Germany's Unwelcome Guests

Freed nearly a decade and a half ago from its dividing and restraining wall, Berlin has largely succeeded in moving beyond the siege mentality of the cold war period. It has become once again not only the political capital of Germany but a cultural center of gravity for Europe as well, especially in light of the eastward expansion of the European Union. In spite of—or perhaps because of—the last hundred years of its history, Berlin is both very German and more than German, a world city, a microcosm of Western culture and its globalization. Given its wealth and its location, Berlin is attractive not only to other Westerners, but also to immigrants from second and third world countries—refugees from cities that do not look like Berlin and countries that do not operate like Germany. During a brief stint with the Berlin office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, one visitor caught a glimpse of the plight of these “unwelcome guests.”

The trip from the Jesuit residence in fashionable Charlottenburg to the Border Police Detention Center in grubby Köpenick usually takes 90 minutes. The length of the train and tram ride is useful, however, for it gives me the time to make the psychological journey as well—from the comfort and safety of the first world to the distress and desperation of the third. The route also happens to cross the scar left by the path of the Berlin Wall, a still visible reminder of an old wound. Just past a cement factory southeast of the city, the tram stops in front of the prison, and I get off. Through an intercom, I identify myself and my purpose: I have come to visit a couple of the detainees. Steered by an invisible hand, the large steel gates open under a flashing yellow light, and I enter no man’s land.


Originally built by the government of the former German Democratic Republic, the prison was designed to house female criminals, most of whom were guilty of the crime of trying to escape to the West. After the reunification of Germany, the function of the place was slightly transformed. It now houses both men and women who have been arrested in the German Federal Republic for the crime of having tried to escape the poverty, war and chaos of their homelands—but without the necessary paperwork and permissions.

Immigration officials estimated in the year 2000 that 7,300,000 foreigners legally resided in Germany, comprising 9 percent of the total population. “Foreigner” means either foreign born or born of foreigners (22 percent of the total are the offspring of resident aliens; even if one is born on German soil, one receives nationality as well as genetic codes from one’s parents). Jörg Alt, S.J., probably the best informed researcher of undocumented immigration in the country, estimates that there are at least another one million foreigners illegally residing in Germany, mostly working in the underground economy. Each one of these numbers is a human being and a member of a family, a circle of friends, an ethnic or religious community. Each is a node in a network that extends across political borders and geographic barriers, joining the social fabric of Germany to that of villages and city neighborhoods around the world, to places and people who depend in part on wages paid under the table in a hidden part of the new global economy.

The case of Morocco is typical. In the year 2000, five times as much money entered the country’s economy through remittances by Moroccans working abroad ($2.16 billion) as that country received in foreign aid ($419 million).

I present my passport to one of the police agents at the door to the visitors’ waiting area. Since these guards are constantly rotated—as much to avoid boredom as to hinder corruption—there is always a new face behind the bulletproof glass. The face of the guard is often bent into a quizzical expression when he or she sees my U.S. passport. I am not easily categorized among the rest of the population in the waiting room, the Russians and other Eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, people from South and East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africans, who come to visit their relatives. And then there are the older German men waiting to see their sometimes much younger foreign female friends, and young German women who, with small children in tow, wait to see their foreign boyfriends. Love may know no borders, but neither do borders recognize love.

In the 1960’s foreign “guest workers”—mostly from Turkey and Greece—were welcome in West Germany, where they found ready employment in industry and in service jobs. At the same time, East Germany welcomed students and workers from the Soviet sphere of influence. In today’s Germany, long-term unemployment has become an endemic social problem. The current official figure of 10 percent does not take into account those who have given up looking for work or those who have found employment in the alternative economy.

Because foreigners are less welcome officially, politicians can score points with the voters by demonizing foreigners. It may well be true that foreigners are twice as likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to be drawing welfare payments and far more likely to commit petty crimes. In Cologne, up to 90 percent of pickpockets are gypsies, and throughout Germany, cellphone theft is most likely to be committed by a foreign minor. At the same time, most foreigners work long and hard at menial or backbreaking tasks for relatively low wages, especially when the work is in the unofficial sector, where wages range between 3 euros and 10 euros per hour. Given the rather rigid labor laws—wages are relatively high, work conditions are tightly regulated, and it is quite difficult for companies to lay off workers—some employers are often quite happy to hire undocumented workers, especially in the building trades and as domestic helpers, areas where state inspection is lax and the chance of getting caught is low. 

Eventually it is my turn to enter the visitors’ room. Nine tables, each with four chairs, fill much of the space. Bars cover the windows, which look out into courtyards surrounded by 10- and 20-foot high walls topped by razor wire. In one corner a plastic mat covers the linoleum floor, some stuffed animals and other children’s toys lie about, and a couple of flying green dragons smile down incongruously from the wall. Someone has been thoughtful enough to provide a fantasyland to which young visitors can escape for a while.

I sit down opposite Abel, a man of indeterminate age (names of detainees have been changed). His hands are calloused from work and chapped from the cold, his face lined with worry and fatigue. The victim of an assault, he had sought first aid at a hospital and was arrested there when it was discovered that his papers were not in order. Guilty of no other crime, he cannot understand why he has been imprisoned for seven months.

As fear of terrorism grows among the general population, the government seeks to control the borders more closely. More undocumented immigrants are indeed caught in transit, yet this policy has a double effect. As the borders become less porous, people no longer move back and forth with the seasons or for shorter projects. Instead, as border crossings become more dangerous, and as it becomes ever more expensive to pay the professional traffickers, undocumented people are more likely to stay in Germany for long periods of time. Within Germany, there are more spot checks, and more people are caught on public transportation systems, at work sites and in commercial areas. Once arrested, and without the right to legal representation, detainees have only a short window of time to file a claim for political asylum, which these days is rarely granted. Then they are sent home, which may well be thousands of kilometers away from their jobs, friends and immediate families.

Andrew never made it past the passport control station at the airport in Frankfurt. Traveling with falsified identification papers, he was too nervous, too obviously out of his element, to escape detection by the police. Eleven months later, at the top of a steep learning curve, he continues to sit in detention at Köpenick, engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the immigration officials. Four times the border police have attempted to deport him, yet each time he is brought to the airport, he puts up a struggle, screaming and crying. The pilots of the commercial flights refuse to transport him, worrying about the safety and the comfort of their other passengers. After a detainee was suffocated in transit a few years ago (the criminal case against the three officers involved in the deadly deportation attempt languishes in a judicial limbo), the border police became skittish about using commercial airliners to deport unwanted aliens, unless they are willing to go peacefully. As the law currently stands, after 18 months of detention a detainee must be released and given a residency card. So the interior ministers of several European Union countries recently agreed to pool resources, and problematic aliens, to organize regular charter flights.

Nearly 5,000 refugees pass through the Köpenick detention center annually, occupying one of the 400 beds, most for just a few days, some for many months. Since most of the detainees threw away their passports before they entered the country, the first order of business for the officials is to establish their identities. In this matter, the various embassies are not as helpful as one might at first suppose. Given that most second and third world countries have a surplus of workers and a shortage of work, and given too the importance of foreign remittances, it is in the interests of the countries of origin that as many as possible of their nationals stay abroad. Abel was among the fortunate few who were allowed to stay in Germany. He was able to prove that he comes from Liberia, and because of civil unrest in his homeland, he was granted asylum, at least provisionally. Andrew will most likely not be so lucky. Nigeria is judged peaceful enough to receive him back. Such judgments—when is the destitution and chaos of a country so extreme as to warrant granting the escapees asylum?—decide the fate of the detainees. Certainly, the vast majority of the refugees are fleeing poverty rather than political or religious persecution. And yet knowing that these are the only grounds for asylum, many of them, it seems, embellish their stories in hopes of being allowed to stay in the lifeboat. Should they be denied and thrown back into the sea, the chances of drowning are great. If Andrew returns home with empty pockets, having cost his family dearly for the airplane ticket and the false papers in the first place, he may well be shunned and left to fend for himself on the street.

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy stood in the midst of a divided and desperate Berlin and identified himself with its citizens. His act of solidarity is a challenge to the people not only of this city, but of every first world city. Needed but unwanted, employed but not acknowledged, people from the developing world undergird first world societies and economies in countless ways. Strong economies want natural resources, cheap labor and new markets. Whether as manual laborers, domestic helpers or prostitutes, undocumented aliens find and fill niches in order to survive and to nourish their families. They are, to borrow a phrase from Paul Ricoeur, “present under the form of absence,” sweeping the streets, changing bed linens in nursing homes, picking cherries until their fingers are stained red with their work, and happy for their humble forms of labor. Of course, Germany alone cannot solve the problems of the developing world. Of course, the first world cannot simply absorb the entire population of the third world. And of course, we have our own problems to deal with. All this is true and realistic, I think, but then, one of Jesus’ parables comes to mind. “There was a rich man who feasted every day, while before his door lay the broken and bleeding Lazarus...” (Lk 16:19).

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