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Interviews

The Sovereignty of the State

Why can people not freely enter our country? The Germany residency law does not justify this. The migration researcher Norbert Cyrus says that closing borders goes against individual liberty. But he also says: states are allowed to limit migration if they have concrete reasons.

von Julian Jestadt

That would also help protect individuals’ rights. Julian Jestadt spoke with Norbert Cyrus about the balance between the residency law and the right to freedom of movement.

Mr. Cyrus, people are not allowed to move around freely in this world. There are passports, state borders that are only allowed to be crossed with express permission, and border controls. In Germany we have a residency law which regulates foreigners’ entry, exit and residency. Tell us, why do we need this?

Norbert Cyrus: Across the world we can identify significant differences: in regard to income levels, public and social security, future perspectives and individual liberty. This creates incentives for migration. The residency law is designed to regulate and limit this migration. This is supposed to protect our social fabric.

A portrait of Norbert Cyrus

Norbert Cyrus

And is it necessary for us to protect ourselves?

We need verifiable regulations in accordance with rule of law to organize how people enter the country as well as residency and social cohesion. But the current residency law is in urgent need of reformation. I believe the issue should be to allow and ensure migration. We must find a balance between every individual’s right to free movement and the right of the state to regulate entry into the country and residency. Both rights – on their own – contradict one another. At the moment, the right of the state is given priority. There is no balance.

How could we resolve this contradiction and find a balance?

In a debate that is not marked by fear. First the individual right to free movement must be recognized as an aspect of the fundamental human right to liberty, which includes the right to enter a country. This is part of a liberal conception of statehood that protects democracy and individual liberties. At the same time, such a conception of state recognizes the state’s right to decide on people’s entry, exit, residency and exclusion. Naturally, this can only apply for states that are led democratically and are legitimized by their citizens. As the two rights contradict one another, a liberal society must determine which right should be given priority – and to what extend the other right can be restricted. I argue that states which claim to respect human rights and promote individual liberties must regard the right of the individual as the higher good. In that case, it should only be restricted if there are very good and clear reasons.

Is that a suggestion to abolish borders?

No. In the current circumstances of global inequality, a state, let’s say Germany, can restrict the higher good of freedom of movement to a limited extent. This should not be seen as self-evident, but as a means of last resort that must be justified in concrete terms.

What reasons are there for having the Germany residency law?

At the moment, the German residency law restricts freedom of movement without referring to any good reasons. The general argument is usually made that states possess an internationally recognized sovereignty which includes the right to control migration – according to national interest, whatever that is, and without any obligation to provide justification. At the same time, the right to freedom of movement is not recognized. Accordingly, the issue of concrete justification for a restriction is not raised.

Many say that Germany cannot take in everyone who wants to come. Is that a justification?

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Yes, that can be a justification.

Is it sufficient?

No. Because this justification is not made concrete and is not verifiable. It is sweeping and superficial. One would have to show that taking in people seeking sanctuary would undermine the foundations of our democracy and our social fabric. Only then can the restriction of freedom of movement be seen as justified. I can show you a different example: the right to freedom of opinion and speech can be restricted if insults or hate speeches collide with the basic and human rights of other people. In a liberal state governed by the rule of law, this underlies court review. That means a restriction is only legitimate if it is well justified and verifiable. In states governed by the rule of law, freedom of speech and opinion are not called into question as basic and human rights – but it seems to be different with the freedom of movement.

You mentioned earlier that the residency law claims to protect the social fabric of the state. If this fabric were endangered, would that be a good justification?

Yes. But then one must show that this social fabric is concretely threatened by immigration, and to what extent, and how it might collide with other rights. But one must ask: is this part of a change that we must bear as a society today? Or is it something that threatens our democracy, our society? This must be demonstrated and must be verifiable to justify a restriction of the freedom of movement. But it does not happen.

What is your proposal?

The obstacles that restrict individuals’ freedom of movement are demonstrated in concrete terms when supposed justifications for restricting the freedom of movement are presented. This would be the basis for deliberations and debates to determine whether these justifications are convincing and applicable – or not. If they are convincing, we can think about how individual freedom of movement can be established to the greatest possible extent under these conditions, which also means: how immigration can be enabled. That way a balance between the two rights can gradually be developed in political debates.

Why is this not happening?

We live in a complex society in which the current structural, institutional and social conditions have been negotiated through an arduous process. Global inequalities and asynchronicities have created tensions between different principles. Established policy primarily seeks to prevent change to the particular social system and conditions. There is a danger that those who profit from the structures at the moment could have something taken away from them. There is a great incentive to rather not change anything and preserve what has been accomplished for as long as possible. There is a fear of losing wealth or privileges. This fear must be taken seriously – also because it can be used to promote resentment against immigration. But as before: a general reference to unclear fears is not a sufficient justification for restricting such a high good as the right to individual freedom of movement.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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Interviews

There Will Always be Invisibles

Eight years ago, the European Union had not yet closed off its outside borders with high fences, infrared cameras, satellites and drones. Even then, Maren Wilmes thought that closing the borders was wrong. This exacerbates illegal immigration, she wrote in her study entitled “Undocumented People in Cologne”.

von Julian Jestadt

Migrants go to wherever they see a chance to improve their lives. States, regions and international unions may be able to close themselves off in an attempt to secure their own social standards. But the people who manage to cross the border, offer their own labor power for cheaper and do without social security meet a demand: this is often in the cleaning and care sectors, in the meat and construction industries, in restaurants and child care. Working in the shadow economy here is still more profitable than at home. That makes illegal immigration attractive.

Julian Jestadt spoke with Maren Wilmes. She is a social education researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at Osnabrück University.

Ms. Wilmes, if immigration is attractive but is restricted, will there always be irregular immigration?

Maren Wilmes: Yes, irregular migration and irregular residency are an unwanted but unavoidable byproduct of immigration policy. The only questions are: how large should this group be, how large do we let it become? Who do we pull out of illegality – and who do we not? And how do we enable the irregular people living here a residency that allows them to go to the doctor without fear and send their children to kindergarten or to school without worrying that they could be caught?

A portrait of Maren Wilmes

Maren Wilmes

There are no reliable numbers for these people. That is due to the nature of the issue. What we know: there are hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million people, who live in Germany without documents. They count as illegal or irregular. What does that mean?

According to the residency law, people who do not have a right of residency status are in Germany irregularly. That means they don’t have a residency permit, are not tolerated or have a temporary residency permit – so according to the law they have no right to live in Germany.

How is that possible?

I would distinguish between three very different pathways: first there are the people who enter the country regularly with a visa but decide to overstay it and not leave. Secondly, there is a group of people that is very difficult to locate, they cross the border in secret and become irregular as soon as they enter the country. And thirdly, there is the way of going through an asylum procedure – many go into hiding at the latest when the request for asylum is denied, some people also disappear earlier.

What reasons do people in the first group have who overstay their visa and stay?

They enter the country with a tourist visa, a visa for a language course, to study or as an au pair. If they stay longer, they become so-called „overstayers“. It is certainly often an attempt to find work in the shadow economy. Despite their irregularity, these people see greater chances here than in their home country. Sometimes family is also a reason. I know about cases with Turkish nationals: the grandparents want to be with their children or grandchildren who live here. Or they are brought over because no one else would take care of them if they family has emigrated.

What do you know about people who enter the country secretly?

That’s difficult. Those are also primarily people who want to work and earn money in Germany – often for their families back home. Some of them have destroyed their documents before or after crossing the border so that they cannot be deported to a home country in case they are caught. In addition – and this has increased in recent years – there are refugees who never even apply for asylum. This is often because they are afraid of being deported to another EU country on the basis of the Dublin III regulation – to the country that they first entered or where they might already be going through an asylum procedure. Some also know or believe that they don’t have any chance for receiving asylum, for instance because their home is considered to be a safe country of origin. They remain in illegality due to a lack of alternatives. Another significant group comprises victims of human trafficking.

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And why do people shift out of asylum procedures into irregularity, on the third pathway?

Asylum seekers whose request has been denied do this to escape the imminent threat of deportation. But there are also asylum seekers who are still going through the procedure but do not see any prospects, they leave their regularized status and go into hiding. Or they are people who have been tolerated for many years but have no prospects, who have to live every day with the threat of deportation. These people constantly live with the fear of losing their status – they anticipate this and take action.

People who go into hiding don’t report to the authorities anymore, don’t cross any border officially and move home. As far as the authorities are concerned, these people are invisible – that means a life without rights.

These people compare their situation with life in their home country; despite their irregularity they see better life prospects and chances in Germany. If they manage to earn money on a relatively constant basis, it is certainly possible to live a largely „normal“ life here, to rent a little apartment, even to send the children to school and to get access to simple or necessary basic medical coverage through the Medinets, the Maltese Migrant Medicine or the health authorities. The problems can mainly be seen in daily life. Their movement around the city is restricted, they can’t attract attention, can’t cross the street at a red light and must always buy a ticket for the subway. If they don’t manage to make money on a regular basis they are left with nothing, as if they were standing on a cliff and could fall down at any time. People who lead a regularized life would fall into the social safety net that catches them. There is no such net for undocumented people. The fear of falling is a constant companion. But there is a great variety within this group: some people master their irregular residency, others fall into existential trouble.

Are there possibilities for leaving a state of illegality in regard to the right of residency and leading a normal life here?

Basically none. People can make an application for asylum in the hope that it will be recognized – but many do not have a chance. They can marry a German. Or they can receive a residency permit through the Hardship Commission. But even on these paths the chances are very slim.

Why does our residency law exclude so many people?

Immigration must be regulated in a welfare state such as the Federal Republic of Germany. But the current immigration policy creates a difficult situation: the door is opened for highly qualified people, they are even sought out, while people with few qualifications are excluded. But we can see that many people work in the shadow economy. That means: there is a demand for these workers. So we should also allow them to immigrate. At the moment, the law only regulates how immigration should be restricted, not how it should be shaped. It is also not possible to come here as an asylum seeker and stay as a labor migrant, even though many asylum seekers have a qualification or a university degree. Our residency permits are categorized too strictly for that to be possibly. But reasons for residency can change in the course of the migration biography, they don’t always fit into categories. In Sweden, for instance, it’s possible to change between reasons for residency, but in Germany the residency law makes that impossible.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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Interviews

Protecting the Social Market Economy

The goal is July 10th. Then the German government will make a decision about everyone who is tolerated in Germany. These are people who were refused the right of residency, but cannot be deported. On July 10th, the upper house of the German Parliament will discuss the draft bill on “Residency Law and Residency Termination”.

von Julian Jestadt

In the future, tolerated people should receive the right to stay if they have lived in Germany long enough, earn money and are involved in society. But at the same time, people who are set for deportation should be thrown in jail quicker. Julian Jestadt talked with Christian Klos about tightening the regulations and about why Germany needs a residency law. Klos is the head of division for immigration law at the German Interior Ministry, where the law is being drafted.

Dr. Klos, would you explain why immigration must be regulated?

Dr. Christian Klos: For Germany my answer is the following: because we are a democratic state governed by the rule of law in a social market economy. But all states in the world essentially take on the right to decide who can be in their territory and who cannot. This is derived from state sovereignty. It is also a societal question: who should be part of society and who should not?

A portrait of Christian Klos

Christian Klos

Why do you draw on the social market economy for your answer?

We have a labor market that provides certain forms of protection, such as those related to pensions and health care. These are standards that we seek to provide for the population in Germany. Accordingly, immigration and the social market economy are strongly linked because we also face the question of employment for immigrants. The residency law was created to shape immigration and ensure that we also respect our legal order in regard to foreign cohabitants. Naturally, that also applies to the issue of social security.

During the Annual Meeting on Illegality you made an interesting statement: if we want to find a place in our order for everyone who wants to stay in Germany, then we don’t need the residency law anymore. Does that mean we must expand the existing order to allow for more immigration?

The German parliament is largely free to decide who is allowed to come to Germany; whether we want more immigration and what kind. The scope for decision-making is only very limited in cases where we must observe our humanitarian responsibility as well as international obligations and take in people who have legal reasons for fleeing. To the extent that we can regulate immigration, we need a decision by the state or rather the society on the question of who should come and who can stay. It doesn’t work for people to just say: I’m here now and want to stay.

The Interior Ministry is currently drafting a law and has also presented a draft bill that is being discussed. It promises a reformation of the right of residency for tolerated people. What exactly is this supposed to achieve?

The lawmakers are facing up to reality in regard to the right of residence. There are people who are obligated to leave, but have lived here for many years and have shown significant accomplishments as far as integration goes. In the past, we have tried to solve this dilemma through regulations that set cutoff dates – to assure that illegal immigration would not become more attractive. Now the grand coalition has come to the agreement that in cases of sustainable integration people should have the possibility to receive the right to stay in Germany after eight years – for families even after six years.

Eight years is a very long time.

As mentioned, these are people who are actually obligated to leave. The residency law determines whether someone is allowed to stay or not. If the decision is „no“, then a residency termination must first be achieved. There must be a serious attempt to enforce the law. If this fails in the long term for various reasons, then one must eventually face the new realities and maybe take the step to set aside the obligation to leave and grant the person a residency permit. That has been combined with certain requirements: next to the six or eight years, there must be accomplishments in regard to integration.

The law is also supposed to facilitate imprisonment. The stated reasons almost always apply to asylum seekers who have been turned down. Why is the law being tightened in this way?

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The legal position is significantly improved for people who have the right to stay for humanitarian reasons. On the flipside – my minister also always says this (Thomas de Maizière, Christian Democratic Party; editor’s note) – people who do not possess the right of residency in any form must be effectively deported. The draft law does allow detention at short notice if it can be assumed that the person who is obligated to leave will go into hiding before their deportation.

Up to half a million people live in Germany under the radar of the authorities. They count as illegal. How do you counter criticism that such a law would lead more people to hide from the state authorities and be pushed into illegality?

That number seems strongly exaggerated to me. Nobody pushes these people into illegality. The authorities must take care that our regulations in regard to the right of residency are observed. Our courts are then in charge of ensuring that this activity is conducted in accordance with the law. The people who really do not possess the right of residency are initially given a deadline to leave the country voluntarily, this always has priority. If they stay anyway, there must also be the possibility to make it absolutely clear: their stay in Germany will now be terminated.

Around 50,000 people live in Germany who have been tolerated for over three years. These are people who were refused the right of residency. They are caught in a difficult situation: they are not really part of society, but are in the country. In our investigation, we often heard that people shift into illegality at this stage and hide from the authorities. Would it not make sense to find prospects for these people?

With tolerated people, the question of whether they will receive a residency status has already been answered with „no“. These are people who are obligated to leave, but for various reasons the obligation to leave cannot be initially enforced. Beyond that, the status of toleration is proof that the person is known to the authorities and could also receive social benefits for basic provision.

But wouldn’t it be possible to give these people, who have been living with the status of toleration for a long time, prospects to prevent them from going into hiding?

These prospects already exist. There are already various possibilities for leaving a state of illegality in regard to the right of residency. A foreigner who has not created obstacles to prevent them from leaving the country themselves, such as by not revealing their identity, is already supposed to receive a residency permit after 18 months. In the past years, this has allowed around 50,000 people to receive a residency permit out of a state of illegality. Then there is already a right of residency for well integrated teenagers and young people. And also for well integrated and qualified tolerated people to allow for employment. And after various residency regulations with cutoff dates in the past years, there will now be – presumably from the summer – a regulation without a cutoff date, that means it will be permanent. So there are possibilities to move from a state of illegality in regard to the right of residency to a state of legality.

That applies to people who are known to the authorities. Not to those about whom the authorities do not know – and who will not show themselves voluntarily because they fear consequences. Don’t we need possibilities for this?

The least we need to demand is that people register themselves and go to the immigration authorities. Otherwise we really do not know about them and they live in complete illegality. The path always goes through the immigration authority where each individual case can then be evaluated – but these people deliberately avoid that. Maybe someone already fulfills the criteria for receiving the right of residency in Germany? They do then have to face this evaluation. And we can’t take this risk away from anyone. There is no right of residency for everyone in Germany. A person can’t decide on their own in which state they want to live – not anywhere in the world.

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