By Michael Rothenborg, May 2016
Interviews with immigrants made it crystal clear that the German authorities had to do something about their welcome centres. Most immigrants actually found the centres unwelcoming.
“Outdated” and “medieval” were among the adjectives used to describe the heavy, drab furniture in the 10 pilot centres nationwide. Ramboll Management Consulting was hired to rethink the centre structures, which one immigrant described as dreadful. He also referred to the excruciating bureaucracy that was standard procedure at many of the centres. For example, when he entered the waiting room he had to figure out which of three numbers to take, but the instructions were only in German. He thus risked waiting for hours only to find he had taken the wrong number and would have to go out and get a new one. Even if the number was right, the paperwork was probably wrong – or some documents were missing. Immigrants in this predicament were often told to come back another day – just to start over again.
“It was very clear that the process had to be made smoother – for everyone’s sake,” says certified psychologist Christiane von Bernstorff, Senior Consultant at Ramboll’s Berlin office and responsible for the pilot projects at the 10 welcome centres in Germany.
Drawing on substantial experience
Having several hundred thousand immigrants on the move across Europe is stressful for everyone involved. Migration authorities, reception centres and the like are also under pressure, and some are buckling under the immense workload. To improve the situation, Ramboll was asked to set up smarter work routines, streamline workflows and integrate new colleagues while also treating asylum seekers respectfully and providing humane conditions. Needless to say, it was not the typical optimisation project:
“To be really successful in this kind of work we focus not only on the work processes and organisational design but also on letting employees know that keeping them healthy and motivated is a vital part of the holistic equation,” explains Christiane von Bernstorff.
To this end, Ramboll can draw on its substantial experience in the migration field – in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland and at the EU level – as well as on its core value of being a sustainable society consultant, explains Tonny Johansen, Managing Director of Ramboll Management Consulting.
“Being a sustainable society consultancy means that we take on some of the most challenging projects to help shape and better the society around us. Some projects are within liveable cities, others within school reforms, labour market conditions or social affairs – or in this case in the field of refugees and migration. This is part of our DNA and a large part of why we’re in business,” says Tonny Johansen.
Improving coordination between authorities
Since the restructuring of the 10 welcome centres, immigrants are usually met by a flesh and blood person. They are seen as clients – not burdens – and a front office desk helps them identify the right papers. The signs now appear in several languages. In fact, immigrants can often make an appointment and thus avoid hours of waiting. If, however, they do have to wait, the furniture is light and brightly coloured, there are brochures and magazines to read and often even a play corner where children can pass the time. The project also entailed improving coordination between various local authorities.
“Before the restructuring there was a lot of stumbling around, if, for example, an immigrant family wanted to put their child in kindergarten. They didn’t know where to go. Now the welcome centre can tell them and give them a brochure with all the information they need in one place,” explains Christiane von Bernstorff.
The project has also identified the most problematic grey areas in the legislation. Grey areas with their complex wording are open to interpretation and can thus lead to unequal treatment.
“But if you have more systematic workshops about the legislation, you narrow the grey areas and have more equality before the law,” says Christiane Von Bernstorff.
The results from the pilot projects were sent as a toolbox to all 600 welcome centres in the autumn of 2015. In a survey just before Christmas, around 50% of the 230 authorities interviewed expressed an interest in working with the toolbox.
The central authority, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, subsidises the initiatives if local authorities need help restructuring. Not only in terms of money but also in terms of moral support.
Other immigrant projects
• In recent years, Ramboll has additionally taken on immigration projects in Finland and Sweden.
• In Finland Ramboll is currently involved in expediting the process of providing public employment services to asylum seekers who get residence permits. Effective public employment services help ensure that newcomers acquire the language and work skills they need to enter the labour market, thus fostering more effective integration. Ramboll also provides the Finnish Ministry of Employment and the Economy with process know-how.
• In Sweden the Swedish Migration Agency hired Ramboll to assist with the lengthy waiting times involved in residence permit decisions, a problem that it faced in 2014. The overall objective was to map and analyse the asylum-seeking process from the time an application for asylum was submitted until the decision to grant a residence permit or repatriate the applicant was made. Ramboll also assisted the agency with interviewing asylum seekers living in asylum camps
• Ramboll has also worked for the Danish Ministry of Children, Gender Equality, Integration and Social Affairs and handled several projects for the EU Commission.