Unkel is a city in the German federal state of Rheinland-Pfalz, located about 20km from the former German capital Bonn. Unkel is the administrative center of the community of Unkel, Erpel, Rheinbreitbach and Bruchhausen with a total population of over 13,000 residents. In the past two years, the community has taken in and resettled some 300 refugees. The city and community of Unkel is an ideal testing ground for this project.
- A high-risk refugee population and a high-risk long-standing local population.
- The Contact Network for Refugees (Kontaktkreis Flüchtlinge), an open, ecumenical network of over 150 volunteers in Unkel, active in refugee assistance and integration since 2015, from which the Integrationswerkstatt idea originated.
- A community of relatively-well-integrated refugees who wish to give back to Unkel.
- A supportive city and municipal government.
- The support of the local Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as their charitable wings (Caritas and Diakonie) and their regional leadership.
- The association “Gemeinsam für Vielfalt”, founded by local residents with the support of both city and church leadership for the express purpose of undertaking the Integrationswerkstatt program in Unkel.
The Mayors of both the city and community of Unkel have guaranteed the Integrationswerkstatt the use of Unkel’s 5.7-acre former swimming pool area, with four useable buildings and massive open spaces, for the next 30 years at no cost. The space is central to the community, easy to access, but located in a flood zone and no further permanent building is permitted, leading previous potential investors away from the space. The community of Unkel is very supportive of this utilization of a space that has long been wasted, and the gift of this space shows an incredible degree of support for refugee integration.
On May 9th, 2017, the staff of Integrationswerkstatt, along with the community’s Mayor and members of City Hall staff, met with local and regional utility and zoning boards to explore which of the Integrationswerkstatt’s plans are legally viable in the space, and to negotiate exactly what renovations to existing buildings are allowed.
Unkel’s Challenges Are Unkel’s Strength
Unkel is a small town, many of whose citizens can trace their familial lineage in the town back 500 years. In many other locations, this has bred a nativist mentality, an embrace of ethnic “purity” and an accompanying resistance to refugee integration. Unkel’s history of intense Nazification and ethnic cleansing during the 1930s and ‘40s show that this could indeed have been a stumbling block for refugee integration and given rise to a new wave of right-wing populism. Thankfully, as shown by the above support by both civilians and politicians, this has not been the case this time around. Unkel’s citizens have been convinced, by Pope Francis, by Angela Merkel’s government, and by local leadership, that refugees will inevitably be a part of their present and near future, and that “Welcome Culture” is the only way to maintain their town’s historical integrity.
Unkel’s location itself makes it a special case. Unlike newly-arriving refugees in Turkey or in Greece or Munich, the Rhein-Sieg/Eifel (RSE) region in which Unkel is situated is the endpoint for refugee journeys. They have nowhere else to flee to or be sent to, they are Unkelers for the foreseeable future, giving them and their host community an increased interest in integration. By the same token, according to firms who work on bringing RSE refugees into the labor market (a necessary factor in integration into German society), these are some of the hardest cases for which to find employment opportunities: These are the refugees whose work or educational experience were insufficient for the state to take an interest in them along their route on the way toward the RSE region. With these difficulties comes as well the increased possibility of disillusionment, loneliness, resentment, and radicalization if integration is unsuccessful.
Despite these major challenges on both sides, in the first two years of Germany’s refugee crisis both the longstanding residents and the refugees in the community have made incredible strides in integration: The city is taking in more refugees than mandated by the federal government, and the majority of those refugees have made the effort to come into some form of fraternity with their new society. However, with “Welcome Culture” beginning to taper off in German society, and with refugee frustrations of living in a foreign society with reduced assistance from both the state and neighbors, Unkel at this moment is fertile ground either for stellar success or for dangerous failure. Both sides need support, a support which the Integrationswerkstatt seeks to provide. Success in this region would prove definitively the program’s worth and show its possibilities for other difficult areas.