spatiality and distribution of housing could facilitate better integration and ease local residents’ concerns. Additionally, supplementing the existing site selection process with additional spatial indicators that relate to facets of the integration experience could further improve the system.