E-Mail: florian.bickmeyer(at)



Hundreds of Thousands are Invisible

Nobody knows how many undocumented people live in Germany and Europe. For that reason our investigation is called “The Invisibles”. Dita Vogel, an academic at the University of Bremen, conducted a study several years ago that sought to determine the number of Invisibles. Her conclusion: hundreds of thousands of people are not allowed to be in Germany – and millions in Europe.

von Florian Bickmeyer

The result is only a rough estimate. Florian Bickmeyer spoke with Vogel about how she calculated the number, about scary numbers and about her current investigation: about children in illegality.

Ms. Vogel, it is due to the very nature of the issue that we do not know how many undocumented people live in Germany and in Europe. But you have come up with numbers. Tell us, how many people are there who live without documents and in illegality?

Dita Vogel: That is very difficult to estimate. Since the Clandestino study there have been no other investigations that looked at the individual member states with their widely varying conditions. At the time, we estimated the following: between 1.9 and 3.8 million people lived in the EU without residency papers in the year 2008. That was 0.4 to 0.8 percent of the total population and 7 to 13 percent of foreigners. For Germany we assumed there were between 200,000 and 460,000 people. After that the data initially shows a decline before increasing again since 2010, so that the updated estimate for 2013 was of similar dimensions: I later updated the number: for 2013 I estimate that there were 150,000 to 450,000 people.

A portrait of Dita Vogel

Dita Vogel

Those are large ranges of numbers. How did you estimate them?

We looked at the police crime statistics. The most important thing is to bear in mind that the statistics are distorted – and to try to use this distortion to estimate an upper and a lower limit. The idea is that undocumented people show up in the crime statistics more frequently in relation to the German population and less frequently in relation to the foreign population.

Why would that be the case?

People who live without documents are very careful. They try to stay away from the police and from crime. But at the same time they have characteristics that make it more likely for them to receive attention from the police. It is less likely that a white 70 year old woman who lives in a retirement home will be asked by the police for her ID than a black 20 year old man. That means this method always has a significant degree of fuzziness which we have to live with in the statistics. But I think there are good arguments that the correct number lies within the mentioned range – somewhere.

Sometimes there is talk about more than a million undocumented people who live in Germany. That would be more than two times as many.

Such large numbers are not helpful in the discussion. Those who want to put something on the agenda look for a number that’s as large as possible. But that backfires, then the decision-makers are incredibly scared, it rather leads to political standstill. If one wants to achieve something for the people, one should be careful with the large numbers I think. A half a million people are already very many.

Then let us stay with your numbers: between 150,000 and up to half a million. What do you know about these people?

We can generally assume that the numbers are slightly rising at the moment. Then the number is young men who enter the country illegally is often overestimated. While the number of older women is underestimated. Since Clandestino, we assume that men only have a slight prevalence within the group. That is also because people can only survive for a longer time in illegality if they find work. One possibility of employment in is private households – and that is a predominantly female sector. Many come from the EU’s neighbor states, from Albania, the Ukraine, Turkey or Morocco. What we noticed: people from the large, most populous countries in the word are also represented here to a relatively large extent in illegality – from Asia Chinese or Indians, from Africa Nigerians, from South America Brazilians. Finally there is also a larger group of people from countries marked by war or crisis but who still do not generally receive asylum in Germany. People who come from Syria right now can be almost sure to receive some sort of humanitarian status – that is not necessarily the case for Afghanistan, Pakistan or many African countries.

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How did people react to your numbers? Up to half a million people living without documents. One could say: that is a great number; that is important for our country. One could also say: that is hardly half a percent of Germans; that is not so important.

I think that since these numbers have been around it has become more difficult to cry out for more controls because of an uncontrollable number of people who count as illegal. Of course that is still done anyway – because the will to control migration is primarily motivated by the number of people who are still outside the country, who could still be coming. The people who are already inside are important for other questions. For example: can we regularize individual groups? Will our school system by bursting at the seams if children without a residency status are also allowed to go to school? Will our health system fall apart if these people all have a right to medical care? The estimate was primarily important for the humanitarian questions. The number has contributed to implementing sensible regulations in German politics. Such as that the health and school authorities’ obligation to report was changed. For example, people who work at schools here no longer have to report to the authorities when they find out about undocumented people. And they also have no right to do it anymore because the data is protected – but it is another question whether every person working there really knows that.

Let us talk about undocumented children. How do children fare in illegality?

Their number is presumably rather small. But for every single child the situation can have dramatic consequences for the rest of their life. For example if a child can’t go to school – because there are institutional regulations that prevent it; or if the schools have not been adequately informed that they also have to accept this child; or if the parents’ fear stands in the way. The children are not the ones who make a decision about migration and illegality. The decision is made for them. And the parents of often afraid of being caught.

At the Annual Meeting on Illegality you introduced a study on this issue that you are starting at the moment: undocumented children and their possibilities for going to school. Have you already gathered an impression about how these possibilities stand?

The schools have no routines for dealing with such children. An inquiry about whether a child can go to a certain school might already fail with the school secretary who says over the telephone: „No, that won’t work. You can’t register your child here without proof of legal residence.“ We should be establishing the following principle: „No child should get lost, every child has a right to go to school“ – even if there is no proof of legal residence. The ministers of education are convinced that this is the case everywhere in their states. I also think the principle is taken seriously. In every state, letters were written to the schools that legal proof of residence is not necessary. But I’m not sure if that is enough. My impression is that this principle has not been picked up yet by all school administrations and secretariats. The affected parents also often don’t believe that it’s possible to register their child at a school.

Finally: what would you ask of the politicians?

I would wish that hardship cases be construed more broadly, that there be more possibilities for people who have lived in illegality for many years to still find a way out. I see the abolishment of the obligation to report undocumented people as a step forward and wish that it be implemented across all areas in a way that works – access to legal employment protection, to school, to medical care. My last wish concerns legal employment protection, the ability to claim wages from abroad: there is an EU directing according to which everyone has the right to receive a wage for work they have performed, even if they lived and worked here illegally. But it is very, very difficult to make such a claim from abroad. There should be more ways to help people claim their wages in the country or after returning abroad. I don’t believe that everyone who is here illegally once will stay here. And I don’t think we should make it easy to cheat and exploit these people. The people working regularly in Germany should also have an interest in preventing employers from getting away with cheating people without the right of residence of their promised wages.

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.


Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

© Ivo Mayr


We Thank You

Since December we have had a crowdfunding platform at CORRECT!V. The investigation on the Invisibles is the first publication that you have financed there. We kindly thank you for that. Now we are beginning with the second part of our investigation: we want to grasp the Invisibles not only as individual fates, but understand their problems through as many contacts as possible.

von Florian Bickmeyer

In November we asked ourselves questions for which we had no answers. We knew these numbers from an EU research project: accordingly, hundreds of thousands live in Germany who are not allowed to be in the country – and millions in other European countries. These are people who only share their story with their closest friends. They live without valid documents, they have immigrated illegally or stayed when they were supposed to leave. No public authority knows about them anymore. For that reason we called them „The Invisibles“.

We asked ourselves: what rights do these people have? How do they get by? How do they earn money? Who are they really? Is it even possible to live in a country and not encounter the authorities? Or to need them? What do these people do when they get sick? Who helps them? Who are they afraid of? Or what? And why? Do they have a dream? Do they voluntarily live without documents? Is it the last chance they have? What do they need then?

We wanted to know all this.

And then we asked ourselves: do you too?

Crowdfunding successful

We didn’t know. Two months later we were nervous and hopeful, then it became clear: you want to know as well – and you are helping us find out.

You donated 4000 Euros to us after we published our questions for an investigation that we wanted to finance through the crowdfunding platform which we had just established at CORRECTIV. Target accomplished. Thanks to your help and your interest. It is not only money you have given us for our work, but also trust. And it is suggestions and indications, criticism and praise.

To the crowdfunders

Miriam Heising, Thomas Angeli, Denis Bartelt, Frank Ostrowski, Michael Rasenberger and Christian Schwägerl

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!

we extend our express thanks from the heart. We also thank the numerous donors who have supported us anonymously. You have all made our initial investigation on the Invisibles possible. With its publication last week, this became our first investigation that you have financed through crowdfunding. Since December, almost all projects on CORRECTIV’s crowdfunding platform have achieved their target donations. The reporters on the projects have continued their work – and we look forward to the future publications which you will have made possible.

Support us with our investigation

The investigation on the Invisibles is far from over after this initial publication, and it is not only a crowdfunding project. It is also a crowdsourcing project. We want to reach as many of the hundreds of thousands of Invisibles in Germany and millions in Europe as we can. We want to understand their lives through their mass, not only as individual fates. We want to find structures, commonalities and differences.

We summed up our questions for the Invisibles in a questionnaire. First only in German, then in French and English, now also in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Farsi, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish.

We will now bring this questionnaire to the invisibles, in the doctor’s and lawyer’s offices, to the churches, the refugee services, the trade unions – to all the places where people might have to do with Invisibles.

We seek to gather as many answers as possible to create a unique database. With thousands of answers from Invisibles we might identify problems that we couldn’t even imagine. We know that Invisibles often work in construction, nursing care and restaurants. But where else? Who exploits them? Might there be a sector that depends on the Invisibles as cheap labor? Thousands of answers will help us understand where these people came from, how they got here and why. Thousands of answers will also help us understand who these people are, what they can do and what they hope for.

You can help us by sharing our questionnaire. On Facebook, on Twitter, or just by telling others about it. Almost everyone knows someone. Even more people know someone who knows someone. Maybe you also know Invisibles – and don’t even realize it yet. Or you know someone who helps the Invisibles. I have experienced both things myself: two times people spoke to me after I first shared our questionnaire on Facebook. They were acquaintances from among hundreds of Facebook friends. I would have never thought they would help me with the investigation. After the conversations I had a better understanding of who is good to the Invisibles and who is bad to them, what a few of them are afraid of or what they dream about.

Let us work together to find out more through thousands, not only just a few.Beispieltext für diesen Blog-Post. Hier doppelklicken zum Ändern.

Update, June 4th, 12:30 p.m.: We have now also translated the questionnaire into Italian and have added this to the list above.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford