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Religious Diversity and Practice in German Refugee Camps

March 02, 2017 • Religious Diversity and Practice in German Refugee Camps

Refugee Immigration and Religious Pluralization

In early 2017, the world held its breath as US president Donald Trump announced what became known as the #muslimban, an executive order which denied immigration to (Muslim) refugees from Syria and citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries. The year before, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis, two European countries, Slovakia and Hungary, had been deadly serious about not letting Muslim refugees in, pointing to both their own Christian heritage and the lack of preexisting religious infrastructure for Muslims.  

At the same time, Germany received more than a million refugees. Since 2014, the Syrians among them have been forming the largest group of asylum seekers ever. How does this affect the composition of the German religious landscape? 

The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees collects data on the religious affiliation of asylum seekers. The following diagram shows the development during the last five years:


Four points can be highlighted: First, in the previous years, a clear majority of asylum seekers were Muslims, mainly from the Middle East and the Balkans. Second, from 2011 to 2015, the share of Muslims increased from 57 to 73 per cent. Third, the high proportion of Muslim immigrants marks a change in the religious immigration profile of Germany. Even though there is a history of recruitment contracts with Muslim countries, such as Turkey or Morocco, many of the labor migrants after World War II were Christian (mostly Roman Catholic). Fourth, the relative decline of Christian and Yezidi asylum seekers is due to the high absolute numbers of Syrian applicants since 2014 and hence should not be interpreted as a general trend. The overall numbers of Yezidi and Christian refugees have, in fact, roughly remained the same.

In effect, refugee immigration contributes to a further diversification of the German religious field. Yet in order to understand what that actually means, we need to look at refugee camps as places where religious diversity literally ‘takes place’.

Refugee Camps as Sites of Religious and Cultural Diversity

In our study on religious diversity and practice in refugee camps, we sought to understand the cognitive maps of the on-site coordinators and social workers and how these maps translate into measures of religious restriction or enhancement. Three aspects should be mentioned: 

Religious neutrality: All refugee camps in our sample employed a strict policy of religious neutrality, which means that the practice of religion is not actively supported, e.g. through a prayer room, and that collective ritual exercise, such as the Friday prayer, is not accepted. At the same time, all camps acknowledged (Muslim) dietary rules and avoided offering pork meat. During Ramadan, some refugee camps offered extra dishes in the evening. In many cases, Christmas was regarded as a part of cultural heritage rather than a religious holiday. Hence, many camps would put up a Christmas tree and participate in initiatives to give presents to refugee children. 

Biased cooperation: While most of the refugee camps would not allow for collective religious practice on their own premises, the social workers referred refugees to religious communities close to the camp. In order to prevent radicalization, some social workers made use of information offered by state security about ‘problematic’ groups. Moreover, almost all camps relied on volunteers from Christian congregations (both mainline and evangelical) who offered language courses and extracurricular activities, and who distributed clothing and other useful things. At the same time, many camps turned out to be very reluctant to collaborate with Muslim communities, pointing to singular incidents of Salafi proselytization and stating that they could not tell the “good” Muslims from the “bad”.

Map and territory: Although police officials and the Christian Social Union had argued for a spatial separation of Christian and Muslim refugees to prevent interreligious conflicts, most camps do not organize housing on religious grounds. However, it is quite common to separate refugees along cultural and linguistic lines. This practice is often grounded in culturalist stereotypes, e.g. “the Iraqis” are not getting along well with “the Syrians”. Here it is important to note that the residence time in refugee camps is rather short and most refugees move to what is called ‘decentral housing’ in administrative German as soon as their application for asylum has been granted. This is where the actual integration process is supposed to take place.

Outlook: From Emergency to Integration

While it has become fashionable for populists to scandalize the “anomic” effects of refuge immigration (for a recent example, see #LastNightInSweden), it should not be downplayed that the integration of a million refugees into Germany will require the combined efforts of all actors involved. The challenge right now is to proceed from emergency mode to targeted measures of accommodation. Religious migrant communities, and in particular mosque associations, might have a special role to play when it comes to social integration. In fact, there are many hopeful signs that Muslims in Germany have accepted this challenge and embraced refugee support as a litmus test to show their full civic potential.Since 2015 mosque communities have provided emergency support for refugees, e.g. medical aid, donations of food and clothing, and administrative assistance. In 2016 the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in collaboration with a number of Muslim umbrella associations has launched the project “Mosques support Refugees” to facilitate the work of Muslim volunteers.


Image: Syrian refugees Mohammad Amin, Jarkas Anas, Sharif Baraa pray in a German mosque. Attribution here