skip to content

The socio-spatial integration of refugees

The Cologne Refugee Projects

With the rising number of refugees seeking asylum in Europe, states and cities in European countries faced severe challenges of at least providing shelter. The reactions of European countries to this situation was and still is very different – with some countries such as Sweden taking a proportionally high number of refugees (relative to their population) and others taking in very few, both in relative and absolute figures, such as Hungary. Germany has accepted the largest number of refugees, almost one million alone in the peak year 2015.


As in other countries, this influx has created enormous problems for the local communes. First, they had to provide shelter in a very short period, often in school support rooms or former shopping facilities. To meet the demand, facilities were spread all over the city, irrespective of the social status of the neighborhood. Consequently, this created protest from the residents of the neighborhood, in several cases they went to court. And, as already an older study from Dutch cities has shown, residents were against large facilities with 500 or more refugees, but – if at all – in favor of facilities with 100 refugees (Lubbers et al. 2006).

Provision of shelter is only the first phase of the multitude of problems. To integrate the refugees – if they were granted asylum – better housing and eventually dwellings have to be provided. Furthermore, a series of integration measures is required and has to be offered, such as German language courses, separate school classes for refugee children (“Preparatory Integration Classes”) had to be created, efforts to qualify refugees between 18 and 25, examinations of the qualifications of refugees in order to specify, how their qualifications could be upgraded to meet German job market demands. To cope with these tasks, an entire new or expanded tertiary job market for teachers, social workers and administrative personnel evolved.

Our research pertains to these dimensions and steps of the integration process. Among the questions we wish to answer are:

- How did the administrative structure evolve to cope with the influx of refugees in a city?
- Are refugees perceived as an economic and cultural threat?
- To which extent are attitudes towards refugees confounded with attitudes towards Muslims or Islam?
- How do residents react towards the refugee facility in their neighborhood? Do these attitudes vary by socio-demographic variables, housing status and employment status?
- Do contacts occur and lead to a reduction of prejudice?
- Can we identify successful and less successful “integration careers”? Which are the major favorable and restricting conditions responsible for the (different) careers?


A crucial problem is to determine to which extent we can apply theories of integration (or assimilation), based on voluntary migration to the conditions of refugees seeking political asylum. Prior migrants, like guest workers, repatriates from Russia and Romania or Jews from Russia, received some financial support, but were free to move in Germany. In contrast, refugees are allocated to a refugee facility, have to stay in the city up to three years, depending on their asylum status and country of origin, are restricted in the right to take a job, and have to wait until their application for asylum has been decided. This can take up to one year. During this period, the refugee (household) is almost completely dependent upon external resources, such as local administrative institutions, state financial support, and some voluntary associations. These conditions, therefore, may limit a straightforward application of migration theories to refugees.

We draw upon the four dimensions of integration specified by Esser (1980, 2000, 2009), on the theory of segmented assimilation for the socio-spatial outcomes (e.g., Portes and Zhou 1993, Zhou 1997, Portes and Rumbaut 2001), and, to account for opposition to refugee facilities in higher status neighborhoods, on the theory of place stratification (Alba und Logan 1993, South, Crowder and Pais 2008). Finally, to analyze the extent of discrimination of refugees, which are predominantly muslims, we use propositions from Blalock’s theory of ethnic threat (Blalock 1967, 1982) and conflict and contact theory (Allport 1954, 1971, Blumer 1958, Pettigrew 1998, Pettigrew and Tropp 2006, 2011, Quillian 1995).

Study Design

To investigate the complex process and its problems, the design of the study consists of three different modules:
First, we gather information from a series of experts conducting guided interviews . Among those experts are officials from the city’s administration, from volunteer organizations, the local Jobcenter, Commerce Association, school teachers and welfare organizations, housing associations, and others. – All experts will be interviewed twice: in 2016 and 2017/18.
Second, we conduct a survey of residents in a neighborhood with a refugee facility with a standardized questionnaire and face-to-face-interviews. We use probability samples drawn from the population register; the aim is 400 interviews per neighborhood. The respondents will as well be interviewed twice, the second survey will be a postal survey.
Third, we interview refugees in the respective facility by a semi-structured questionnaire. We will try to follow these refugees over a period of 12-16 month.
We study two neighborhoods in Hamburg, two in Cologne and two in Mülheim an der Ruhr.
The Project extends over a period of two years. It is financed by three different foundations: Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, Kurt-Körber-Stiftung, and FGW (Department of Labor and Integration of the Land Northrhine-Westfalia).


We completed the expert interviews and neighbor survey in Hamburg-Harvestehude; reports (in German) are available.
We are presently conducting expert interviews in Mülheim and cologne, neighbor surveys in two neighbourhoods both in Mülheim and Cologne and in the second neighbourhood in Hamburg.
The regular interviews with the refugees are ongoing in Hamburg and in Mülheim. In Cologne we will start the interviews in May.


Prof. Dr. Jürgen Friedrichs, Felix Leßke, M.A. and Vera Schwarzenberg, M.A.
University of Cologne, Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology, Greinstr. 2, D-50939 Cologne, Germany. Direct all correspondence to