Syrian flag and Arabic food in shrinking regions of Rhineland-Palatine

2 October 2020

Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske

During the first explorations of the German research regions, we visited a number of small towns situated in the district Mayen-Koblenz. This area between the Rhine and Moselle is characterized by the different landscapes along and above the two rivers. The villages of the municipality of ´Maifelt´ are characterized by agricultural use and wideness, while the villages along the Moselle (´Rhine-Moselle´ municipality) are characterized by wine growing on rocky, steep locations. The latter has a long tradition in wine tourism. In both municipalities together ca. 51,600 people, thereof about 3,200 migrants, i.e. people without German citizenship.

Photograph of the map ‘Oberes Mittelrheintal’, Landesambt für Vermessung Rheinland Pfalz

From 2015 onwards, civil society actors together with the local and regional governments have supported migrants during the first phase of arrival in several villages. During our visit of Rhine-Moselle and Maifeld, we went in search of visible signs of migrant presence and activities and tried to get into conversation with people on the street and in pubs. In a small town called ´Lonning´ (see map above), we unexpectedly came across a Syrian flag that was attached to one of the houses.

Syrian Flag in Lonning
Picture: Sabine Meier

Photographing this flag attracted the attention of a man on the street. We asked him if this flag meant that people from Syria live in this house. The man laughed and denied. He told us that this flag was hoisted by a young athlete because of a certain sportive event. However, he said, in Lonning people from Syria and Afghanistan are living. In total, he guesses that about 30 asylum seekers have arrived since 2015 and some of them have remained until today. The local government of Maifeld has rented a small number of apartments in the village to accommodate them.

Since 2015, he himself has been accompanying a number of asylum seekers together with other volunteers. “Last year we drove about 7000 km more than usual. This is due to the extra trips we made for our refugees to the hospital, school, authorities, etc.”, he laughed. “Especially the families have stayed. In addition, most of the men have succeeded in finding a job, for example at a logistics company in the village Polch or at the post office in Koblenz”. He also said that in his opinion it was necessary that refugees, regardless of their residence status, should be allowed to work. “Only then, they are able to permanently participate in social life and could give their lives a new meaning, after they had often experienced terrible things. A young man, I accompanied for a long time, started drinking. Furthermore, it is a fact that especially the women are poorly educated, have difficulties to learn the German language and with it, had difficulties to find a job – especially when they have got young children”. 

© Sabine Meier: Syrian restaurant which advertises with “Arabic Food” in Winningen, district Rhine-Moselle

Further signs of the presence of migrants were found in the villages along the river Moselle. These places have a long tourist tradition. Today, the region advertises itself with its terraced and rocky vineyards, young and innovative winegrowing families, numerous wine taverns and newly established bicycle networks with good connections to train lines. Thus, the region more and more profiled itself as an ´ecotouristic´ region. Besides the traditional taverns with German cuisine, there are migrants who take over old-established restaurants, for example in the village Hatzenport. In the idyllic village Winningen a Syrian family opened the Syriena restaurant, at the beginning of 2020. Further internet research shows that they are not the only ones in this region. Syrian immigrants have also opened restaurants in Koblenz and in the small town of Andernach.[2]

Based on these initial observations, our research project ‘welcoming spaces’ is e.g. concerned with questions like: which resources migrants draw on to emplace and establish themselves as neighbours, entrepreneurs, employees, political actors, home owners or volunteers. Which actors support them in this process? How do they generate financial resources? What role do local government actors, regional integration programs or economic development programs play? In this way, we want to underline and discuss their role as ´city makers´ in European shrinking regions.


Living conditions of non-EU migrants residing in Germany during the Covid-19 pandemic

2 June 2020

Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske (University of Siegen)

In Germany, 19.3 million people (of the 83.1 million inhabitants in total) has a so-called ´migration background´ while 10.1 million people do not have German nationality. 57 percent of the population without German nationality are non-EU migrants. The measures taken against the spread of the Covid-19 virus highlight social inequality between a number of non-EU migrants and those who are established regarding their secure employment relationships, housing situation and social inclusion in local networks.

As regards the employment situation during the pandemic, according to the figures of the ´Immigration Monitor´, published in May 2020 by the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB), the number of unemployed among people with foreign passports rose four times as strongly in March and April 2020 as among those with a German nationality. A further analysis shows that people who flee from war and crisis countries are most affected by job losses during the pandemic. While unemployment among migrants with an EU passport increased by 0.9 percent, it rose by 5.1 percent among people from war and crisis countries. This is because the largest share of jobs of non-EU migrants is temporary work. If marginal employment is added, the main sectors in which they work is catering and restaurants, trade, maintenance, repair or cleaning sector, domestic work and seasonal harvest help.

With respect to the housing situation, many non-EU migrants have been able to move into independent apartments over the last years while some still rely on collective accommodations. These accommodations are often located in converted schools, hotels or military barracks, where approx. 50 to 400 people live in private rooms with shared kitchens and sanitary facilities. In particular in shrinking regions, collective accommodations are often located in some miles distance to city centers. Since a few weeks, the daily press regularly reports about collective accommodations in shrinking areas, where the migrants are not only are exposed to an increased health risk. In addition, bus lines to remote collective accommodation have been discontinued. As a result, they are unable to reach a supermarket or other services with public transport. Besides complaints and hunger strikes by the migrants themselves a number of German refugee councils and also students of the Fridays-for-Future movement have repeatedly drawn attention to the conditions through protest actions.

In relation to social inclusion in local networks and communities, especially in shrinking regions, non-EU migrants depend on voluntary help because of the absence of old established migrant organizations. By the ´volunteers-government-migrants´ co-production, for instance, housing maintenance and regular visits has been combined with mutual assistance of all kinds, translations during doctor’s visits and visits to authorities or finding solutions together to overcome administrative hurdles.

Photo of apartments of non-EU migrants in a rural area in Germany

Moreover, a number of migrants organize themselves in sport or other leisure clubs. Both, everyday social interactions between volunteers and migrants as well as the participation in clubs and associations, were restricted during the pandemic. In addition to this restriction, right-wing groups use the pandemic not only to defame the government as a scapegoat, but also the newcomers. They blame the newcomers either to be the “carrier” of the virus or being part of a militant group, that wants to take over – with the German government – the Germans. These groups use the current crisis to spread their conspiracy theories and to stir up hatred against newcomers. Therefore, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution considers a high risk of right-winged attacks on refugees and newcomers. They also consider radicalized loners as dangerous. Therefore, a number of migrants became not only isolated and lonely, but got mental problems in particular reinforced by the pandemic.

Besides these negative impacts, there are few initiatives developed to improve migrants´ living conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. With respect to the employment situation, e.g. the federal state Schleswig-Holstein has simplified the rules in order to allow newcomers to take up jobs as harvest workers. The refugee council of Schleswig-Holstein endorses this development in the first instance but warned against suddenly discovering asylum seekers as cheap labor in the crisis: To grant them rights now, but which they would quickly lose again when the crisis ended. Addionally, the Federation of German Trade Unions demand for more offers for (further) qualification, training, recognition of qualifications acquired abroad, demand-oriented career guidance and labour market placement in general to improve the access to regular work for (non-EU) migrants.

In addition to these demands, volunteers and migrants themselves organize to support migrants by searching for new ideas and engagements by the blog “GoVoluneer”. With this blogs people were informed about living conditions of migrants and concrete advice is given how to support migrants and other social groups in weak social positions. This publicly available website shows some examples: