Survival Guide: Unwelcome in Germany



It was difficult to choose for whom to write this guide. We first thought to research illegal immigration because the topic seemed so secret and interesting and we expected many human rights abuses. We soon discovered that the complex legal system in Germany includes many shades of illegality and the experience varies greatly depending on the country of origin and the physical appearance of the migrant.

There are many more people working illegally in Germany than there are people with illegal residence status. While the majority of illegal work is carried out by German citizens, who, along with their employers, avoid paying taxes and contributing to the social welfare system, there are many illegal Polish and other Eastern European workers. They usually enter and stay in Germany legally, remaining on the outskirts of or outside the legal job market. Most do not make Germany their permanent home nor access the social welfare system, though they contribute significantly to the economy. While they face many challenges, their presence is more tolerated than persecuted. 

Tolerance is not the case for immigrants from third world countries whose foreign features immediately mark them as an Asunder (outsider). For a large group including most Africans, Muslims, and many Asians and Latin Americans who would make their life in Germany, requesting asylum is the only means of gaining degree of legality. This, combined with the difficulty of the process, encourages deception on the part of the immigrant. Without such status, an immigrant lives in the constant shadow of fear of detection and deportation. 

The laws criminalize acts that are otherwise part of normal life (renting an apartment or applying for a job) and push people who would obey the law to commit illegal acts in order to survive. Stricter border controls and tighter laws encourage a growing network of organized crime to smuggle immigrants into Germany, forge or steal documents, and provide services usually offered by legal channels that cannot be accessed by those who break the law by their very presence. We found that almost every migrant from developing countries must use some illegal strategies to stay and manage life in Germany. It is to this group that we direct our guide. 

Based on discussions with researchers, asylum seekers, and illegal immigrants and a review of current research, we found that the system of border control, the denial of asylum to most applicants, and the illegalization of the life of these foreigners function as a wall to unwanted immigration while providing unofficial gates of entry to those who are more welcome, thus allowing discriminatory policies without an open public discussion. What this structure does not recognize is that people will find a way around any wall. Being in Germany is, despite the problems, an improvement for many. Immigration is a reality and, short of systemic changes in the economic, social, and political situations in the native countries that push people to leave their homes, the flow of migrants will continue.

We hope that our guide provides you with a glimpse into the difficult issues faced by these unwelcome immigrants in Germany.


“Willkommen in Deutschland!” (Welcome to Germany) – You will most likely not see and definitely not hear these words on your arrival. Germany suspects you of being an immigrant and “Germany is not an immigration country.” Maybe you are not planning to settle here and stay for the rest of your life, but even for a short time you are hardly welcome. We offer the following information for navigating the complex and multi-layered German system. 

Part One-Entering Germany

1) Tourist Visa or Illegitimate Documents 

With real or false documents you obtain a tourist visa or have documents showing citizenship in another E.U. country. German authorities are on the lookout for potential illegal immigrants and this is not the most common option. In these cases, you may enter Germany by any means available to you (plane, train, car, foot, etc.).

2) By plane

Generally, you will need proper documentation to board. Germany increasingly holds airline companies responsible for transportation of undocumented foreigners. However, once on German soil, you have the constitutional right to request asylum, even without proper identification (i.e. lost or stolen documents while en route). 

3) Through the Green Border

You cross the Eastern border, preferably unnoticed by the border guards, or you arrive from another Schengen country with which Germany has open borders. Even though the distance may be shorter than a plane trip, it can be more expensive. Professional smugglers are often paid to assist with entrance into Germany and transportation to a city.

In this case be careful with whom you contract. The majority of these

operations function commercially, with the client in mind. However, there is no customer protection law for illegal border crossing and no guarantee to end up on the other side. In rare cases people with little money have been reported to be indebted to the smuggling group and pressured for years.

There are two other options to go to Germany: family reunion (available only to spouses and children under 16) and a Green Card for some highly skilled workers, but these are lucky exceptions.

Congratulations! You made it! You are in Germany! 

Part Two-Staying in Germany

“There are too many regulations in Germany. There is such a belief in law and order.”  (Quote from Barbara John, former Berlin Commissioner for Foreign Affairs). 

The many complicated laws and large German bureaucracy are not designed to make your life easy. Family and social networks are important. If you are in Germany, it is probable you already have some connections. This is your most important asset. The following section will provide an overview of  dangers you will face and strategies employed by illegal immigrants to avoid detection, secure housing, employment, education, and health care. We also discuss techniques for gaining legal residence and work status.


German authorities will be suspicious that you want to make Germany an immigration country. If you have documents, be sure to always carry them with you. All others (there are currently an estimated one million illegal foreigners in Germany) should avoid contact with officials and stay away from public transportation, government offices, and open areas as much as possible to prevent detention and deportation. Also, in a zone of up to thirty kilometers from the (Eastern) border the federal border guards frequently control foreign-looking people.


If you are illegally in the country you can be held in detention for up to 18 months. It can be more restrictive than German prisons and is (unofficially) meant to be an incentive for voluntary departure. 

One illegal immigrant was held for 11 months. He gave the authorities a false last name and had no identification. Because his embassy could not locate records they would not issue him papers. He refused to sign documents allowing his deportation and was eventually released. Though now required to check in every week, he has papers that identify him as not deportable. However, he is not eligible for employment or social welfare. This story illustrates the importance of knowing your rights and how the system works if you would like to remain in Germany.

Be aware that if you are kept in such a detention center and then deported, you may be required to pay for the time you spent in detention before you are allowed to re-enter Germany. One legal immigrant we heard of was required to pay for his two week confinement after he was arrested while drunk and without his papers. 

Gaining Residence Status

Marriage to someone who is legally permitted to reside and work in Germany is the surest means to gain legal status. The other option is to seek refugee status. According to German and International Law, “Political refugees have the right for asylum.”

Political Asylum

Your country would probably not belong to the Third World if there were not some difference in living conditions from those in Germany. So you may have had good reasons to leave your home, but in Germany you have the right to become an acknowledged political refugee only if you personally face political persecution. This right is inscribed in the German constitution and it has privileged status. Economic problems, civil war, famine, or general discrimination against people of your ethnicity or religion are not sufficient reasons for asylum. 

First, you must decide not only whether you have a credible story and feel confident in presenting it to the authorities, but also whether you want to be on file with the government and whether the benefits are worth the risks. Many immigrants avoid asking for asylum (9 out of 10 cases are rejected) unless they are caught. 

If you apply, you will have to prove your case to the German authorities. This is no simple task; the process is complicated and your success will depend on a thorough understanding of your rights and the expectations of the Germans. You may not apply if you entered Germany from a “safe third country” or if you are from a “safe country of origin”. All neighboring countries are safe countries. The only people accepted as asylum applicants are those who arrive by plane or who do not know through which countries they traveled on route. If you admit to have traveled through any particular safe country, you will be instantly deported.

In the asylum seeking process there will be one crucial interview in which you must present the entire story of your persecution. You have the right to take as much time as you need, but the atmosphere of questioning and investigating are not designed with your comfort in mind. You may find it difficult to discuss torture or violence by the state. The interviewers are not trained to be compassionate, but they are very good at finding the slightest contradiction in your story. You must present your reasons for seeking asylum in a coherent and logical way. Missing information that you later would like to add will be seen as an attempt to distort the truth and may be a basis for denial. Jörg Alt reports a case of an asylum seeker who was rejected when he applied for asylum the first time, but, with a better understanding of the process, he tried under another name with the same story and was accepted.

One important piece of advice: Do not sign anything you do not fully understand. You have the right to a translator and you should insist that every word, written or spoken, is translated into your language. If you are unsure of something, do not sign it. If you request anything that the authorities refuse you, have it noted in the records. What is recorded from this interview will determine your future in Germany. 

While Seeking Asylum – Life in Limbo

If it is decided to consider your application, you will be assigned a place in a hostel for asylum seekers. You are neither allowed to work nor to leave the district to which you are assigned (though most people do exactly that). You will receive a very limited amount of social welfare, less than the official existence minimum, and most of it will be granted `in kind´ rather than in cash. 

After the Asylum Process – From Duldung to Illegality

If you belong to the 90% of asylum seekers who are refused, you may still have the opportunity to stay in Germany without being entirely underground. If you have no documents and your home country does not recognize you, you cannot be deported. 

The Duldung status means that you are in the country as an illegal foreigner, but you are tolerated. You are not permitted to work and you must cooperate with the German authorities in their attempts to deport you, which means you must apply for travel documents. If you do not cooperate your social welfare payments will be cut. In the state of Berlin there are cases that welfare is not paid at all to foreigners with Duldung status.


As mentioned above, marriage to someone who has the right to live and work in Germany is the route taken by many people who would otherwise have no access to legal status in Germany. Usually, these circumstances motivate partners to marry who would otherwise remain unmarried. There are some exceptions -  marriages   arranged to help a foreigner stay in Germany, sometimes with payment involved. 

Anyone in Germany has the right to marry whomever they would like. There is usually no problem for the newly married partner to receive a temporary residence and work permit. Keep in mind that if a divorce occurs within the first few years, the immigrant will almost certainly lose their residential and labor rights. Investigation by the authorities to assess the validity of a marriage may occur if their are suspicious circumstances, such as a couple owning more than one residence or a significant age difference between the partners.  


There is a high level of control in Germany. By law everyone is required to register his/her place of residence. Permanent housing can usually only be acquired with documents and a legal status. Landlords are to some degree required to cooperate in the authorities’ efforts regarding residence registration. However, there are ways around this situation and it is crucial that you locate somewhere to stay. If you sleep on the street or in a park you will risk questioning by the authorities. 

You might stay in an apartment rented by a family member or friend with residence status in Germany. You may find straw men who lease apartments legally and will rent it them to you for a higher price. Homeless shelters, unoccupied buildings and shared apartments are alternatives. Some migrants stay in cars. Living conditions are often poor by German standards. Be prepared to share space, perhaps with dozens of other immigrants. Though crowded apartments make it likely for neighbors to feel disturbed, there are few cases of denunciation.  


Many employers find it worth the risk of being fined for employing illegal workers. For some, it is the only way to stay in business or afford an employee. The danger is much greater for you than for the employer. Jobs you may find include construction, household work, restaurants, and janitorial services. 

Construction firms often employ workers illegally. According to our informants, it is becoming more difficult to find such work – controls are becoming stricter and pay lower. The competitiveness of the construction industry makes it essential for many contractors to pay wages outside of the law. You may find a position either with a professional firm or for private builders (such as a family building their home). The former is riskier as it is more likely to be spotted by the authorities. There is a very real danger of wages being withheld in both situations. Because you have no legal recourse for recovering this money, illegal bill collectors may offer you their services.

If you can find it, you will work most safely in homes of well-off Germans as a household aid, maid, and in child care. These jobs are almost always secured through family and social networks. It is open primarily to women, but occasionally men will find such work. Average wages are around 8Euros per hour and may be as high as 10Euros per hour. It is important to negotiate with the employer as expectations, responsibilities, hours, pay, and other benefits will vary from family to family. This work is rarely available to those with visibly foreign features. 

Health Care

One advantage of being an asylum seeker is the right to health care. If you have no legal status, in some bigger cities you may find an informal network of physicians, social workers, midwifes and translators who help illegal immigrants. Doctors and hospitals are not allowed to inform the government about the status of patients, making hospitals a relatively safe place, and they are required to provide life saving measures in case of emergency. Doctors are paid for their services through tracking with an electronic health insurance card. Many people use the card of a person similar in age and gender when they are fortunate enough to know such a person.



Education is regulated on a state level in Germany. Access to education is  possible in most cases, but will vary greatly depending on the location, the school, and the individual circumstances. Most teachers have little or no training in dealing with non-native speakers of the language. Primary education is much easier to access, but there is a great deal of bureaucracy involved in enrolling a child in secondary education. 

Asylum seekers´ children have the right to education. Children of those illegally in Germany may also receive education. In Berlin, the schools are not required to report illegal immigrants to authorities, but it is up to each school whether they will accept your child without verifying your status. Language barriers can create obstacles. Immigrants who fear contact with any authority may avoid sending their children to school. If possible, obtain assistance from a native or fluent German speaker who understands the system.


Asylum seekers and illegal immigrants do not have the right to higher education or job training. You will probably find it difficult to access German language instruction, but there is limited availability of free or subsidized courses. 


We found many interesting details but we had to restrict ourselves to this short compilation. We hope you gained some insight in the situation of people who are increasingly treated as second class residents. We cannot recommend boundless immigration, but it would be a challenge to improve the living conditions of those who are already in the country and are unlikely to leave our society again.





Abou Chabaké, Tarek Armando: Irreguläre Migration und Schleusertum: Im Wechselspiel von Legalität und Illegalität. In: Husa, Karl et al. (Ed.): Internationale Migration: die globale Herausforderung des 21. Jahrhunderts? Frankfurt/Main, Wien, 2000, pp. 123-144.

Bundesnachrichtendienst: Illegale Migration nach Europa, Pullach, 2001

Bündnis 90/ DIE GRÜNEN Bundestagsfraktion: Menschsein ohne Aufenthaltsrecht. (documentation of a public debate on July 3, 2000 in Berlin)

Erzbischöfliches Ordinariat Berlin: Rechtlos in Deutschland. Eine Handreichung und Einladung zum Gespräch über die Lage von Menschen ohne Aufenthaltsrecht. (migration 3/97) Berlin 1997.

Erzbischöfliches Ordinariat Berlin: Illegal in Berlin. Momentaufnahmen aus der Bundeshauptstadt. (migration 4/99) Berlin 1999.

Kepura, Jörg: „Kontrollierte Schleusung – Annäherung an einen Begriff und eine Problemstellung” In: der kriminalist 11/02, pp. 438-441.

Knecht, Michi (Ed.): Die andere Seite der Stadt – Armut und Ausgrenzung in Berlin. Köln, Weimar, Wien, 1999.

Lederer, Harald W.: “Zur Typologie und statistischen Erfassung von illegaler Migration” (manuscript of a presentation held on February 15, 1996 at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, Osnabrück)

Lederer, Harald W.: Illegal Migration: Why Does it Exist and What Do We Know about Numbers and Trends? (manuscript of a presentation held on June 21-23, 1998 in Hamburg)

Vogel, Dita: Soziale Sicherung und illegaler Aufenthalt. Eine explorative Studie am Beispiel brasilianischer Zuwanderer in Berlin. (ZeS-Arbeitspapier Nr. 13/96) Bremen 1996.

Internet Resources


Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2003

Related Media

Lost Years
by , Germany 2003
Browse all content