Are people from certain countries more likely to be denied German student visas?

In spite of receiving admission offers from universities in Germany, Arbab Mazhar’s student visa was rejected twice by the German embassy in Islamabad. The Pakistani man is not alone in his experience.

Are people from certain countries more likely to be denied German student visas?
International students from India and Ukraine in Rostock. Photo: DPA

When Arbab Mazhar got accepted on a Bachelor programme at a German higher education institution back in 2011, he had no idea that it would be years until he was finally granted a visa to study in Deutschland. 

Mazhar told The Local that his rejections were “totally unfair” and initially “very disappointing” since he fulfilled all the necessary requirements and submitted the mandatory documents.

The Pakistani claims the German embassy in Islamabad did not provide a reason for denying him a visa in 2011 and again when he re-applied the following year.

Only after subsequent months of inquiring did they send him a letter stating, among other things, that they doubted his seriousness as a student, his grades weren’t good enough and he didn’t have sufficient funds. But Mazhar denies all these claims.

He appealed the second rejection and says it took three years until the administrative court in Berlin made a decision. In 2015, the court ruled in his favour and he was finally issued a student visa.

He flew to Germany in 2016 to embark on a Masters programme in International Management and Information Systems at the South Westphalia University of Applied Sciences and is set to graduate by next year.

Mazhar says patience got him through the arduous process. He warns internationals particularly from Pakistan hoping to study in the Bundesrepublik not to rely on obtaining a visa even if they have good grades and fulfill the prerequisites. He had planned on working in Pakistan if his appeal was rejected.

“If you are truly serious about studying in Germany, then apply,” Mazhar said. “But you’ll have to cross your fingers for a visa.”

‘Applicants from crisis areas’

The Local spoke to a handful of other Pakistanis – all of whom prefer to remain anonymous due to fear this report would affect their chances of obtaining a visa in future – who said they were rejected German student visas in recent years despite university admission offers. 

One woman was told by the Islamabad embassy last year that her grades were “very poor” in subjects considered essential in order to pursue her desired course in Germany. Her rejection letter states “a lack of intention to study and abuse of the study visa could be concluded.” It goes on to say that “the pressure for young people to leave Pakistan for better prospects in life is high.”

But it’s not just prospective students from Pakistan who have had this experience. Samir from Morocco told Spiegel Online in 2015 that, in spite of admission offers from five German institutions as well as proof of sufficient funds and German language skills, he was denied a visa.

Similar to Mazhar’s letter, Samir’s local embassy stated in his rejection letter it had “considerable doubts about the seriousness of study intentions and the success of the studies.”

Applicants from crisis areas can face similar difficulties to Samir, reported Spiegel Online, adding that authorities could suspect them of being more likely looking to flee war areas than to be seriously interested in studying.

In 2014, a Tunisian who claims he was repeatedly denied a visa despite several acceptances from universities in Germany took his case to court. But he wasn’t as lucky as Mazhar – judges in the Berlin administrative court ruled he could still be denied a visa.

According to the ruling, German missions abroad may ensure that student visas are not abused and in issuing them, security concerns do not have to be justified. A Federal Foreign Office spokeswoman however did not provide an answer when asked whether they had proof that student visas are being abused. 

SEE ALSO: The different types of higher education in Germany

Bureaucratic application processes

Generally speaking, where the prospective student is applying from does not affect their chances of obtaining a student visa in Germany, the spokeswoman told The Local.

Student visa quotas vary depending on the non-EU country the candidate is applying from, but this is due to many factors, according to the spokeswoman. Moreover, “each visa application is examined on a case-by-case basis.”

The issue of prospective students from abroad being denied German visas “exists and affects people from a range of countries,” managing director at Study.EU Gerrit Blöss told The Local.

“But as far as we’re aware, it does not happen too often,” Blöss said, adding that the process is the way it is “to ensure the legitimacy of the visas granted.”

Students in Tübingen. Photo: DPA

There’s also recently been a “dramatic rise” in the number of foreign student visa applications, meaning not only that processing times are longer than usual, but there are “squeezes in several countries such as in Iran, Morocco and Tunisia,” Marijke Wahlers, head of the department of international affairs at the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), explained.

On the question of how many student visa applications are rejected each year, the Foreign Office spokeswoman did not provide an answer. The Foreign Office does not record how many people apply for student visas in consular offices worldwide, nor does it record how many are rejected, according to Spiegel Online.

Organizations which support prospective students in Germany, such as Uni-Assist e.V. and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), also could not give information on how many foreigners are denied visas annually.

Booming foreign student numbers

Meanwhile the number of international students in Germany is at an all-time high. Some 360,000 foreigners studied at higher education institutions in Germany in 2017, the HRK states. This is an increase on the previous year of 5.5 percent and according to the federal education ministry, a rise of 37 percent compared to a decade ago.

Now, one in every ten university students in Germany comes from outside the country. The largest number of international students based on figures from DAAD come from China, India, Russia, Austria and Italy. The number of Pakistani students, though, is continuing to grow, with 3,836 in 2016 – an increase of 1.5 percent from the year before. 

“The German science and higher education system is globally structured, globally networked and cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word,” federal education minister Johanna Wanka announced in a press release last summer.

Germany consistently tops global university rankings in terms of its attractiveness for foreign students, science subjects and prestigiousness. For instance, a study earlier this year showed that within Europe, Germany beat out the UK and France based on its quality of education, cost of living as well as life and career prospects.

Not only are more and more foreign students coming here, a survey carried out by Studying in Germany found that almost 70 percent of them plan on looking for a job in the country beyond graduation. The majority of those who want to stay are from Africa and Asia and three in every ten international students plans on staying permanently.

Students at European University Viadrina's International Day last year in Frankfurt. Photo: DPA

Germany’s severe shortage of skilled workers

Studying in Germany founder Besart Bajrami told The Local in May that many students from developing countries “see staying in Germany as a solution to a more secure financial well-being because of its thriving economy, job market, and excellent quality of life.”

But Bajrami also thinks this influx of “young and skilled workers” from abroad could do wonders for the German economy.

More than 1.2 million vacant employment positions nationwide were recorded at the end of 2017, a recent report showed. Germany could lack 3 million skilled workers by 2030, a study found last year. The country also faces significant shortages of employees in everything from the IT sector to the education industry.

The question thus arises: can Germany afford to be denying student visas to foreigners when the country is in dire need of workers across a range of industries?

Looking forward

According to the Federal Foreign Office, German universities only assess prospective students on aspects of higher education, rather than aspects having to do with migration.

For now, since German embassies are allowed to reject student visas based on whether or not they think the permit will be abused, those keen on studying in Deutschland might just continue to be denied the opportunity to do so.

Mazhar considers himself one of the lucky ones, though admits that unlike other Pakistanis he knows who also failed to get student visas, he was motivated to appeal because he believed his rejections were unfounded.

He says he hopes his story sheds light on the ongoing issue of “unfair” student visa refusals by German embassies abroad and paints a realistic picture of the visa application process for internationals keen on studying in Germany.

On the question of whether or not he plans on working in the country after his studies, he says he is not sure, and that it depends on the opportunities he finds within the EU or back home. 

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What is the EU’s ‘single permit’ for third-country nationals and can I get one?

In 2020, 2.7 million non-EU citizens were issued a so-called "single permit" to both reside and work in the EU. But what is the single permit, how does it work and what could change in the future?

What is the EU's 'single permit' for third-country nationals and can I get one?

Among the recent proposals made by the European Commission to simplify the procedures for the entry and residence of non-EU nationals in the European Union, there is the reform of the ‘single permit’.

In 2020, 2.7 million non-EU citizens were issued a ‘single permit’ to both reside and work in the EU, according to the European statistics agency Eurostat. Five countries together issued 75% of the total, with France topping the list (940,000 permits issued), followed by Italy (345,000), Germany (302,000), Spain (275,000) and Portugal (170,000).

Seven in 10 single permits were granted for family and employment reasons (34 and 36 percent respectively) and just less than 10 percent for education purposes.

But what is this permit and how does it work?

What is the EU single permit?

The EU single permit is an administrative act that grants non-EU citizens both a work and residence permit for an EU member state with a single application.

It was designed to simplify access for people moving to the EU for work. It also aims to ensure that permit holders are treated equally to the citizens of the country where they live when it comes to working conditions, education and training, recognition of qualifications, freedom of association, tax benefits, access to goods and services, including housing and advice services.

Equal conditions also concern social security, including the portability of pension benefits. This means that non-EU citizens or their survivors who reside in a non-EU country and derive rights from single permit holders are entitled to receive pensions for old age, invalidity and death in the same way as EU citizens.

The single permit directive applies in 25 of the 27 EU countries, as Ireland and Denmark have opted out of all EU laws affecting ‘third country nationals’.

Who can apply for a single permit?

The directive covers non-EU nationals who apply to reside in an EU country for work or who are already resident in the EU for other purposes but have the right to access the labour market (for instance, students or family members of a citizen of the country of application).

As a general rule, these rules do not apply to long-term residents or non-EU family members of EU citizens who exercise the free movement rights or have free movement rights in the EU under separate laws, as their rights are already covered by separate laws.

It also does not apply to posted workers, seasonal workers, intra-corporate transferees, beneficiaries of temporary protection, refugees, self-employed workers and seafarers or people working on board of EU ships, as they are not considered part of the labour market of the EU country where they are based.

Each country can determine whether the application should be made by the non-EU national or the employer or either of them.

Applications from the individual are required for the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden. For Bulgaria and Italy it is the employer who has to apply, while applications are accepted from either the recipient or the employer for Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

How long does it take to process the application?

The EU directive says the competent authority must decide on the application within 4 months from the date it was lodged. Only in exceptional circumstances the deadline can be longer.

Where no decision is taken within the time limit, national law determines the outcome. In some EU countries (including France, Italy and Spain) this is a tacit rejection while in others it is a tacit approval.

If the application is incomplete, the authority should notify the applicant in writing specifying which additional information is needed, and the time count should be suspended until these are received.

In case of rejection, the authority must provide the reasons and there is a possibility to appeal.

How does it work in practice?

Although the intention of the directive was to simplify the procedure and guarantee more rights, things always get complicated when it’s 25 countries turning rules into reality.

A 2019 report of the European Commission on how this law was working in practice showed that the directive “failed to address some of the issues it proposed to solve”.

The Commission had received several complaints and launched legal action against some member states.

Complaints concerned in particular excessive processing times by the relevant authorities, too high fees, problems with the recognition of qualifications and the lack of equal treatment in several areas, especially social security.

Only 13 countries allowed the transfer of pensions to non-EU countries. In France, invalidity and death pensions are not exportable to non-EU states. Problems were identified also in Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Slovenia.

In Italy single permit holders were excluded from certain types of family benefits and it was the EU Court of Justice that ruled, in September 2021, that single permit holders are entitled to a childbirth and maternity allowances as provided by Italian laws. The EU Court also rules that Italy and the Netherlands were charging too high fees.

Sweden restricts social security benefits for people living in the country for less than one year and takes too long to process single permit applications, according to the report.

Generally the report found that authorities were not providing sufficient information to the pubic about the permit and associated rights.

What will change?

As part of a package of measures to make working and moving in the EU country easier for non-EU nationals announced at the end of April, the European Commission has proposed some changes to improve the situation.

The Commission has suggested shortening the deadline for member states to issue a decision ensuring that the 4 month limit covers the issuing of visas and the labour market test (to prove there are no suitable candidates in the local market).

Under the proposal, fees should be proportionate and candidates should be able to submit the application both in the member state of destination and from a third country.

In addition, permit holders should be able to change employer during the permit’s validity, and the permit should not be withdrawn in case of unemployment for at least 3 months. These measures should reduce vulnerability to labour exploitation, the Commission says.

The Commission also suggests member states should introduce penalties against employers who do no respect equality principles especially with regard to working conditions, freedom of association and affiliation and access to social security benefits.

These proposals have to be approved by the European Parliament and Council and can be modified before becoming law.