Between accommodation and integration:
Comparing institutional arrangements for asylum-seekers

In 2015, Germany experienced an influx of migrants entering the country. As a result, German authorities became responsible for providing accommodation for three-quarters of a million people during the course of their respective asylum determination processes. The sheer logistics of accommodating this number of asylum-seekers represents an immense organizational and financial undertaking.

Federal, state and local authorities have responded by setting up a range of sites, structures (asylum-seekers’ housing centres or Flüchtlingsunterkünfte) and modes of asylum-seeker accommodation quickly, extensively and painstakingly. Especially at the local level, measures to provide accommodation have proceeded usually efficiently, often experimentally, sometimes ingeniously and typically with very mixed outcomes.

Despite mixed outcomes, as well as still-changing approaches among local authorities, most of the basic challenges of asylum-seeker accommodation have largely been met. Practically all asylum-seekers in Germany have been housed and provided for, however minimally or thoroughly. The nature of institutional arrangements during the phase of accommodation is decisive for structuring and conditioning ensuing processes of participation in society. Well-conceived, delivered and managed institutional arrangements set asylum-seekers on an accelerated and positive course of adaptation and participation in Germany; poorly-conceived, delivered and managed institutional arrangements place asylum-seekers at great disadvantage, putting the latter in structural positions that severely impede processes of participation and prospects. Social structures of difference are in many ways created and shaped by public institutions (from official classifications, laws and rights through bureaucracies, services and procedures). Processes determining the social organization of difference (Vertovec 2009) are especially relevant for asylum-seekers, whose social positions are not only ascertained by categories of difference like nationality, gender, religion and age, but importantly by legal status as well. At present, however, we lack adequate empirical research, analyses and theory concerning the ways public institutions, such as those involved in the accommodation of asylum-seekers, create, shape and reproduce new, specific and enduring social structures of difference.

Funded by the Volkswagen-Stiftung, a pilot project at the Max-Planck-Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity has examined these issues in numerous Flüchtlingsunterkünfte (asylum-seekers’ housing centers) in Göttingen in 2016. In addition to learning a great deal about variable institutional arrangements and their capacities for addressing asylum-seekers’ needs and aspirations, preliminary findings have underlined the key role that Betreiber (facility operators) play in accommodation and integration. Indeed, the team has found that the architectural structures, spaces and infrastructures at the Betreiber’s disposal, as well as the organizational modes, management strategies, experiences and competences of Betreiber are decisive for conditioning asylum-seekers’ social positions.

The new 2 year project, also funded by the Volkswagen-Stiftung, builds on the pilot project, extends the research themes and expands its scope to three cities within the same federal state for an inter-city comparison. It asks how different actors influence the configuration of institutional arrangements, how varying institutional arrangements effect asylum seekers trajectories and key modes of social positioning that result. Our core leading questions are as follows:

In Göttingen, Hannover and Wolfsburg,

  • What accounts for similarities and differences in asylum-seekers’ housing centers,
  • What are the critical roles and outcomes of differential facility operators in managing these,
  • How do varying institutional arrangements address the needs and aspirations of asylum-seekers,
  • What social positions ensue, and what prospects do these hold for asylum-seekers?

The fact that the research is implemented in one federal state is based on the fact that the three researched cities would:

  • be subject to the same government policies, guidelines and administration at the federal state level. This is especially important, since substantial differences exist between federal states and the way they choose to accommodate asylum-seekers;
  • have the same relationship to relevant administrative networks, namely the Niedersächsischer Städte-und Gemeindebund, Landesbeauftragte für Migration und Teilhabe des Landes Niedersachsen, Landesaufnahmebehörde, and Flüchtlingsrat; and
  • receive the same financial support for accommodation and integration of asylum-seekers which otherwise varies considerably across federal states.

The choice of the new project’s research contexts – Göttingen, Wolfsburg and Hannover – is methodologically strategic: the specific characteristics of these cities, their Flüchtlingsunterkünfte, Betreiber and patterns of institutional arrangement will serve to elucidate and explain the key factors that condition and determine distinctive accommodation outcomes.

Currently very little research involves the close examination of the context and process of accommodation, when various practices, frameworks and modes of resource management structurally position asylum-seekers and stifle or set in course their integration. Our current project addresses this critical gap. Consequently, we will be better able to conceive, analyze and theorize the nature and effects of social positioning among asylum-seekers in Germany.