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