The primary goal of the Initiative for Human Dignity (Initiativkreis Menschenwürdig – IKMW) is to support asylum seekers in Leipzig by lobbying for small scale, decentralised accommodation in the city. The main claim of the initiative is that procedures and accommodation options for refugees, as they were provided in the last years, lack a certain degree of human dignity. This primary goal is accompanied by general goals, e.g. to foster an open and tolerant climate in the city towards refugees and support better relations between asylum seekers and the resident population (in terms of social cohesion). The IKMW, a network of private persons and civic actors, is working pro- and reactive on democratic deliberation and social cohesion and has been honoured with the Saxon Democracy Award in November 2012.
The initiative exists since 2012 and thus is a rather new governance arrangement. It is not institutionalised; forming an association would be an option, but is not envisioned. It was founded in reaction to the city-wide debate on decentralised accommodation concepts for asylum-seekers in Leipzig when a number of protests and racist arguments emerged in public and neighbourhood-wide debates, especially declining accommodation for refugees in one’s backyard. One of our interviewees stated that “it was the first time racism became loud out of the middle of society with a concrete addressee” (L6). Thus, the target audience is threefold: a direct target group is asylum seekers, a secondary target group is Leipzig’s urban society, and a third group is established institutions. The first action undertaken was working out a petition and collecting signatures to support the concept of decentralised accommodation in order to avoid further large-scale accommodation. The second action was the edition of a flyer with information about the accommodation of asylum seekers in Leipzig and a collection of arguments against right-wing positions. Additionally, a series of events titled For a Good Neighbourhood (Auf gute Nachbarschaft) was organised in areas of Leipzig where asylum seekers were to be accommodated. This diversity of activities is seen by the interviewees as one of the advantages of the arrangement, especially with respect to the effect on the district population.
Today, around 30 volunteers are active in specialised working groups, e.g. on debate and communication, the concept of decentralised accommodation itself and public relations support. The resources of the IKMW are the social and cultural capital of engaged participants, a permanent budget or funding does not exist. The event series mentioned above was financed by the city of Leipzig (within the framework of federally financed Local Action Plans, a budgeting scheme for small projects). The Saxon Democracy Award was endowed with the sum of €7,000 which was then spent on mobile counselling and advice for asylum seekers.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The core values which frame the IKMW’s work are humanity, dignity and tolerance. They focus on a specific group, asylum seekers, who are seen as deprived of these values. In focusing on this group, their work aims to impact the management or experience of diversity of the city’s municipality and residents. The understanding of diversity by the interviewees we talked to can perhaps be illustrated by their statement that Leipzig is seen as “white, German, heteronormative, and provincial” (L7). The initiative is also critical to using diversity categories because they implicitly describe people as differing from something, a norm, or the majority society. So, hyper-diversity including ethnic and gender diversity, seems a normative of the initiative, but judging Leipzig’s reality, the interviewee concludes:
“To be honest, I don’t see much diversity in Leipzig. … It is a myth of Leipzig’s identity to be the cosmopolitan, tolerant city of the peaceful revolution. Apart from being tolerant towards the artists’ milieu and alternative lifestyles, not much diversity and tolerance exists” (L7).
The notion of diversity being a potential is criticized for being exploited for goals and values beyond tolerance and dignity. Especially the utilization of diversity for economic goals is seen as problematic since it leads to a differentiation between wanted and unwanted diversity. The interviewee stated: “Why do we need to count the value of diversity? I do not want to think like that. Human beings are to be respected in their rights” (L7).
Main factors influencing success or failure
The IKMW has ambitious goals and the two interviewees were quite critical in their views of their own work and its impact. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that they talked more about problems and challenges than about success. From an external perspective, we would say that IKMW managed to impact the political and public debate on decentralized accommodation of refugees. The initiative was also successful in “setting limits to what is say able” (L7), i.e. expressions of open, clear racism that decreased within the last months. This was confirmed by a member of the municipal administration working with IKMW. Compared to the activities in 2012, today, IKMW is more sensitive on how to communicate with the district population. Furthermore, the cooperation with some departments in the administration improved and mutual respect and trust have developed. This guarantees that the city can call for immediate support when implementing the concept in other districts. In return, IKMW receives support, e.g. when applying for funding.
Many of the ideas for action experience obstacles, a lack of resources being one of them, e.g. appropriate space for an exhibition. Other obstacles are less tangible: the participation in a district festivity was declined by the organisers because political issues were not regarded appropriate. Support for IKMW, however, came from the mayor of Leipzig, who, for instance, invited them to the Round Table Asylum. The activities of the IKMW are depending on the support of one specific representative in the administration (working at the Centre for Democratic Education). Thus, the initiative is resource-wise dependent on this municipal department and other actors.
Integrating the target group, i.e. the asylum seekers, into the work of the initiative was described as a problem. On the one hand, they cooperated in manifestations, e.g. collection of signatures, or gave interviews to mass media. On the other hand, they rarely gave feedback to the work of the IKMW; also, the lack of appropriate space for meeting was hindering the work. The interviewees also reflected on the issue that for many asylum seekers in Leipzig, there are more urgent problems than the type and size of accommodation, even if many are not happy with the mass accommodations they live in. Other reasons of non-participation were seen in the fear if having disadvantages for the own asylum procedure when one takes part in protests. The language barrier was identified as the most basic obstacle that caused a limited presence of asylum seekers when the initiative organized information events in the accommodations. The interviewees acknowledged that it takes much time and continuity to really get close to one another. It also often occurs that asylum seekers wanted something else than political work: “Some of them just wanted to go to the disco and not discuss political issues” (L7). The fact that there is poor or even no cooperation with other important actors of Leipzig’s migrant scene such as the Commissioner for Migrants of the municipality, the Migrants’ Advisory Board or the Refugee Council was also seen as a problem that hinders the initiative’s success.
The reasons for the previously mentioned problems are seen in a mismatch of interests of the initiative and the target group. This is especially true when looking at the interests of the initiative (political work, constructive criticism of municipal policies, knowledge-building, fight against racism) and the target group (security, recognition of asylum desire). With respect to the cooperation with the municipality, the initiative mentioned a lack of interest in their work by many representatives of the administration with a few exceptions. With respect to non-cooperation with other associations dealing with refugees’ issues, the IKMW claimed e.g. another refugee association to act too paternalistic and to act more as a support organization for the municipality than doing lobbying for the refugee or that there is a general lack of willingness to deal with critical issues.
The initiative is innovative in its distinct approach. IKMW has an open, not exploited idea of a tolerant and diverse society and therefore – instead of just providing assistance and counselling – it actively disputes with the standards of human dignity and the threats of racism. It explicitly addresses the contradictions between the city’s reality in dealing with asylum seekers and its self-promotion as a tolerant and cosmopolitan city (see Grossmann et al. 2014). With respect to the future, IKMW sees first and foremost a demand for exchange of opinions and opinion-building. They see a lack of exchange between the municipality and the urban society with respect to critical issues such as the accommodation of refugees. Nevertheless, the IKMW is vulnerable due to a lack of resources and low level of institutionalisation; it is dependent on resources from other initiatives, associations, and institutions as well as on their cooperation. Due to this, the consolidation of the arrangement remains a challenge and it is not certain whether the work can continue. A conceptualised approach can only be followed if there is enough time and resources to set targets and identify appropriate strategies.