Refuge cities The ‘square city’ has long been a pioneer in its approach to welcoming migrants – but now Mannheim is attracting criticism for the ‘ghetto’ character of its giant refugee camp, as Germany agonises over how to integrate

When the foreigners arrived at the central station, they were met by crowds of cheering Germans. Brass bands played cheerful tunes; the greeting committee carried flowers and gifts. For the young men on the trains, it was the first glimpse of a country which promised wealth and stability unheard of in the countries they had left behind.

These scenes were recorded not in September 2015 but in the 1960s, when “guest workers” from Greece, Italy, Turkey and Yugoslavia arrived in Mannheim and other cities in Germany’s wealthy south-west, after the country had signed a series of recruitment agreements with southern European countries in order to meet the labour demands of its booming economy.

Fifty years later, Mannheim is once again what British-Canadian journalist Doug Saunders has called an “arrival city”. Since its central station was designated a so-called refugee “turnstile” last September, more than 80,000 refugees have arrived in around 150 special trains via the Balkan route. The majority were distributed to surrounding regions, but around 12,000 were temporarily sheltered in Mannheim, a city of around 290,000 people – making it one of the highest per-head ratios among Germany’s larger cities.

Few in Germany might expect Mannheim to be well-equipped to cope with this challenge. In contrast with nearby Heidelberg, a picturesque 14th-century university town, it is often perceived as lacking the ability to inspire. Whereas ancient castles and forest paths grace the banks of the Neckar in Heidelberg, Mannheim lines the same river with heavy industry and an awkward trio of 1960s high-rises. In the region, Mannheim is commonly known as the “square city”, after its prosaic, New York-style grid plan. Few outside its borders know the city is also home to the second-biggest baroque castle in Europe, after Versailles.

Yet many people in Mannheim believe they are in a better position to cope with the long-term consequences of the refugee crisis than bigger cities such as Berlin, Hamburg or Munich.

“After Germany stopped recruiting foreign workers in 1973, Mannheim was one of the first cities to realise the ‘guests’ wouldn’t automatically leave when the native population wanted them to – so we did something about it,” says Claus Preissler, the city’s commissioner for integration and migration. “Germany is still suffering from realising far too late that it is a country that people migrate to.”

A demonstration in support of refugees in Mannheim, January 2015.

A demonstration in support of refugees in Mannheim, January 2015. Photograph: Uwe Anspach/EPA/Corbis

The city created Preissler’s role in 1974, more than 30 years before central government followed suit. His job is to empower members of minority communities to become active citizens in a city in which 44% of the populationhas a migrant background – the highest rate of bigger German cities after Frankfurt. With nine out of 10 kids at some of Mannheim’s schools coming from households where German isn’t the first language, education remains a priority.

Mannheim authorities feel they have decades of experience not just when it comes to helping qualified newcomers access the workplace, but also community relations. On a day-to-day basis, Preissler zips around town meeting senior members of its hundreds of community groups, bringing them together at the same table.

After a series of anti-Israel protests at the height of the second intifada in 2005, the city’s Jewish community accused the Muslim community of having organised the demonstration. Out of the argument came a dialogue, and a document: the “Mannheim declaration for tolerance”, signed by members of both groups.

Yet the scale of the current challenge is beyond what the city has seen before. In July last year, the state asked the council to find space for 600 refugees. By September, that figure had risen to 12,000.

Benjamin Franklin Village, once the US Army’s biggest barracks in Germany, hosts the majority of Mannheim’s refugees.

Benjamin Franklin Village, once the US Army’s biggest barracks in Germany, hosts the majority of Mannheim’s refugees. Photograph: © 2016 Stadt Mannheim

At short notice, the state laid claim to the three former US army barracks that make up a fifth of the total city area. The “Benjamin Franklin Village”, a 144-acre area that had lain vacant since 2010, had been due to be sold to a group of local investors and converted into modern living quarters. Now the US Army’s biggest barracks in Germany had to act as a spillover site for refugees who couldn’t be sheltered elsewhere.

Since the closure of the Balkan route earlier this year, the number of refugees arriving in Mannheim has dropped considerably. At the start of April, the number of people living in the barracks was down to 2,500. But Preissler questions whether that solves the problem: “Most of the refugees will leave Mannheim again after three months, but we expect some of them will come back – partly because they will have made personal connections; partly because they have spotted work opportunities. This is the big dilemma of this crisis: the state wants to distribute refugees evenly across the country, but most refugees want to move to the cities.”

The advantage of Mannheim’s unusual set-up is also, to an extent, a disadvantage. On the one hand, the barracks provide far safer and sturdier accommodation for refugees than the makeshift tent cities and container clusters that have sprung up in Hamburg or Berlin. The Benjamin Franklin compound contains a football pitch, basketball courts, several playgrounds, even a small Turkish-run supermarket selling halal food. On a sunny spring afternoon, families amble down the central boulevard; children rollerskate and do wheelies on their bicycles. The only major refurbishments the authorities have had to make was to fit each housing block with a fire escape.

But on the other hand, the barracks are also what Mannheim’s refugee coordinator Daphne Hadjiandreou-Boll calls “a city within a city” – deliberately designed to seal off its original occupiers from the local population. The US army built their own hospitals, power grid and water supply for fear that the local population might turn against them. What Hadjiandreou-Boll calls the camp’s “ghetto character” risks creating a parallel society which directly undermines the city’s integration drive.

A German lesson for refugees living in Mannheim.

A German lesson for refugees living in Mannheim. Photograph: German Red Cross

It is not only urban planners who feel that the Cologne attacks on New Year’s Evehave highlighted the risks of housing refugees in already segregated communities. In cities such as Hamburg, locals have organised so-called“FAIRteilung” protest marches with the motto: “Fair distribution instead of ghettos”. Progressive Mannheim now risks finding itself on the other side of the national debate over refugee integration.

Some of its camps have seen clashes between refugees and police after Arab men complained the authorities were interfering with their family affairs. “In Germany, we have high expectations in our cities,” Hadjiandreou-Boll says. “If there isn’t a kindergarten in the area, someone will go to the town hall and complain. People from Arab states tend to be more distrustful [of authorities].”

In January, 70 inhabitants at Benjamin Franklin Village wrote an open letter to Mannheim’s mayor, complaining of poor medical supplies and racism among the security staff. Last September, a group of six teenaged refugees smashed up furniture in one of the camps and vandalised cars in the city centre. Reports of a girl being raped by a Syrian in the inner city turned out to be untrue, however, as did a story about a Lidl closing on Saturdays for fear of being overrun by shoplifters.

Since then, the number of negative news stories has died down, but the city’s character has not been left untouched. At the state parliament elections in mid-March, anti-refugee party Alternative für Deutschland gained 23% in Mannheim’s working-class north – enough to gain the party a seat in the state parliament, and a warning shot for the city council, which has been a social democrat stronghold since the end of the second world war.

“There is a critical mass of how many people you can integrate into a city. If there is another big wave of immigration, there will be a point at which we cannot cope,” says integration commissioner Preissler. “But I am confident that we as a city can shape the coexistence of different cultures we have here now.”

“We have to bring the city into the camps,” says refugee coordinator Hadjiandreou-Boll. “When you have a mixed cultural environment with no strong, overarching national identity, then the city has to step up to the plate and set the rules.”

Their hope is, the square city can serve as an inspiration after all.