Berlin, refugees welcome
Berlin, refugees welcome - ©Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr:

A Communication Strategy for refugees and migrants

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City Government, Community / Citizen Group

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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Ongoing since 2020

A multi-lingual podcast providing official COVID-19 information.

Since 2015, almost 100.000 refugees have been welcomed in Berlin. The Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs is responsible for their registration, health care, social benefits and accommodation. Currently 20,000 refugees live in 85 shelters that are continually being improved. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges, safety regulations had to be implemented in the shelters and social distancing rules made digital communication necessary. The COVID-19 communication strategy for refugees and migrants had to address cultural, language and education barriers to gain their cooperation in complying with safety regulations and quarantine measures. The concept of producing a digital audio podcast in the 14 different languages spoken by the residents in the refugee shelters was agreed upon to achieve this.

Sustainable Development Goals

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

Guangzhou Award

This project was shortlisted for the 'Guangzhou Award' in 2020 in the following category: Deserving Cities.

Berlin, Germany

Size and population development
In 2019, the municipality of Berlin had a population of 3,669,491 inhabitants, making it the most populous city in the European Union (EU). The larger metropolitan area has about 5 million inhabitants.

Population composition
According to estimations, about one third of Berlin’s population was foreign born or has a migratory background. These inhabitants originate from other parts of the EU—such as Poland, Italy or Bulgaria—as well as from countries outside of the EU, such as Syria, Vietnam or the United States of America. The largest non-native population comes from Turkey: In 2019, more than 107,000 Turkish nationals were registered as inhabitants of Berlin.

Main functions
Berlin is the capital and largest city of Germany. As a city-state it is also one of the country’s 16 Länder, as the federal states are called in Germany. Situated approximately 112 miles (180 km) south of the Baltic Sea, the city lies in the wide glacial valley of the Spree River, which runs through Berlin’s centre. The city extends over an area of 891.7 square kilometres and stands at an average altitude of 34 meters above sea level. After the reunification of Germany and East and West Berlin in 1990, the unified Berlin was re-established as the country’s capital (replacing Bonn, the former capital of West Germany). In 1999, large parts of the Federal Government and the German Bundestag finally moved back to Berlin. Berlin is a city of great historical significance, which becomes evident considering the amount of historical landmarks that visualize the city’s history. Some of the most important landmarks include the Brandenburg Gate (built in 1793), the Reichstag Building (which dates to 1884), remnants of the Berlin Wall (taken down on the 9th of November 1989) or the Holocaust memorial (inaugurated in 2003). Berlin is also a famous cultural hub, known for its world-class museums, theatres, operas and concert halls as well as its vibrant club scene and street art. Finally, the Brain City Berlin is a leading location for science and research. It is home to a number of prestigious universities such as the Freie Universität Berlin, the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Technische Universität Berlin, with more than 35,000 students each as well as renowned research institutions and think tanks.

Main industries / business
As the fourth largest economy of the world, Germany has a wide array of prestigious industries. Berlin is home to a diverse mix of economic activities: state-owned enterprises, creative industries, automotive manufacturers, (digital) media corporations, high-tech and telecommunication companies as well as multiple digital pioneers that flourish in the city’s vibrant start-up scene. Tourism is constantly growing and brings about 14 million visitors (2019) to the city every year.

Sources for city budget
Berlin draws its budget for public expenditure largely from taxes, federal transfers, fees, fines and operating revenues. It is spent not only to provide high quality public services, but also to boost the city’s private sector, civil society engagement and cultural life.

Political structure
The city-state Berlin is governed by the Berlin Senate, which is comprised of 10 senators, and the Governing Mayor. As the capital of Germany, Berlin hosts the Bundesregierung (federal government), the Bundestag (federal parliament) and the Bundesrat (the parliamentary chamber of the 16 Länder). Each of the 16 Länder has a representation in Berlin. On many political issues, the Länder have co-legislative powers vis-à-vis the Federal government. Moreover, Berlin hosts embassies from more than 120 countries from around the world.

Administrative structure
Berlin is administrated by the Senate and its 12 districts or boroughs (Bezirke). The Senate is the city’s central administration, in charge of city planning, public policy, and the regulation of public and private spheres. The district administrations have some decentralized public functions, with reasonable differences between the various localities.

The German federal asylum seekers law mandates that all asylum seekers must be housed and provided for while their asylum application is being processed. The Berlin State Office for Refugee Affairs is in charge of providing and monitoring the quality of housing and public health in refugee shelters. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic it has become urgent to make sure every resident understands and adheres to the safety regulations, especially with regard to quarantine laws.


The goal was to provide residents of refugee shelters official information around scoial distancing, good hygiene practices  and quarantine laws to prevent a COVID 19- infection outbreak.

In Germany, the State usually provides text-based information in the German language only. For face-to-face communication with refugees, translators are used. However, this is not possible during lock-down periods. Utilizing the service of the council’s inhouse translators, podcasts about COVID-19 safety measures were produced in 14 languages and uploaded to the council website.  Social media channels and the network of shelter operators were used to spread the word to the residents of refugee shelters. Berlin became the first German city to make COVID-19 information available to non-German-speaking groups.

Members of the refugee community living in the shelters shared them online with their networks and communities. Refugees, migrants and other non-German speaking groups outside the shelters were reached by cooperating with district officials, volunteers, NGOs and community organisations to spread the information via as many channels as possible. This way, the wider immigrant communities were able to benefit from the strategy as well.

The written information (posters and flyers) was translated by an external agency amounting to a total of less than $1000USD. The background information on COVID-19 regulations etc. was compiled by the press office of the State Office for Refugee Affairs. These measures were both cost-effective and non-bureaucratic which was crucial when the pandemic was just starting and the information had to reach a lot of people in a very short time.

Firstly, the initiative succeeded in reducing fear and insecurity by providing reliable information on COVID-19 measures to a highly heterogenous group of people living in a precarious situation. It effectively stopped fake news and rumours about the virus from spreading. It helped stabilise the social situation in the shelters and led to a high level of cooperation, especially with regard to quarantine regulations. The spread of the virus in shelters was controlled and lives were saved.

The City administration monitored the infection rate in shelters very closely. Through the communication strategy combined with positive-tested residents being moved to separate quarantine accommodation, the infection rate was limited to no more than 60 active cases at any given time during March - September 2020. Only two out of 20,000 refugees living in shelters have died from COVID-19.

The press office monitors the downloads locally and internationally to check the reach of the podcasts and additional information material.

By using intercultural communication to provide refugees and migrants access to vital information at a critical time, it helped prevent the spread of COVID-19

The initiative was implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and before the first lockdown had begun. There was a general sense of fear and insecurity about how to cope with the threat of the virus, especially in the refugee shelters where many people live together in close proximity. When the idea of using podcasts as the main information tool was first presented, there was some resistance as this had not been done before.

By using audio podcasts and reducing cultural and lingual barriers, it was possible to reach people with minimal educational standards and provide official fact-based information.

In emergency situations, podcasts can contribute to building trust with people while simultaneously providing reliable information.

it is helpful to have a digital platform in place (established social media channels and a website based on a content-management-system that allows the implementation of mp3 and mp4 files).

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Sascha  Langenbach
Berlin, Germany

Sascha Langenbach

Individual | Press spokesman of the State Office for Refugee Affairs

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