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E-Mail: benedict.wermter(at)correctiv.org

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Interviews

An Act of Grace as the Last Chance

Around every fifth day, the Jesuit Refugee Service makes an application to the Berlin Senate. Then a commission has to decide whether an immigrant can stay. The law says: “urgent humanitarian or personal reasons” must “justify a further stay of the foreigner on federal territory”. In cases of hardship, people can stay – if the Interior Minister approves.

von Benedict Wermter

Accordingly, the commission that decides on the fate of these people is called the Hardship Commission. It consists of representatives from politics, the state authorities, charities as well as the migrant and refugee councils of various church groups. Father Frido Pflüger is at the negotiating table for the Berlin archdiocese, he is the head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany. Benedict Wermter spoke with him about intractable authorities, controlled migration and the work of the Hardship Commission.

Father Pflüger, you have said that last year you had 800 conversations with people who asked for your help. And some of your clients sought your advice two or three times. Every year you make 70 to 80 applications to the Berlin Senate administration which the Hardship Commission then decides on. Can we assume that you would prefer that your work and the Hardship Commission were not needed?

Father Frido Pflüger: We need the Hardship Commission because the legislation on the right of residence is insufficient. But even the best legislation is insufficient and cannot fairly account for all cases. There is a difference between law and justice. For that reason the Hardship Commission is beneficial – because every legal construct has cumbersome and problematic aspects. There is no perfect law. According to the clause on cases of hardship in the residency law, the Interior Minister can decide on hardship cases based on recommendations from the commission.

A portrait of Frido Pflüger

Frido Pflüger

How does the Hardship Commission prepare for these difficult decisions?

The Hardship Commission prepares an act of grace. The people come to us, we look at their story, check whether there are humanitarian reasons and see if a person or even a whole family should stay. Decisive criteria include the length of their irregular residency, integration efforts, a secure livelihood and language skills. These commissions exist for every federal state.

Who decides on these difficult cases?

The Berlin commission consists of representatives from the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the Refugee and Migration Councils and from the League of Charities. There are also two representatives from the state authorities. Every representative can bring in applications that they prepare. Before the Interior Minister makes the decision, we discuss and vote on every single case in the Hardship Commission.

Do you always use your position to vote in favor of the residency permit?

Sometimes there are critical cases where one says: „I have doubts with this one.“ Then one can abstain.

Many who support „illegal“ residents call for abolishing asylum laws and liberalizing the right of residency. Do you stand for uncontrolled migration and the right of residency for everyone?

Pflüger: Difficult question. I actually stand for controlled migration: every state has the right to shape its own civil life, in cooperation with its neighbors and the world community of course. I would not want to uncritically support the right of residency for everyone because there are people where we can say: „We don’t really want to have you here.“

As far as the authorities are concerned, people who live in Germany without a residency permit are invisible until they dare to come out of hiding. It appears that you see these people, even meet them and speak with them. What role do „illegal“ residents play in the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany?

People keep coming for guidance on hardship cases where it turns out that they do not have a residency permit – that means they are „illegal“. These people then try to regularize their stay through a hardship case application. This does not always work in other states in Germany because some Hardship Commissions have the prerequisite that people must have been previously registered with the authorities. But in Berlin we can also take people who do not have a permit yet. In that sense we are ahead of the others in dealing with the Invisibles.

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Which group among the Invisibles deserves more protection within the residency law – „illegal“ refugees or people who overstayed their visa?

Refugees are people who want to escape danger, they deserve special protection. We must save them from returning to their home country where people face unbearable circumstances. This is not necessarily the case with people whose visa has run out. If someone has lived in Germany for five years without attracting attention, then their life is not in danger. They lack civil rights and this is what we must change. For example with a right of residency regulation for „illegal“ people.

You criticize that Invisibles who want to become legal must first disclose their illegality and then fight out in the open, for instance when they make applications.

Something has to change here: we could allow for an anonymous initial inquiry and see whether a regularization is possible. Unfortunately, this sensible solution is not applied everywhere because the states are responsible for implementing such solutions, and often there is a lack of willingness to try new models.

You encourage the immigration authority to take a more sympathetic approach in looking at the legal basis for transitioning to legal residency. Do you have the impression that they do not exhaust all possibilities?

Sometimes I do have that feeling. We see that in the commission: we make an application in the commission, and then it turns out that there is another solution. If the authorities had put more time into one or the other case, there would have been no need for us to make an application. So it could have happened earlier.

Do the authorities let it come down to that?

I would not formulate it on such negative terms. Sometimes it’s human weakness, no matter what authority they work at (smiles). There are stories about people who come to us and complain bitterly about the way they are treated. But there are also people within the authorities who have a very positive attitude and want to help. It would be unfair to say: „They don’t do anything there.“ There are just interpersonal problems.

The discourse on refugee immigration is in full swing. Is there a need for journalistic investigation in light of the debate on refugees?

Even with critical journalists, you read about „waves of refugees“ or „mass immigration“. That is all nonsense, the numbers don’t say that. I think that phenomena such as Pegida arise because people are not informed. I see the press as having a responsible task.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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Interviews

Policy to Drive You Crazy

Undocumented people who live in Germany depend on individuals’ good will. On people such as the social worker Golde Ebding who works with the Maltese Migrant Medicine in Berlin. There she supports people who count as illegal. Last year she founded the project “Refugees Welcome” with friends. Via the internet, it houses refugees in shared apartments.

von Benedict Wermter

Benedict Wermter spoke with her about the idea and about undocumented life: the endless wait for a better future with no emergency exit.

Ms. Ebding, you are one of the founders of „Refugees Welcome“ and you also support people who live here illegally. How do you explain things to people who live in shared flats and would take in a refugee that the person in question counts as illegal?

Golde Ebding: It’s theoretically a criminal offense, but has not been prosecuted in years. It’s a humanitarian act to help a refugee. The judicial authorities also see it this way – and we explain that to the people.

A portrait of Golde Ebding

Golde Ebding

Do you ask the people you organize housing for whether they have permission to be in Germany?

We have to clarify the person’s status to find a suitable source of financing for them. I know that a lot of those who are interested fall into the group of people who do not have a visa anymore, have not received asylum or already entered the country illegally. In Berlin we have a lot of people who aren’t here legally. They are drawn by the protest movements in the big cities and by the large communities with the same background.

In the past weeks and months there has been significant media coverage on „Refugees Welcome“. It seems you are very busy and have hit a nerve. There appears to be a need for you.

The project is booming right now because once again many people have drowned in the Mediterranean. Every time great misery spreads through the media there is a strong reaction from the population. Many citizens want to take a stance and sign up with us. As mentioned, our project is a humanitarian act and not a campaign to make money. There are a lot of families in the rural areas, but also a surprising number of single mothers with a child. In Berlin you can find everything anyway. We had an elderly couple, and shared apartments with gay men and with lesbian women that took in gay and lesbian refugees respectively. There are very specific combinations.

How do you work in the „Refugees Welcome“ team?

My partners do publicity, they take care of the finances and networking. I do the concrete organizational work: first contact must be prepared along with legal issues. I also write and telephone with people who want to take in refugees. Unfortunately a lot of people in shared apartments back down again because they become afraid. They don’t write back anymore or meet a few refugees and then don’t want to participate after all. Often they are also afraid of legal consequences: some people ask themselves whether they will have to go to jail if they take in Invisibles.

What problems do you experience with refugees when you help them?

The impossibility of integration. That also has to do with their accommodation in isolated camps. People who are applying for asylum or who are tolerated are also not entitled to German language courses. Accordingly, they have hardly any contact with Germans and don’t learn the language even though a lot of them have been here for years. Germany doesn’t believe that the refugees will stay here with us, but rather that they will go back. The residency situation is made even more difficult for tolerated people, sometimes their benefits are cut. But in reality we need migration and integration.

We have heard about people who disappear out of ongoing asylum procedures or go into hiding after their application is rejected. Do you know about such cases?

That makes me think of the so-called Dublin cases: refugees who might have Italian papers and are going through an asylum procedure here. They are usually rejected and must be handed over to Italy within six months. If they are supposed to be deported, they go into hiding for the length of time that Germany has to deport them. After that they make a new application which must be processed in Germany, even if only to a limited extent. Refugees fear that they will have even fewer prospects in Italy. In practice, they almost always live on the street there. But the thing that works well in Italy is the free European Health Insurance Card.

And in Germany?

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Here the European Health Insurance Card is usually useless. Every acute illness must be examined and treated. But many doctors refuse treatment in their consultation hours. Doctor’s assistants do not even fill out the forms for patients if their residency status is unclear to them. If a German is with them, the refugees are accepted. But not if they go alone. They just can’t defend themselves. A lot of Italians even face this problem in Germany.

That is quite astonishing. The European Health Insurance Card has existed for years. What do people do when they are turned down by the doctor?

Either nothing at all – or they might come to the Maltese Migrant Medicine. We send them with a legal notice back to the doctor for treatment. Nevertheless, refugees are often turned down. The doctors in big cities have enough patients and can allow themselves to choose.

Please tell us something about the lives of the refugees you meet. How do they get along here?

Many have psychological problems. I have contact with people from Sub-Saharan Africa. There, mental problems are not recognized as such. The people often suffer immensely due to their situation, but are not even aware of where this comes from. I often observe physical effects: the refugees can’t sleep, have headaches or are anxious. You can see how European policy drives these people downright crazy. This undignified life breaks people. And on top of that there is the pressure from Africa.

What do you mean when you say „pressure from Africa“?

There are heavenly conceptions of Europe in Africa. That leads to great expectations: the strongest member of the family should support their relatives at home. I know many people who want to go back, but can’t. The people who are sent abroad need to bring something back to their families, otherwise they are seen as failures at home. Unnecessary facades are kept up, great poses of life in Germany are sent over Facebook. The refugees don’t want to stand up and say that they have failed. Nobody would believe them in Africa. That leads to a downward spiral: even more people in Africa want to go to Europe. At the same time, the refugees set up a life in the shadows here.

Can these people become content here?

After going through hell in Southern Europe the migrants lower their expectations, trying to deal with the circumstances. Many people break over the lack of alternatives. Nobody will voluntarily stand in Görlitzer Park in Berlin and sell drugs. I have the feeling that some get used to it. But that depends on the expectations that a person brings with them. Someone who just wants to survive perceives life differently than a person who wants to build a better life. In the end it’s all a question of character as well.

If you could decide: what has to change to improve the lives of migrants in Germany?

I’m not a visionary as far as that goes. The structures and the ways of thinking must first change in politics. That won’t come from the population which is rather drifting off to the right. This sealing off doesn’t work and must be stopped. I believe our project can give the people small, nice moments. But something must happen at the very top.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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Interviews

The Snitch Law

Café 104 is in the middle of the city, between Hohenzollernplatz and the Central Station. It is a place of support for people living in illegality according to the residency law. This is a meeting place for people who are not permitted to be here. Not in Munich, not in Germany.

von Benedict Wermter

In legal terms, the people who visit Café 104 count as illegal because they do not have a residency permit. Here they are welcomed by four women and a man who give them assistance that these undocumented people are deprived of. This includes health care as well as legal advice.

Café 104 is a project of the Bavarian Refugee Council, it has worked independently since its foundation in 1998. It now receives support from a fund for emergency health care for people without insurance provided by the city of Munich. This pays the rent. Benedict Wermter spoke with Birgit Poppert, one of the founders, about laws, the Munich model and the work with authorities and other support organizations.

Ms. Poppert, undocumented people who live in Germany are ultimately invisible to the authorities. Civil servants are required to report these people to the immigration authorities. This is prescribed by law. What does this legal requirement to report hope to achieve?

That is the so-called denunciation clause. The goal was to make it easier to pick up people who count as illegal. On the other hand they also wanted to know which people are in Germany illegally for what reasons. But the immigration authorities almost all say that they hardly receive any reports. That is also because the Invisibles know this clause well and take care not to walk into this trap. But this also means, among other things, that they seek medical treatment much too late and that they are exploited in the labor and housing markets because they live with the fear of being discovered and deported. Aside from security-related criteria, the law must be abolished.

A portrait of Birgit Poppert

Birgit Poppert

Why is it not abolished?

For us, it was a first step in the right direction to exclude educational institutions from the clause. The same goes for the general administrative provisions according to which „illegal“ patients who are admitted to the hospital for an emergency do not have to be reported to the immigration authorities. We see no clear argument why nothing else can be changed here. In the rest of Europe there is neither such a clause, nor does illegality count as criminal offense. In most other EU countries, illegality according to residency law is a misdemeanor, just like a parking violation. In France, people who count as illegal are merely told to leave the country if they are caught, while in Germany these people are imprisoned, given a fine according to how many days they have been in the country illegally, and are deported.

You want to help people who are not allowed to be here. The authorities want to enforce the law. You are ultimately working against each other. How are your interactions in your work with members of the immigration authorities?

You can’t blame them for anything. They just follow the guidelines. In Munich we can see the authorities making great concessions, there is an objective and positive atmosphere: The authorities neither work against each other, nor against us. The Munich immigration authorities even helped us find housing for unregistered pregnant women. The Bavarian government made difficulties for us and we received backing from the immigration authority. The immigration authority is also interested in practical solutions and we meet on equal terms.

Your establishment, Café 104, receives support from the city of Munich to pay the rent. Cities or municipalities rarely support projects like this. How did you achieve that?

Since 2009 the city of Munich has paid the rent for the space that Café 104 shares with the Doctors of the World. Before that, we were both situated within the Bavarian Refugee Council. It was cramped, and the Doctors of the World wanted to move. We initially lacked the financial means because we could not pay rent out of the sporadic donations we receive. Then I proposed the model to the city. It was important to the city that we stay together with the Doctors of the World, so they decided to pay the rent. The city doesn’t do that without self-interest: transitions to legality usually mean a secure income and tax revenues, and we take a lot of the integrative and organizational work away from the immigration authority. For example, when we bring the Invisible person to the first meeting with the authorities with all the necessary papers or also provide an interpreter.

Do you see the possibility of implementing the Munich model in other regions of Germany as well? Or: how can those who support „illegal“ people improve the structural conditions in their area?

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There is no universal solution. The structural conditions depend strongly on the administrations within the authorities in the states. We already face problems implementing our model beyond the borders of the city in Bavaria. The many organizations also have different views in regard to their goals: we take a decisive stance against the denunciation clause. The Medinets take a different approach and advocate the use of anonymous medical certificates which are supposed to allow for anonymous treatment. Other cities make other advancements. You can find positive examples everywhere. For instance, progress was made in Hamburg because the city now finances a certain number of daycare places for „illegal“ children.

How do you cooperate with other organizations that seek to help the Invisibles? Is there ever competition or are there even tensions? Unlike you, some other organizations will not accept public funds.

We can understand that. In Munich we are lucky enough that the city does not try to influence our work in any way. We take on duties of the city and the state – and besides that, the city is not supposed to support an institution that provides help for criminals. That’s why we are grateful to accept the city’s generous support. We don’t have the need for any missions, but we want to achieve something in political terms. We look at the paths that others choose.

We want to help people who live here without a secure residency status or without residency documents cope with life. For example through health care, through access to educational institutions or in dealing with the authorities. At the same time, it is important for us to engage in political work to change something in regard to the lack of rights that our clientele faces. Accordingly, we also do PR work and are represented in various city bodies: we take part in discussions or working groups within politics and the administrative apparatus on questions related to refugees and issues that affect people with an insecure residency status. And we have strong links with the nationwide organizations.

In Munich there are also the Maltese, they opened a drop-in center eight years after us. They have similar goals and lay particular emphasis on health care for people without health insurance, like the Doctors of the World. But for me – I admit this openly – the Maltese are too apolitical.

How do you mean that, too apolitical?

They want to provide purely Catholic health care in Munich with the approval of the district president, and they do not make any political demands. They want to show mercy to the „brothers and sisters in the shadows“ and say that politics is not their issue. We object to that. We want to help people enforce their rights. There should not be a lack of rights in a state governed by the rule of law. We are not militant, but we have clear political goals.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

© Ivo Mayr

The Invisibles

Invisible Survival

Undocumented people living in Germany have given up all their rights – in the hope for a better life. That makes many things difficult: employment, their children’s education or health care. They live with the constant fear of discovery and deportation. Hundreds of thousands of people live like this in Germany. Soon, a new law could push even more people into illegality.

von Benedict Wermter , Julian Jestadt , Florian Bickmeyer

That was the nicest evening he has had since moving to Germany, says Anthony, when everything is over and the last guests leave. He looks so serious, which hardly fits the happy mood of the previous hours.

A friend had organized a private art exhibit in a small cultural café in the Ruhr area. He showed his pictures, mostly portraits, drawn with a lot of yellow, green and red. People were drumming, singing and playing the guitar. Anthony, around 30 years old, put on a Boubou, a colorfully patterned men’s robe from his home country of Nigeria. He sat in the middle of the room on a chair between a dozen other musicians, singing and drumming and laughing. He was visibly happy.

An hour later. Shaking hands, hugs, see you soon. Anthony has another smile for everyone. Then his dark-brown eyes close, the glow darkens, the shine of happiness begins to fade. A dark gaze.

“The nicest evening“, he says. And he looks like a sad man.

What is it, Anthony, everything okay?

“Honestly, my friend?“ He shakes his head. „Yes, everything okay.“

But it was a great evening.

“Yes, great. That was fun, the music, that was freedom, real freedom.“

And otherwise you don’t have real freedom?

“Only sometimes“, he answers. „No, not really.“ Hastily he waves his hand and goes out into the night. He didn’t want to talk about freedom and his life with a stranger.

Be friendly, but don’t talk to everyone. A quick hello is enough. Avoid answering questions, don’t reveal anything about your life. Trust no one.Anthony’s Rules I

 

On a Wednesday evening in March, representatives from churches, trade unions and refugee relief organizations meet in Berlin, along with doctors, lawyers and academics, as well as civil servants from the German Interior Ministry and immigration authorities. For two days they talk and debate in the Catholic Academy. About people who cannot participate in the discussion; about whom they know very little. These people count as illegal because they live undocumented in our midst. This is the Eleventh Annual Meeting on Illegality.


What is an undocumented life?

We want to understand these people’s lives. We have started an investigation called „The Invisibles“. We want to know how undocumented people live: how do they get by? Who helps them? How do they earn money? Who exploits them? What do they do when they get sick? How do they bring up their children? What is a life without rights? What are their dreams? And how did they come to live here illegally?

We are looking for answers to these questions. We have developed an anonymous questionnaire in nine languages for these people to answer. Over a hundred people have already responded. We have only just begun with our investigation. And we will carry on for many months to bring these people’s lives and problems to light.

You can help us by sharing our questionnaire. And if you know any undocumented people, or know someone who knows someone, show them the questionnaire. Every answer helps us understand.

The conference seems like a class reunion. Almost everyone knows each other, some greetings are warm embraces. Few people in Germany are concerned with those who lack a residency permit. It is mostly small groups that work together in umbrella organizations. Every time they run into difficulties, be it problems of everyday life, sickness, paperwork or injustice, the Invisibles depend on individuals who stand up for them, help them and protect them.


The estimate: half a million Invisibles live in Germany

There are around 100 participants, among them three groups: the first consists of academics who gather information on the number of undocumented people, on their lives and their problems. In conversations, the researchers usually say early on that they do not know very much and have little information they are sure about. They are careful with their judgements. They are aware of the problems, and some of them know Invisibles in person, but their results rarely go beyond analyzed impressions, comparisons with regulations in other countries and collections of individual case studies. There is little reliable information on the Invisibles, about their lives, about their numbers.

For two years, a team around Dita Vogel, an academic who now works at Bremen University, sought to find out how many undocumented people live in Europe. The European Union financed a study on hidden people called „Clandestino“.

In February of 2009 the team presented the results: according to the estimation, 1.9 to 3.8 million undocumented live in the EU illegally, 200,000 to 460,000 of them in Germany. Later, Vogel slightly reduced the numbers, but she suspects they have now risen again.


The politicians: Invisibles are an exception

The second group has decision-making power over undocumented people. Christian Klos is the head of division for immigration law at the German Interior Ministry. The ministry is working on a law that would reform the current system of residency permits. Undocumented people are the exception, says Klos. Klos’s division and the governing bodies determine how asylum seekers and undocumented people live as well as the support and ways out that Germany can offer them. Klos represents his ministry’s position under the leadership of Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière: immigration must be limited to prevent it from getting out of control. The state can do little for people who are in the country illegally and evade the authorities. One cannot simply decide where to live based on a country’s benefits. The decision must be made by the state and society.

Engelhard Mazanke sits next to Klos on the podium, he is another decision-maker. Mazanke is the head of Germany’s largest immigration authority in Berlin. In 2010, he says, over 10,000 people lived in the city who were obligated to leave the country. Most of them were „tolerated“, their deportation temporarily suspended. The decision has already been made that they are not allowed to stay in Germany. But many wait and hope that someday they will receive permission to stay if they are only here long enough. As tolerated people, they cannot work or leave the state they were assigned to. According to migration researchers and people who help the Invisibles, many people become Invisibles at this stage because they lose their nerve and escape into illegality.

The following year, the number of tolerated people was significantly reduced, says Mazanke. In 2011 there were only 3373 because many received a permanent residency permit after years of being tolerated. „That was a great success“, says the head of the immigration authority. After that the number rose slightly before it doubled in 2014 – making 9400 people in Berlin who were obligated to leave. The number increased by 400 in the first three months of this year. As before, most of these people are tolerated: their deportation has been temporarily suspended.

Two out of three asylum seekers have their applications rejected, Mazanke later explains on the telephone. Some would move on to another country or later receive a residency permit after finding long-term work or getting married. But the majority are subsequently tolerated in Germany.

“The decisive political question is the following“, says Mazanke: „How do we get these people a permanent residency permit – or how do we motivate them to leave the country? That’s the current political dispute.“

Mazanke does not believe there are many people who live here illegally. But he sees it as „theoretically possible“ for an undocumented person to get by for years.

But his authority only knows about the Invisibles who give themselves up voluntary to find a way out of illegality, as well as those who are arrested. Both cases are rare – only those who see no other way out will come in voluntarily. And people are only arrested if they happen to be controlled or make a mistake.

The majority of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented people remain hidden to the authorities, allowing Mazanke to say the following: „As the head of the Berlin immigration authority I don’t know what problem we’re talking about.“ He expects foreigners to make sure they are in Germany legally. They should make themselves known to the authorities.


After the annual meeting we look for Anthony. Our brief encounter was five months ago; this is only a presumption and an attempt: could he be one of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented people living in Germany? Or does he know someone? The search is sobering. None of our inquiries bring us any further, as if nobody at the art exhibit knew who the drumming and singing man among them was. But then our reporter’s luck and Anthony’s passion for music bring us together at a concert. Anthony is astonished and skeptical, but he agrees to meet a few days later.

Notice when somebody looks at you and don’t look back. Turn your head away, look at the ground, walk away. Do not walk faster or slower. – Anthony’s Rules II

We are surprised that he shows up to the meeting. „I’m also curious“, he says and smiles.

Anthony, we want to talk about freedom.

He gives us little laugh.

“I have friends, I have work, I have everything“

For two hours he tells us about his life. He says he had no freedom before he came to Germany four years ago. He had always worked on a field, almost every day. It was usually very hot and the money never even lasted him until the next pay day. But he could not find any other work. Then, one day, the farmer gave up, and Anthony was out of a job.

He was in his mid-20s, unemployed, had no family and dreamed of a better life. On television he saw the German national soccer team playing at the World Cup in South Africa: Müller and Özil, Cacau and Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Boateng, whom he has come to admire. Germany is happy and rich, thought Anthony. And soon he made his way north.

He took one year to reach Europe. He does not want to speak about the trip. Bad memories, he says. „That’s over.“

Did he find happiness?

At the beginning it was difficult, he says, mainly because of the language. After four years, Anthony speaks almost faultless German. He just uses short sentences and draws out the words when he speaks; says „u“ instead of „ü“: „I’m happy here. I have work, I have friends, I have everything.“

Almost. Because Anthony is an Invisible.

He has no papers, no passport, no ID, no residency permit, no insurance, no tax number. Anthony hesitates for a long time before answering questions after that. He is careful because he snuck into the country and never registered himself. He knows that he counts as illegal, that he was not given the right to be here; he is sure he would never receive it. The authorities must know nothing about him for him to stay – and neither should anyone he meets. For that reason, his name is only Anthony for the purposes of this article. His real name is different.

Part of the truth is that we cannot verify what Anthony says. We can either believe his story or choose not to.


Engelhard Mazanke, head of the Berlin immigration authority, says he has heard many stories he did not believe. And he had good reason for this. For example, when someone changes their story from one conversation to the next. Many people would tell lies when the immigration authorities asked them questions. On the way to Germany they would hear what they should say to the authorities – what would help them receive the right to stay.

His authority implements German immigration law, says Mazanke. The Hardship Commissions within the states could negotiate exceptions. This would often bring about solutions.


The demand: every person should be treated equally

Christian Klos, the head of division for immigration law at the German Interior Ministry, says the following: „There are clear requirements that regulate who can become a resident in Germany. If we wanted to grant residency to every person who is here irregularly, we could get rid of the entire law.“ But the German government has not planned this. Rather, the Interior Ministry is currently elaborating a law for the „Reformulation of Residency Law and Residency Termination“.

“Our demand“, explains Klos, „is that everyone person be treated equally.“ For that reason the immigration law exists and that is why they are working on it. People facing hardship should be able to find help and support in Germany at any time. But immigration must be restricted for others so that everyone can live by the „social standards that we claim for ourselves“. Klos mentions the minimum wage and says: „There should not be a second labor market.“

But that already exists.

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Anthony believes there is no chance he would be allowed to stay. „They won’t take us“, he says. In fact, the 3Sat-show „Kulturzeit“ recently reported that not a single Nigerian was granted asylum in the first six months of 2014. Anthony heard about this before coming to Germany – for that reason he destroyed his passport, he says. So the authorities would not know where to deport him to if they were to find him one day.

This is a „strategy for survival“, says a participant at the Annual Meeting on Illegality who often meets people like Anthony.

Always buy a ticket for the train, but never get in at the central station. Never cross the street when the light is red. Do not drive a car, never. – Anthony’s Rules III

Anthony knew what he was getting into when he did not register with the authorities after arriving in Germany. But he does not regret his decision. He has established himself here, has rented a one room apartment and has two jobs he is content with – both off the books, both in the second labor market that Klos would like to prevent: one in a warehouse and another at a company that supplies restaurants with food.

Watch out who is on the other side of the street. Watch out! – Anthony’s Rules IV

Anthony fears his luck could run out anytime. He is afraid of inspections on the job. He is afraid of the police on the street and of everything that requires documentation in Germany, such as sickness.

A visit to the doctor without health insurance

Only once in four years did Anthony need a doctor. He injured himself while working at the warehouse when a pallet fell off a forklift and Anthony sprained his ankle. For a while he limped. His friends urged him to get treatment. He always answered „yeah, yeah“, he says – but never went to see a doctor.

Then a friend found a doctor who would not ask about insurance or money. Anthony hesitated, then he built up the nerve to go. The diagnosis: a sprained ligament. Nothing dramatic, just a few days of rest, said the doctor. „But how should I take money then“, asks Anthony, meaning to say: receive money for his work. There is no sick pay in the second labor market. So he dragged himself through until the pain subsided.


Invisibles are the exception? The third group at the Annual Meeting on Illegality would beg to differ. It consists of doctors, lawyers and priests as well as social workers and volunteers. On an almost daily basis they deal with undocumented people. They support them with health care, advice, legal matters or just from person to person. They also include authorities who are not decision-makers at a higher level and people like Renate Scheunemann who work for the health authorities.

Scheunemann is a doctor in Nürnberg and leads the working group „People without health insurance“. Since a few years ago, she is no longer legally required to report undocumented people to the immigration authorities. Illegal residency counts as a criminal offense in Germany, unlike in France where it is only a misdemeanor. But in 2009 the general administrative provisions for the residency law clarified that health authorities, doctors and clinics always underlie medical confidentiality and do not make themselves complicit in a criminal offense.

Nevertheless, it is not that easy for undocumented people to receive medical treatment when they fall ill. Some doctors would even send them away, says Golde Ebding, who works for Maltese Migrant Medicine in Berlin. Accordingly, the Invisibles are often dependent on individuals’ good will, especially when they really need help. Scheunemann believes that undocumented people often borrow insurance cards to enable treatment.

Stay healthy, just stay healthy. – Anthony’s Rules V

Life in invisibility forces people to be creative: when problems arise in daily life, they must look for unusual solutions.


We hear about a Serbian family in Lower Saxony that lives secretly in a friend’s house. The oldest daughter, we will call her Milena, has just come of age. She talks to us because the family needs money – and she breaks off the conversation when we say that we cannot give her money.

Never make a call from your own phone. Borrow a phone from a friend and suppress the number. Have people leave you messages and call them back. – Milena’s Rules I

Four years ago the father, mother and four children were deported from Germany. They had arrived two years earlier to start a new life, to find work and a safe future. But the dream did not work out. After returning to Serbia, they lived without money in a camp, says Milena. Then the father died.

The mother was overburdened and tried once again to find refuge with her children in Central Europe. First in Belgium, where they were denied asylum, then again in Germany, where Milena made another application under a false name. The trick blew up when the authorities compared her fingerprints. After that the family disappeared into a friend’s house and into invisibility.

The fear of sending the children to school

Milena works as a cleaner to help the family get by. Off the books, of course. Her siblings, 14, twelve and seven years old, should be going to school. But they are too afraid of attracting attention.

Don’t send the children to school, they could give away the family. – Milena’s Rules II

But they could go to school due to the general principal that every child has a right to education. In 2011, the former conservative-liberal government changed the immigration law. Since then, schools, nursery schools and other educational institutions are no longer required to report children and teenagers who live in Germany without a residency permit to the immigration authorities. But the parents of these children are often not aware of this, says Dita Vogel, who is currently involved in a study on whether schools are implementing the legal requirements. The state education ministries have informed the schools in writing on the matter. But Vogel believes that not all principals and secretariats have a clear understanding of the new situation.

But parents often do not believe people who tell them that school registration does not require a residency permit. They are always afraid and have little trust.

Not without reason. School authorities are not educational institutions and are still required to report invisible children to the immigration authorities. The system only works if the authorities choose to turn a blind eye.

In Berlin’s Neukölln district, where every third registered resident is a foreigner, the school authority wants to see every child that is registered at a school. Unlike teachers and principals, their staff is still required to inform the immigration authorities if they find out about an undocumented child. „For me, there are no illegal children“, says Gisela Unruhe, who works for the school authority and looks at every child before they start school. If in doubt, she would probably look the other way. But in the past years there had never been such a child at a school in Neukölln.

In 2008, the expert advisory board for German Foundations for Integration and Migration estimated that there are 30,000 invisible children in Germany.

It was a political decision to relieve teachers, principals, doctors and health authorities of the obligation to report undocumented people. This makes it easier to provide support. Helpers appreciate this, but they already run into new obstacles, such as school authorities that are required to report, or social welfare offices that find out about Invisibles when they have to come up for the costs of hospital treatment.

Accordingly, helpers demand that all public authorities and their staff be relieved of the obligation to report undocumented people – with the exception of the police and law enforcement agencies. But the politicians are not listening.


One and a half weeks after the annual meeting, Engelhard Mazanke is in a German parliamentary hearing as an external expert. The German Interior Ministry has presented its law on the „Reformulation of Residency Law and Residency Termination“. Now the Committee on Internal Affairs is hearing seven expert opinions. Mazanke believes that the proposed law will lead to more deportations, but also to „more procedural fairness“. Christian Klos is sitting among the experts, he nods. Politicians from the opposition raise doubts in the Committee on Internal Affairs, along with an expert judge and a representative from a refugee relief organization.

What Mazanke does not say is that the draft law would give authorities the grounds for imprisoning refugees. For that reason, Heribert Prantl wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the proposed law is „the most drastic and sleazy thing that a German ministry has come up with since amending the right to asylum“.

The reasons for imprisonment are summarized as „risk of absconding“. And that means: someone has destroyed their passport or falsified their identity; at one time in the past they have lived at an address that was not registered with the authorities; at one time they did not fully reveal their identity; on the way to Germany they „paid a substantial amount of money to a trafficker“ – whereby the bill does not specify what „substantial“ means.

Will a new law push more immigrants into illegality?

At least one of these circumstances applies to almost every refugee. Accordingly, relief organizations and lawyers who support the Invisibles are afraid that such a law could push even more people into illegality and hiding out of fear of imprisonment.

Engelhard Mazanke does not believe that more people will be detained pending deportation – primarily due to a lack of space in the detention centers, rather than the grounds for imprisonment. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights and the German Federal Court of Justice found that people facing deportation are not allowed to be detained in the same prisons as regular convicts.

To recapitulate: Christian Klos, the head of division for immigration law at the German Interior Ministry, said at the Annual Meeting on Illegality that undocumented people are the exception. The academic Dita Vogel estimates their number at around half a million.

With this proposed legislation, explains Klos, the German government is facing up to reality: it would create new possibilities to acquire the right of residence – for people who have lived in Germany for eight years or longer, have integrated themselves into society and can support themselves. Undocumented people are not taken into consideration.

Anthony destroyed his passport. He has lived in Germany for four years and never registered with the authorities. He goes to concerts and works. And he says that he simply likes living in Germany. If the draft legislation is passed, and if Anthony stays in the country, he could be thrown into jail until being deported.

Don’t attract attention. For God’s sake, don’t attract attention! – The Rule of all Invisibles


Update, May 6th, 6 p.m.: an earlier version of this article said the following about the number of tolerated people in Berlin:

“When we made an official request for the numbers at the immigration authority, we were told after several inquiries that this data is not registered. It is questionable what this ‘great success’ is worth.“

After this article was published, Engelhard Mazanke contacted us personally. He explained that for technical reasons the immigration authority can only access the current numbers, meaning for that day and not for the past. The authorities do this at the end of every quarter.

We subsequently added the following sentence: „Politicians from the opposition raise doubts in the Committee on Internal Affairs, along with an expert judge and a representative from a refugee relief organization.“ Mazanke had referred to the political dispute on the telephone. At the Internal Affairs Committee hearing, the mentioned people raised doubts about whether the proposed bill would lead to „more procedural fairness“.


Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Redaktion: Florian Bickmeyer

Gestaltung: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

© Ivo Mayr

The Invisibles

Undocumented Life – How Can That Be?

Hundreds of thousands of undocumented people live in Germany. The academic Dita Vogel estimates their number at up to half a million. That is greater than the number of people who visit the stadiums on a German Bundesliga match day. They all live without basic rights, work off the books and have no health insurance or pension plan.

von Benedict Wermter , Julian Jestadt , Florian Bickmeyer

We asked ourselves: how could this happen? How did so many people slip into illegality? We found three typical pathways. Click your way through our presentation and then read about a Nigerian, a Colombian and a Pakistani. All three live in Germany as Invisibles.

  1. Sneak into the country past the border controls: follow the first path into invisibility as a woman from Nigeria.
  2. Escape because you fear for your life and request asylum: follow the second path into invisibility as a man from Pakistan.
  3. Come to study and fall in love, for that reason you stay: follow the third path into invisibility as a man from Colombia.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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The Invisibles

Entering the Country Illegally

If you enter a country without permission, your first step across the border makes you count as illegal. And it stays that way if you never register with the authorities. Follow the story of a Nigerian woman who came to Germany by boat.

von Benedict Wermter , Julian Jestadt , Florian Bickmeyer

For 16 years you have toiled on a field in western Nigeria. You harvested cocoa and tomatoes. A tough job. And because you are a woman you only earned half as much as men who did the same work. It was too little to live, barely enough to survive.

Now you are in your early 30s. Your whole life you have dreamed of Europe. You have heard people say that the work is better and the wages are higher, that men and women are equal there.

One day, in a year marked by a bad harvest, your boss sends you off the field. You should not come back. It is not the first time this has happened, you have experienced all this before. And somewhere else you could find work again. But is that a future?

Your husband left you several years ago and you have no children. One morning you wake up and make a decision: you will go to Europe, you will give it a try.

You are afraid before making your way through the desert. But you have heard about ships that leave from Port Harcourt for Europe. You hang around the harbor for a few days before you find a cargo ship that will take you. You will not earn anything, but you can ride along if you work. On the way to Hamburg you clean, work in the kitchen and help out all over for many hours each day. You do not sleep well and are lonely. But the prospect of a better life gives you hope.

The cook tells you that you cannot simply enter Germany, you need a visa. If you do not have one, the authorities will arrest you and send you back to Nigeria. You had never thought about that. One night you throw your passport overboard. At least now nobody will know who you are and where you come from.

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You hide in the galley when the ship reaches Hamburg. At night you sneak off the ship and out of the harbor. You walk into the night, finding a place to sleep beside the road. The next day you walk into the strange new city. You will not register yourself with the authorities; you do not know how things will go from here. You see a few Africans in a park – carefully you try to connect, you trust them more than the Germans. They give you tips and help you start into a new life that seems uncertain to you. Perhaps it would have been easier at home after all.

Follow the second path to invisibility: you enter the country to request asylum.


You now count as illegal.


  • You cannot work, only off the books, and you cannot make a legal claim for outstanding wages without revealing your identity.
  • You have no health insurance and cannot buy any other type of insurance.
  • You have no pension plan.
  • It will be difficult to rent an apartment.
  • You avoid any encounter with the police, authorities and people who could give you away.
  • You cannot press charges against anyone.
  • You do not receive any social welfare support.
  • You are not allowed to vote.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

The Invisibles

The Failed Request for Asylum

If you request asylum in Germany you must be prepared to wait. First you register with the immigration authorities. Where are you from? Why are you seeking refuge in Germany? Then they decide whether you can stay – but that can take a long time. Half a year, a year, or longer. If they reject your application you have to leave the country. Follow the story of a young man from Pakistan who waited over two years for his decision.

von Benedict Wermter , Julian Jestadt , Florian Bickmeyer

You already have four sisters and two brothers when you are born in a small village in Pakistan. Three decades later you will say that you liked to play with the girls, with dolls and with make-up. You discovered your female side – that was probably one of the first signs.

You are thirteen when you fall in love for the first time. With a boy. You give him presents and it feels good when you kiss. Every day that you see him is better than the days when you do not. But you can only show your love secretly, in hiding, because that is not permitted at home in your village deep within Pakistan. Pakistan calls itself an „Islamic Republic“, open homosexuality is punishable with prison time. People have been talking about you since you played with dolls as a child; they taunt you, make fun of you.

In the following years you meet many men; most of them are significantly older than you and are family fathers. You have the happiest time of your life when one of them, a married man with children, moves to a new city for his job. He takes you with him and you work for him, cooking and cleaning, running the household while he sits in his office. You live like a couple, but rarely leave the house together. After three years he has to move back – and you, in your mid-20s, move back in with your parents while he returns to his family.

His wife finds out about you, along with his brother who calls and threatens to shoot you. You hear the same words again from your own brothers. You are scared. A friend urges you to leave the country to save your life. He puts you in contact with a man. You know nothing about him, only that he can bring you out of the country. You want to go to Canada. He wants over 20,000 Euros for that. For 14,000 he will bring you to Germany.

At the airport, on German territory, he takes away your passport and wishes you luck.

You do not know where to go, so you take a train into the city and sit down in a fast food restaurant. You understand that there is no going back. You cry. There you sit for hours. Then you see a man with brown skin, brown eyes and black hair, from the same part of Asia as you. You speak to him, tell him what happened and that without a passport you are afraid of the police. He offers you his couch and says that the German police will help you. So you go to the police station.

You are locked in a room and wait. At night they put you in a cell with a plank bed. The next day a policeman gives you an address and a train ticket to Berlin. The address is for the immigration authority. You tell your story with the help of an interpreter. The immigration official nods, says little, and when you leave she wishes you a good life in Germany. You learn a difficult German word: Aufenthaltsgestattung – residence permit. For the first three months you are not allowed to work, and after that you can only take a job if no German wants to have it.

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You are assigned a room in an asylum seekers’ residence. They beat you up at night on two occasions. Because you are gay, the men shout at you. After months you are allowed to move into a safe apartment. The immigration authorities have extended your residence permit three times, but after two years you are still waiting for the decision on whether you can stay. The fear of being sent back to Pakistan keeps you up at night. Sometimes you think about taking too many of the sleeping pills you swallow every night.

No. A friend offers you a place in his apartment. One night, you close the door to your apartment for the last time and leave the house. You will never contact the authorities again. Now you know that the police will not help you.

Follow the third way to invisibility: you come to Germany to study.


You now count as illegal.


  • You cannot work, only off the books, and you cannot make a legal claim for outstanding wages without revealing your identity.
  • You have no health insurance and cannot buy any other type of insurance.
  • You have no pension plan.
  • It will be difficult to rent an apartment.
  • You avoid any encounter with the police, authorities and people who could give you away.
  • You cannot press charges against anyone.
  • You do not receive any social welfare support.
  • You are not allowed to vote.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

The Invisibles

Overstaying the Visa

If you come to Germany as a foreigner from outside the EU you require a visa. Only a few countries are exempt from this obligation. When you apply for a visa you have to explain why you want to enter the country and prove that you have enough money, that you have health insurance and want to return to your home country. Your visa is always limited. If you overstay your visa you count as illegal. Follow the story of a Colombian who came to Germany to study.

von Benedict Wermter , Julian Jestadt , Florian Bickmeyer

You are 23 years old. You come from a small village in northeastern Colombia. Your parents have a cattle farm and have worked hard so that you, their oldest son, could go to school. You did well and were even allowed to study – economics in Bogotá. You know that the farm will not be the future for your family. You will have to find your luck somewhere else. At the university you see a notice: one year on student exchange in Germany.

Your parents have doubts, but they also see the opportunity in front of you. Along with your aunts and uncles, they put together their money to cover your flight and 7908 Euros in a blocked account that you must open so that you can enter the country. With the letter of admission to the university you can receive a visa for the time of your studies.

You like the city and the Germans. Everything is in order, life is safe. You fall in love with a girl. And soon you become a couple. You find a job that earns you a few Euros. The year goes by and you have to leave. But you want to stay. You spend long nights talking with your girlfriend – and then you decide together: you will stay in Germany. She will help you and together you will make it work.

You let your return ticket expire. Your parents are sad, but they understand you. Two days later your visa runs out – you now count as illegal in Germany.

You cannot continue studying and also have to give up your job. But you are lucky: you find work in a kitchen through a friend. You fry burgers. And you dream of your own restaurant where you would serve good South American beef. You speak about marriage with your girlfriend, it would allow you to be in Germany again. But her parents are still against that, they think it would be too fast.

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You now count as illegal.


  • You cannot work, only off the books, and you cannot make a legal claim for outstanding wages without revealing your identity.
  • You have no health insurance and cannot buy any other type of insurance.
  • You have no pension plan.
  • It will be difficult to rent an apartment.
  • You avoid any encounter with the police, authorities and people who could give you away.
  • You cannot press charges against anyone.
  • You do not receive any social welfare support.

Back

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

Ein Flugzeugflügel über Berlin© Ivo Mayr

Latest Stories

The #GenerationE about itself

Since the beginning ot the year we have been reporting about the GenerationE – young Southern Europeans who moved to Northern Europe. More than 2400 people filled in our questionnaire which we published in collaboration with several Southern European media organizations. Every few days we introduce you to one of these people on our Tumblr. Now we took a look at the blogs these expats write. They provide an interesting picture of the GenerationE – between pride and prejudice.

von Francesca Anelli , Benedict Wermter

“I don’t see myself as an immigrant, the term describing those who moved abroad out of actual necessity. I prefer the word „expat“, the Generation Expat – that’s it. Back in my hometown I had a stable job, and so had my boyfriend: moving abroad was a free choice, not a desperate one.“ That’s Valentina speaking. She’s Italian but has lived abroad for almost two years now. Together with other female Italian bloggers spreaded across the world, Valentina contributes to the collaborative blog called Amiche di Fuso, which roughly translates to something like „Time zone pals“. Other #GenerationE women get together through the facebook page Donne che emigrano all’estero (women who emigrated abroad), where they share stories about the perks and disadvantages of the expat life.

Valentina states: not everyone needs to move abroad. It’s a free choice. This makes it harder for friends and family to understand and support them. And even if they do, certain aspects of the „expat“ life are still beyond their understanding. „You want to get close to those people who are experiencing the same problems as you are and get how frustrating or, on the other hand, exciting some little expat things may be.“ Amiche di Fuso grew out of a long-distance friendship, which in turn grew out of blogs and facebook pages. Some people say new technologies prevent people from finding true friends. In this case it was the other way around.

Blogging as a therapy to loneliness

“When I came here I managed to build a career quite easily. But I was feeling lonely and estranged. What I really lacked was a satistfying life outside work.“ Francesca’s nickname is Chechi and Vivere a Madrid is her imaginary friend. „I started blogging because I needed to give vent to my needs and wants. After a while, more and more people got in touch with me and my social life improved significantly.“ Since then, Chechi has written a book and participated in several radio and TV shows. Now she finally feels an integrated citizen. „The blog is a cornerstone of my expat experience.“

And the readers?

Blogs can have a positive impact on the everyday life of those who write them.  What does this mean to the readers? They are part of the process too. What about their needs? „Interviews and personal stories are the most read content“, Aldo reveals. Over the years, his blog Italiansinfuga has become his job and is probably the most popular expat blog among Italians. „Practical advices and information are very much appreciated, but that’s not the kind of posts you would share with your friends. They have no emotional appeal, which probably Italians need the most when facing such a big decision.“ Most of his readers still live in Italy, summoning up all their courage to take the ‘big leap’. „Moving abroad is scary. People need to know how it’s  going to feel. They need to know that many people have been there before, and they managed to overcome the challenges they inevitably had to face.“

CORRECTIV ist spendenfinanziert!

CORRECTIV ist das erste gemeinnützige Recherchezentrum im deutschsprachigen Raum. Unser Ziel ist eine aufgeklärte Gesellschaft. Denn nur gut informierte Bürgerinnen und Bürger können auf demokratischem Weg Probleme lösen und Verbesserungen herbeiführen. Mit Ihrer Spende ermöglichen Sie unsere Arbeit. Jetzt unterstützen!

But a little hope is not the only thing the GenerationE needs to start a new life abroad. All these successful expat stories sometimes can be deceiving.

“My goal is to expose the truth. I don’t want others to make the same mistakes I did.“ Roberta moved from Sicily to a small town in Germany two years ago and has quickly realised that information is crucial in this kind of process. „Most Italians are totally unprepared. They have no idea they’re going to need German qualifications or at least some references to find a decent job here. They think Germany is heaven on earth. And some bloggers contribute to misinformation by fostering this idea.“ In order to take a rational decision, expats-to-be need unadulterated sincerity. „I try to warn my readers, but sometimes they just don’t want to listen. They leave anyway and after a couple of months they end up writing me e-mails, telling me that I was right from the very beginning.“

“Strange Animals“

The GenerationE  blog scene is quite dynamic and it showcases a diverse landscape.  While emigrating still feels like a burden in many cases, for some people it’s more of a blessing than a curse. They are keen to know different cultures and appear to be active and organized — also digitally speaking.  Plus, they are proud of their life choices.

Ornitorinko gives voice to those who „are following an interesting path and want to share their experience with others“. It mostly collects stories of young professionals who turned their lives upside-down and moved abroad, even though back in Italy they had a stable job or a solid future ahead. They call themselves „strange animals“. Browsing through the pages we find that lots of them have their own blog too. Sometimes it’s just a hobby, sometimes it’s their actual job. Some of them are, in fact, „digital nomads“ i.e. people who work as web freelancers and therefore don’t need to be in a particular location to make a living. They are not just ‘expats’ but first and foremost ‘travellers’, whose motivation does not only rely on better prospects but also on the pleasure of discovery and thinking outside the box.


Every GeenrationE story is different from the another. We write about the expats in our Tumblr. We also want you to share your experience with us through our questionnaire.