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.

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