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From refugee to citizen – Altena, Germany's approach to refugee integration


Altena, Germany



Under the theme ‘From refugee to citizen’, the city of Altena, Germany has taken a whole-of-society approach to refugee integration, with civil society (rather than government administration) serving as the main actor. The city has supported civil society in implementing initiatives in a range of areas, including housing support, mentoring, language learning and labour market integration.


Areas of integration covered by practice

  • Integration of migrants in the education system
  • Integration of migrants in the labour market
  • Access of migrants to health services and housing
  • Integration of migrants in political and civic local life


Background and purpose

The city of Altena, Germany wishes to promote the transition of newcomers to becoming permanent citizens of the community. The city’s goal is to integrate people as fast as possible into society, with a focus on learning the German language, building social networks and establishing social support systems.



The practices were developed in response to higher refugee arrivals. The initiatives started to be implemented in 2014 and are still continuing.


How does it work?

Altena has implemented numerous initiatives that help promote the integration of newcomers into the community. Altena’s approach involves the entire population in integration. Civil society plays a key role; they are the main actor and are supported by the administration. The basis for success is the community’s opening up to newcomers and being part of the integration process through the investment of its time and resources.

Projects and programmes are not only implemented for, but also with, refugees. They actively participate and take responsibility for integration. In this way, they also give back to the community.

Several activities are implemented by, or with the help of, Stellwerk, a local volunteer agency that is supported by the city council. Stellwerk allows the city to reach a network of volunteers who are also in close contact with other local organisations, such as churches and the fire brigade.

Housing and voluntary mentors

Refugees in Altena live in different parts of the city, which helps prevent residential segregation. There are no refugee shelters in Altena; refugees live in ordinary residential accommodations. Each residential unit or family has a voluntary mentor, called a Kümmerer. They are contact persons who can help refugees get in touch with the neighbourhood, help solve everyday problems, accompany refugees on visits to administrative offices and organise leisure activities. They also have a special role as ambassadors, showing a real picture of refugees to family members and friends.

Basic needs

The city helps to collect clothes and other necessary items to give to people in need, including refugees or asylum seekers who lost their personal belongings while fleeing violence.

Orientation courses

To help newcomers get to know daily life in Germany, Stellwerk offers courses about topics like the use of public transportation, relevant laws and administrative procedures. These courses help to reduce insecurity and explain social expectations to facilitate coexistence in Germany. Altena tries to sensitise women and girls towards the rights they have under German law. Stellwerk offers female-only meetings where they can talk about problems and their legal situations.

Children and education

Altena and Stellwerk pay special attention to refugee children, who are often traumatised and require careful treatment and child-friendly facilities. Children and young people are integrated into society by visiting a kindergarten or school and social associations. Parents get help with school registrations and information about the educational system. Children often develop language skills quickly and therefore integrate into the German education and training system.

German language classes

Established by former educators, German classes are offered on a voluntary basis. Newcomers can attend these language and literacy courses from their first day in Altena, and the courses are independent of asylum procedures. Besides language learning, the courses create a basis for completing the official national integration courses. Altena uses a new method, the Liechtensteiner Modell, to promote language skills and was the second European city to offer language courses based on this method.

Labour market

Through language classes and improved language skills, adults can get better access to the labour market. Kümmerers (voluntary mentors) are also important contacts for access to the labour market, helping companies and refugees connect with each other. Companies and enterprises may offer vocational orientations and internships, identify existing qualifications and teach new knowledge. In some cases, they might offer permanent employment.

Café International

To counter social isolation, a monthly ‘Café International‘ was established. This is a place for refugees, volunteers and curious people to meet each other. In addition to a communal meal, celebrations and other activities, it offers a space for cultural exchange and togetherness.


Results and evaluation

Thanks to Altena’s ‘whole of society’ approach, the city was able to take in an additional 100 refugees in October 2015 (above its already allocated number).

German language classes

The classes started with four teachers, increasing to 14 teachers because of high interest. The results of the Liechtensteiner Modell for language learning can already be seen at the local level, where newcomers from different linguistic backgrounds are able to communicate in German.


Altena’s approach has been praised in media reports and is often noted as a best practice and model for other European cities. In April 2016 the mayor of Altena was invited by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) to participate in a conference of the Economic and Social Council of Greece to share Altena’s experiences and approach.

The positive attitude of Altena’s citizens towards refugees and their openness to people of different cultures has received attention in Germany and other countries. The Minister of Housing of North Rhine-Westphalia called the city a ‘Hauptstadt der Mutbürger’, which may be translated as ‘capital of courageous citizens’.

Impact on municipality

Altena also sees an opportunity for local development by receiving refugees. Their arrival has reduced vacancies in the housing stock and allowed vacated jobs to be filled. Refugees not only enrich the local culture and society, but they also bring an advantage for the city’s economy and demography. Following years of declining population in Altena, the population of the city increased by 100 inhabitants in 2015 and signs of rejuvenation could be seen.



Funding comes from national authorities, the budget of the municipality and individual and company donations.



City of Altena


Further information

Altena’s efforts have been the subject of numerous media reports. The city was also featured in the OECD series Working Together for Local Integration of Migrants and Refugees.


Municipality of Altena

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