The Snitch Law

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

von Benedict Wermter


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

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

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

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

A portrait of Birgit Poppert

Birgit Poppert

Why is it not abolished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you mean that, too apolitical?

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

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr