On 9 February I attended a public meeting at Park Aalborg (formerly Park Hotel Aalborg), which stands directly across from Aalborg Station. Aalborg Kommune (municipality) had invited all interested residents to tour the former hotel and attend an information meeting about its transformation to a temporary residence for refugees. The meeting attracted so many people that they had to do the prepared presentations in shifts. Here is what I learned that evening…
Aalborg Kommune received 587 refugees in 2015; that number will rise to 855 additional refugees this calendar year, or roughly 70 people per month. Refugees settled here as part of the ‘family reunification’ process are not counted in this number. From 1 July 2014 until 1 February 2016, the municipality received 593 refugees, 116 of whom were children (0-17 years of age). On top of that 77 spouses and children arrived through family reunification.
Half of the refugees are from Syria, while 35% come from Eritrea. The majority are single men, many of whom have spouses and children who are expected to make their way to Denmark as part of the family reunification process. Almost 50% of the refugees are between 18 and 30 years. While most come from asylum centers, a few families come as quota refugees, which means directly from a UN refugee camp. Only 9 of the refugees who have arrived in Aalborg since 1 July 2014 are unaccompanied minors.
Housing all of these arrivals to Aalborg, a city with an already tight housing market, has been a real challenge for Aalborg Kommune. The options that have been explored and used include:
- Public housing, including student housing
- Vacant homes for the elderly
- Properties in the private sector
- Shared housing
- Alternative accommodation facilities (module properties)
- Construction of new homes
Refugees are or will be housed in the following parts of the municipality (among others): Aalborg Center, Aalborg V, Aalborg SV, Aalborg Øst, Nørresundby, Nibe, Ulsted, Kongerslev, Gudumholm, Gandrup, Mou, Vodskov, Sulsted, St Restrup, Hals, and Vester Hassing.
In Aalborg Center, Park Aalborg will serve as a temporary ‘refugee hostel’ for a large number of refugees. The hotel has been under extensive renovations since the beginning of this year, when the kommune took out a 6-year lease on the property, to make it habitable for 125 residents at a time. There are 51 double rooms, 28 single rooms, and 2 suites. (I saw almost all of these rooms the night of the meeting. While they were still being fixed up, it was clear that this is in no way luxury housing. Think small university dorm room, albeit with its own bathroom.) The ground floor will serve as space for meetings, classes, and offices, and as a place for volunteers to meet. Each refugee will pay 2122kr/month to live there, and the maximum amount of time they can stay will be three months, after which they must have found alternative housing.
When the first group arrives next Monday, they will begin a 3-week introduction course, the purpose of which is to:
- Give refugees one entry point to Socialcenter and Jobcentre
- Ensure that no one feels isolated or left alone after arrival
- Create networks between newcomers
- Disseminate necessary information
- Serve as a forum to ask the many questions that newcomers may have
- Hold the first meeting/s with volunteers
- Discuss the way forward
They will also go over their ‘integration contract’ and discuss the Danish language course requirement, the Integration Plan, including medical assessment, and offers of training and employment. For families, a family consultant will follow the family from the start, giving advice and practical help according to the “self-help” principle. Children 0-5 years of age will be placed in nearby daycare, and receive language support in their native language. School children 6-15 years of age will attend classes and go to after-school care (DUS, in Aalborg). Older children – 16-17 years of age – will be placed in the basic class at the Young AUC (Ung Aalborg Uddannelsescenter).
In addition to the kommune’s services, a partnership called ‘Lokalsamfundet Bygger Bro‘ (The Community Builds a Bridge) between the kommune, the Red Cross, and Danske Flygtninge Hjælp, has been set up to strengthen cooperation between various kommunes in Denmark and civil society in the effort to reinforce refugees’ active citizenship, thereby improving living conditions for them and their families in this country. Aalborg is one of five kommunes participating. The group acts to prevent social exclusion and promote inclusion. Their first priority is to establish a close cooperation between local citizens and associations to ease refugees’ arrival and integration. Concrete activities they have initiated in Aalborg include additional help at ‘sprogcafes,’ ‘know your city’ tours, ‘meal club’ events, and sports activities with Aalborg Chang, B52 and volunteers. If you are interested in getting involved, check the website; alternatively, you could contact Frivillighuset in Aalborg.