From Refugees to Citizens

The German town of Altena has opted strongly to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, by implementing a package of initiatives to facilitate their rapid social integration. The distinctive feature of this scheme is the prominent role played by civil society, with the support of the town council.

Fact Sheet


  • Original name: Von Flüchtlingen zu Bürgern.

  • Geographical scope: Altena (Germany).

  • Promoting organisation: Civil society, with support from the town council.

  • Target groups: The immigrant population, particularly refugees and asylum

  • Año de inicio: 2015.üchtlings-betreuung/

1. Context

Altena is an industrial town in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. After several decades of steep demographi and economic decline, in 2015 it had 18,715 inhabitants aged over 65, more than 22% of the population. Migrants accounted for 11.3% of the total, their main countries of origin being Turkey, Greece, Syria, Italy and Poland.

2. Intervention

The council saw immigration as an opportunity to revitalise the town socially and economically, so in 2015 they applied to receive 370 refugees and asylum seekers, 100 more than the mandatory quota. This propitiated the development of community initiatives to foster the rapid integration of the immigrants. The council has no formal reception plan, but it backs and encourages citizen proposals through logistic support (providing premises and personnel, taking part in management and coordination) and, to a lesser degree, financial assistance (costing basic needs of asylum seekers until their status is recognised).

This “town strategy” is summed up in the slogan From Refugees to Citizens (Von Flüchtlingen zu Bürgern), the key feature of which is early and intense support. Immigrants usually arrive at the Integration Office, an independent body where they are helped with accommodation, which is provided in the form of standard housing units rather than reception centres. From there they are directed to Stellwerk, the local volunteering agency, where they are assigned a mentor (Kümmerer), who provides information and advice on the area they need (learning the language, gaining recognition of qualifications and professional training, red tape, schooling of minors).

Lastly, immigrants are encouraged to take part in the numerous leisure and cultural activities organised by both the Integration Office and Stellwerk, some of them specifically designed to help them integrate. 

3. Results

A detailed qualitativ assessment by the OECD (2018) highlight as key factors:

  • The leading role played by civil society, which makes up for the town council’s limited financial capacity to address the reception of refugees.

  • The involvement of the town council, which remains in the background but collaborates with civil society.

  • The small size of the town and the lack of administrative complexity, which facilitate the lending of flexible, individualised support.

  • Accommodation in standard housing units.

  • The success of the German courses; the novel methodology allows rapid language learning.

In 2017 the initiative won the National Integration Prize (Nationalen Integrationspreis), and in 2019 it was recognised as best practice by the European Union.