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CORRECTIV follows up on its investigations after first publication. We continue to investigate, we update and we publish individual stories. All of these you can find here.

German police has been accused of resorting to the use of racial profiling when policing crowds during the latest New Year celebrations in Cologne.© picture alliance / Geisler-Fotopress

Migration

How racial profiling works in Germany

Our fellow Sandhya Kambhampati reported on her experience with racial profiling during her time in Germany. Since then, she received 700 messages.

von Sandhya Kambhampati

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience getting racially profiled in Germany and asked people to share their stories of racial profiling. I’ve been profiled 23 times since I’ve been in Germany, mostly while walking, running or going to the park. As a journalist, it’s pushed me to understand how big this issue of racial profiling is in Germany and reach out to authorities. 

The response is overwhelming. I’ve heard back from approximately 700 people. I’ve received hundreds of survey responses, emails, Twitter and Facebook messages about this topic. 

Because there is no comprehensive dataset on this issue, this research and survey sheds light on some of the experiences of people getting profiled around Germany at some point in their life – either traveling or living here. Some of the notes I received were similar to the profiling which happened in Cologne over New Year’s Eve, while others were profiled while doing everyday activities, such as walking in the park or on the train. 

People reached out with their personal stories and stories of friends and family who’ve experienced some kind of profiling. Others wanted to do something about the issue and asked for resources and ways they could help to stop this issue from spreading. Some contacted me through Twitter and Facebook and connected me to other friends or colleagues who have experienced profiling. 

300 messages of hate

I received over 700 responses in all different forms. More than 400 shared their stories. The other 300 responses were people who sent messages of hate. These people were pointing fingers at me saying the research was false and the police rightfully should be after me and other „illegals“. I received threats saying the „Nazis would be after me“, that „I should go back to my country“, that I should keep my doors locked because I might get attacked and people questioning if I really knew what my nationality was. One person wrote, „I wouldn’t have thought you were an American. Quite frankly, you look more Asian or African.“ These remarks only fueled my reporting and research.

People responded from Hamburg, Mainz, Freiburg, Cologne, Berlin, Karlsruhe and Munich, among others. People said they got stopped on trains, train stations, parks, near the borders and on the street. They said they were asked by police if they have drugs on them or have ever been in trouble with the authorities. They were asked to show proof of their id and residency in Germany. Sixty percent of the people who reached out through the survey said they had been stopped at least one time. Of these, 12 percent said they get stopped once a week. 

Many of the people who reached out were happy that they weren’t alone in this and wanted to share their story. The stories people shared were personal and many asked to remain anonymous for the fear of their safety. For this reason and because of the threats and hate mail I received, I’ve only included their first names. 

Deeply embedded attitudes

A man from Hamburg, Dennis, wrote to me. He’s born and raised in Germany and his wife, is from Brazil and is black. They are currently expecting their first child in a few months. He told me about his fears for his child, asking, „how often will this child have to answer stupid questions, be racially profiled or experience people acting differently because of the color of its skin?“ He hopes people will be careful about not feeding into stereotypes. 

“How can we seriously claim to be an open and liberal democracy if we consistently exclude people that are born here with a multiethnic background?“ Dennis asked. „It happens way too often that black Germans are still confronted with stupid phrases like: ‘Wow, your German is great’ or ‘But seriously, where are you REALLY coming from’. I think that it is this kind of thinking that gives the foundation for racial profiling as these attitudes are deeply embedded in the everyday narratives of our society.“ 

Similarly, I heard from a woman, Caroline who has five children, two of whom are from Sri Lanka. Caroline explained that her daughter would often get asked in the grocery store if she was stealing things from the store and would get stopped at train stations and restaurants. As a mother, she feels helpless and angry she can’t do much to prevent this from happening. 

Pulled out of line

Another woman, who is Asian and is from Australia, wrote she was stopped on the Polish/German border when she was on her way home from a trip. The police officers stopped her and two black men behind her in a train which was full of people – all of which were white – and checked their id’s. The officers did not however, check her husband’s, who is white. Since this experience, she has left Berlin and mentioned that racism was one of the determining factors for her move. 

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There’s also been some who wrote they were targeted in the airport. Dharmesh who is from India, but lives in Berlin said he travels quite regularly throughout Germany for his job. He takes flights normally from Berlin to Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich usually. In the last four months, he’s been pulled out of the security line every time for explosive detection at each airport. He’s been stopped 3 to 4 times per week for this and he says it’s clear that he is being singled out as white people usually do not get checked during these times. He jokingly wrote he has now started bets with his colleagues that he’ll get stopped, while they won’t.

These stories are just a sample of the hundreds of responses I got. Many of them felt that in some cases, controls might be necessary, but this should not be on a skin-color basis, but rather because of some substantial evidence. They also said the controls make them feel different, unwanted and make them question authority.

Not a problem

Some people who reached out shared stories from their childhood and of their experiences of racism, but not necessarily profiling.  For example, a man from Frankfurt, who has a mother from India and a father who is born in Germany, recalled his childhood experience and „experiences that make [him] aware that he’s considered different“. Growing up, he recalled his teachers in kindergarten telling them that the „beige-colored markers were ‘hautfarben’- ‘skin-colored’, literally, and thinking ‘well that’s dumb, my skin’s not that color.’“ A few others noted similar experiences, noting that these experiences are all things that contribute to a feeling that a German person can only be seen as a white blond-haired person. 

One man, Fabian, wrote to me expressing concern not about his own profiling or his own stories, but rather, he focused on the authorities and what they are doing about racial profiling. He wrote, „What is the worst is that after the recent events, even the German political elite, all the way up to the federal ministers, doesn’t seem to have a problem with it.“ 

Several NGOs and other organizations who I spoke to such as the UN, Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, and Amnesty International have recommended Germany deal with racism and have an investigations into the practices of the police force. They all spoke of the widespread issues of racism among the police and how police target people of “migrant backgrounds.”

Looking forward

There has been several court cases on the legitimacy of ID checks based on skin color. And more and more of these cases are ruling in favor of the victims. Recently, the administrative court in Rhineland-Palatinate (the second highest administrative court in Germany) achieved success as they declared a police control illegal. I spoke with Sven Adam, one of the leading lawyers on these cases, who said there are currently about 10 different court cases taking place in various administrative courts. Adam said the federal police often try to defend themselves in cases by saying they had to check a certain person because they looked out of the window a certain way or walked too quickly out of the train station. So they try to pretend these are the reasons for the checks. But in court, these often turn out to be lies or claims that cannot be proven, he said. 

I also emailed the police in all sixteen states to enquire about their rules and regulations for stopping people. All but one state, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, responded. I asked them all if they do racial profiling, if they collect any data on the people they stop, and if they have any trainings on when and when not to stop people for identification. Their responses were similar: they don’t do racial profiling because it’s illegal. In their trainings they go over that profiling and labeling is illegal. 

Many police departments also said they recruit and have a certain percentage of their police force of migrant backgrounds which allow them to have different experiences to draw from. Many offices also have intercultural competency officers and diversity officers who inform the police force how to properly deal with these issues. In Bremen, the police department has a conference specifically on ethnic profiling and is working with organizations who support migrants to proactively deal with this issue. If the police is going to stop anyone, it’s because they have a reason to do so. In other words: the person may look similar to a person who is wanted. 

All of the police departments also have procedures in place so people can submit a complaint if they feel like they are unrightfully questioned. When I asked further about the number of complaints, this information was not disclosed. 

Thomas Neuendorf, spokesperson for the Berlin police said if suspicion-based checks take place and if the suspicion is not confirmed, the check is not recorded. They only record these statistics to show that they are making the efforts to stop people – otherwise, he says, the population asks why the police is not doing anything. 

This issue is also being discussed on an EU level. In 2014, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recommended to the German authorities to ban racial profiling and update their Action Plan against Racism and Intolerance, which has not been updated since 2008.

If my research on this topic over the last few months has shown me one thing, it’s that Germany’s police force needs to acknowledge this as an issue. And begin some sort of data collection to really understand how widespread this issue is. Until they acknowledge that profiling actually happens, it will be tough for the police to really pinpoint how many people are impacted by this. People who feel that they have experienced racial profiling should reach out to organizations such as Amnesty International and Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, who are actively working to defend the rights of people of color in Germany. 

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Interviews

An Act of Grace as the Last Chance

Around every fifth day, the Jesuit Refugee Service makes an application to the Berlin Senate. Then a commission has to decide whether an immigrant can stay. The law says: “urgent humanitarian or personal reasons” must “justify a further stay of the foreigner on federal territory”. In cases of hardship, people can stay – if the Interior Minister approves.

von Benedict Wermter

Accordingly, the commission that decides on the fate of these people is called the Hardship Commission. It consists of representatives from politics, the state authorities, charities as well as the migrant and refugee councils of various church groups. Father Frido Pflüger is at the negotiating table for the Berlin archdiocese, he is the head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany. Benedict Wermter spoke with him about intractable authorities, controlled migration and the work of the Hardship Commission.

Father Pflüger, you have said that last year you had 800 conversations with people who asked for your help. And some of your clients sought your advice two or three times. Every year you make 70 to 80 applications to the Berlin Senate administration which the Hardship Commission then decides on. Can we assume that you would prefer that your work and the Hardship Commission were not needed?

Father Frido Pflüger: We need the Hardship Commission because the legislation on the right of residence is insufficient. But even the best legislation is insufficient and cannot fairly account for all cases. There is a difference between law and justice. For that reason the Hardship Commission is beneficial – because every legal construct has cumbersome and problematic aspects. There is no perfect law. According to the clause on cases of hardship in the residency law, the Interior Minister can decide on hardship cases based on recommendations from the commission.

A portrait of Frido Pflüger

Frido Pflüger

How does the Hardship Commission prepare for these difficult decisions?

The Hardship Commission prepares an act of grace. The people come to us, we look at their story, check whether there are humanitarian reasons and see if a person or even a whole family should stay. Decisive criteria include the length of their irregular residency, integration efforts, a secure livelihood and language skills. These commissions exist for every federal state.

Who decides on these difficult cases?

The Berlin commission consists of representatives from the Catholic and Protestant Churches, the Refugee and Migration Councils and from the League of Charities. There are also two representatives from the state authorities. Every representative can bring in applications that they prepare. Before the Interior Minister makes the decision, we discuss and vote on every single case in the Hardship Commission.

Do you always use your position to vote in favor of the residency permit?

Sometimes there are critical cases where one says: „I have doubts with this one.“ Then one can abstain.

Many who support „illegal“ residents call for abolishing asylum laws and liberalizing the right of residency. Do you stand for uncontrolled migration and the right of residency for everyone?

Pflüger: Difficult question. I actually stand for controlled migration: every state has the right to shape its own civil life, in cooperation with its neighbors and the world community of course. I would not want to uncritically support the right of residency for everyone because there are people where we can say: „We don’t really want to have you here.“

As far as the authorities are concerned, people who live in Germany without a residency permit are invisible until they dare to come out of hiding. It appears that you see these people, even meet them and speak with them. What role do „illegal“ residents play in the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Germany?

People keep coming for guidance on hardship cases where it turns out that they do not have a residency permit – that means they are „illegal“. These people then try to regularize their stay through a hardship case application. This does not always work in other states in Germany because some Hardship Commissions have the prerequisite that people must have been previously registered with the authorities. But in Berlin we can also take people who do not have a permit yet. In that sense we are ahead of the others in dealing with the Invisibles.

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Which group among the Invisibles deserves more protection within the residency law – „illegal“ refugees or people who overstayed their visa?

Refugees are people who want to escape danger, they deserve special protection. We must save them from returning to their home country where people face unbearable circumstances. This is not necessarily the case with people whose visa has run out. If someone has lived in Germany for five years without attracting attention, then their life is not in danger. They lack civil rights and this is what we must change. For example with a right of residency regulation for „illegal“ people.

You criticize that Invisibles who want to become legal must first disclose their illegality and then fight out in the open, for instance when they make applications.

Something has to change here: we could allow for an anonymous initial inquiry and see whether a regularization is possible. Unfortunately, this sensible solution is not applied everywhere because the states are responsible for implementing such solutions, and often there is a lack of willingness to try new models.

You encourage the immigration authority to take a more sympathetic approach in looking at the legal basis for transitioning to legal residency. Do you have the impression that they do not exhaust all possibilities?

Sometimes I do have that feeling. We see that in the commission: we make an application in the commission, and then it turns out that there is another solution. If the authorities had put more time into one or the other case, there would have been no need for us to make an application. So it could have happened earlier.

Do the authorities let it come down to that?

I would not formulate it on such negative terms. Sometimes it’s human weakness, no matter what authority they work at (smiles). There are stories about people who come to us and complain bitterly about the way they are treated. But there are also people within the authorities who have a very positive attitude and want to help. It would be unfair to say: „They don’t do anything there.“ There are just interpersonal problems.

The discourse on refugee immigration is in full swing. Is there a need for journalistic investigation in light of the debate on refugees?

Even with critical journalists, you read about „waves of refugees“ or „mass immigration“. That is all nonsense, the numbers don’t say that. I think that phenomena such as Pegida arise because people are not informed. I see the press as having a responsible task.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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Interviews

Hundreds of Thousands are Invisible

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

von Florian Bickmeyer

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

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

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

A portrait of Dita Vogel

Dita Vogel

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

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

Why would that be the case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally: what would you ask of the politicians?

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

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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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

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Interviews

Policy to Drive You Crazy

Undocumented people who live in Germany depend on individuals’ good will. On people such as the social worker Golde Ebding who works with the Maltese Migrant Medicine in Berlin. There she supports people who count as illegal. Last year she founded the project “Refugees Welcome” with friends. Via the internet, it houses refugees in shared apartments.

von Benedict Wermter

Benedict Wermter spoke with her about the idea and about undocumented life: the endless wait for a better future with no emergency exit.

Ms. Ebding, you are one of the founders of „Refugees Welcome“ and you also support people who live here illegally. How do you explain things to people who live in shared flats and would take in a refugee that the person in question counts as illegal?

Golde Ebding: It’s theoretically a criminal offense, but has not been prosecuted in years. It’s a humanitarian act to help a refugee. The judicial authorities also see it this way – and we explain that to the people.

A portrait of Golde Ebding

Golde Ebding

Do you ask the people you organize housing for whether they have permission to be in Germany?

We have to clarify the person’s status to find a suitable source of financing for them. I know that a lot of those who are interested fall into the group of people who do not have a visa anymore, have not received asylum or already entered the country illegally. In Berlin we have a lot of people who aren’t here legally. They are drawn by the protest movements in the big cities and by the large communities with the same background.

In the past weeks and months there has been significant media coverage on „Refugees Welcome“. It seems you are very busy and have hit a nerve. There appears to be a need for you.

The project is booming right now because once again many people have drowned in the Mediterranean. Every time great misery spreads through the media there is a strong reaction from the population. Many citizens want to take a stance and sign up with us. As mentioned, our project is a humanitarian act and not a campaign to make money. There are a lot of families in the rural areas, but also a surprising number of single mothers with a child. In Berlin you can find everything anyway. We had an elderly couple, and shared apartments with gay men and with lesbian women that took in gay and lesbian refugees respectively. There are very specific combinations.

How do you work in the „Refugees Welcome“ team?

My partners do publicity, they take care of the finances and networking. I do the concrete organizational work: first contact must be prepared along with legal issues. I also write and telephone with people who want to take in refugees. Unfortunately a lot of people in shared apartments back down again because they become afraid. They don’t write back anymore or meet a few refugees and then don’t want to participate after all. Often they are also afraid of legal consequences: some people ask themselves whether they will have to go to jail if they take in Invisibles.

What problems do you experience with refugees when you help them?

The impossibility of integration. That also has to do with their accommodation in isolated camps. People who are applying for asylum or who are tolerated are also not entitled to German language courses. Accordingly, they have hardly any contact with Germans and don’t learn the language even though a lot of them have been here for years. Germany doesn’t believe that the refugees will stay here with us, but rather that they will go back. The residency situation is made even more difficult for tolerated people, sometimes their benefits are cut. But in reality we need migration and integration.

We have heard about people who disappear out of ongoing asylum procedures or go into hiding after their application is rejected. Do you know about such cases?

That makes me think of the so-called Dublin cases: refugees who might have Italian papers and are going through an asylum procedure here. They are usually rejected and must be handed over to Italy within six months. If they are supposed to be deported, they go into hiding for the length of time that Germany has to deport them. After that they make a new application which must be processed in Germany, even if only to a limited extent. Refugees fear that they will have even fewer prospects in Italy. In practice, they almost always live on the street there. But the thing that works well in Italy is the free European Health Insurance Card.

And in Germany?

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Here the European Health Insurance Card is usually useless. Every acute illness must be examined and treated. But many doctors refuse treatment in their consultation hours. Doctor’s assistants do not even fill out the forms for patients if their residency status is unclear to them. If a German is with them, the refugees are accepted. But not if they go alone. They just can’t defend themselves. A lot of Italians even face this problem in Germany.

That is quite astonishing. The European Health Insurance Card has existed for years. What do people do when they are turned down by the doctor?

Either nothing at all – or they might come to the Maltese Migrant Medicine. We send them with a legal notice back to the doctor for treatment. Nevertheless, refugees are often turned down. The doctors in big cities have enough patients and can allow themselves to choose.

Please tell us something about the lives of the refugees you meet. How do they get along here?

Many have psychological problems. I have contact with people from Sub-Saharan Africa. There, mental problems are not recognized as such. The people often suffer immensely due to their situation, but are not even aware of where this comes from. I often observe physical effects: the refugees can’t sleep, have headaches or are anxious. You can see how European policy drives these people downright crazy. This undignified life breaks people. And on top of that there is the pressure from Africa.

What do you mean when you say „pressure from Africa“?

There are heavenly conceptions of Europe in Africa. That leads to great expectations: the strongest member of the family should support their relatives at home. I know many people who want to go back, but can’t. The people who are sent abroad need to bring something back to their families, otherwise they are seen as failures at home. Unnecessary facades are kept up, great poses of life in Germany are sent over Facebook. The refugees don’t want to stand up and say that they have failed. Nobody would believe them in Africa. That leads to a downward spiral: even more people in Africa want to go to Europe. At the same time, the refugees set up a life in the shadows here.

Can these people become content here?

After going through hell in Southern Europe the migrants lower their expectations, trying to deal with the circumstances. Many people break over the lack of alternatives. Nobody will voluntarily stand in Görlitzer Park in Berlin and sell drugs. I have the feeling that some get used to it. But that depends on the expectations that a person brings with them. Someone who just wants to survive perceives life differently than a person who wants to build a better life. In the end it’s all a question of character as well.

If you could decide: what has to change to improve the lives of migrants in Germany?

I’m not a visionary as far as that goes. The structures and the ways of thinking must first change in politics. That won’t come from the population which is rather drifting off to the right. This sealing off doesn’t work and must be stopped. I believe our project can give the people small, nice moments. But something must happen at the very top.

Translation: Noah Walker-Crawford

Editor: Florian Bickmeyer

Design: Thorsten Franke, Simon Jockers, Ivo Mayr

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Interviews

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?

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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

© 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