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IN DEPTH: Are Germany’s immigration offices making international residents feel unwelcome?

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
IN DEPTH: Are Germany’s immigration offices making international residents feel unwelcome?
“Welcome” in various languages on a cover sheet of work materials for German lessons for refugee children in 2015. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Jens Büttner

Germany's coalition government wants to attract more talent from abroad by fostering a "welcoming culture" through reforms to immigration law and practices. But the Local has discovered that many people feel the country's immigration offices are anything but welcoming.


When recalling the experiences of students in his network, Kumar Ashish, Chairman of Germany's Association (BAS) of Foreign Students, told The Local that "students coming here don’t have any idea what kind of bureaucracy they will have to face".

“I’ve heard many saying they wish they’d gone somewhere else, like the US, Australia or Canada – even if they would have to pay a lot more", he said. 

The BAS supports student organisations from all over Germany. Many have reported to Kumar that non-transparent procedures and “unexpected pressure” from the Ausländerbehörde - the German term for immigration office - when applying for visa extensions has them feeling that the “Welcome to Germany” campaign should be renamed “Don’t come to Germany”, he told us.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany plans to make immigration easier for skilled workers


And it’s not just international students that seem to feel unwelcome in the country’s immigration offices.

Kathryn Werntz, a quality manager from the US, has been living in Germany for 13 years and, despite being highly qualified, in a full-time job and married to a German citizen, she has had residency permit and visa extension applications rejected, as well as numerous unpleasant experiences with the immigration office in Berlin.

She told The Local: "Not only have I not felt welcomed by the immigration office in Berlin, but I have also felt attacked - like personally attacked. I‘ve felt threatened and I’ve felt directly discriminated against for being American several times over."

Miriam Frieding, an immigration lawyer based in Berlin who has working clients from all over the world, told The Local: I have the impression that many of the people who work in the foreigners’ authorities see their jobs as keeping foreigners away."

The Berlin-based lawyer explained that, in her opinion, many of the decisions that are taken by foreigners’ offices are wrong.

“Decisions depend a lot on who is dealing with the case," she said. "There are some people that work at the foreigners' office who are very nice and helpful. But if you are unlucky and have someone dealing with your case who has more of a hostile attitude, then they can cause you a lot of problems.”

“I can’t say if the reason for that is discrimination or a defensive approach. But I have the impression that the decision would sometimes be taken in a different way if the applicant had a different skin colour or had a different country of origin," Frieding said.

Paulo Dias, a specialist immigration lawyer based in Hanover told us that he also has a lot of clients who are "unhappy with the way they have been treated by the foreigners’ authorities”.

He explained that the law allows a lot of room for discretion by the individual caseworkers, to try to cover all the possible situations that could arise.

"But the problem is that individual caseworkers may well exercise discretion unilaterally to the detriment of applicants to make decisions about individual cases," he said. 

What improvements should be made?

The current picture seems, therefore, to be at odds with the coalition government’s recent proposals to turn Germany into a more welcoming place for internationals with highly sought-after skills, with the aim of plugging the widening gap in its labour market.

That gap, according to calculations from the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), could leave the country with a deficit of seven million workers by 2035.

An application for a residence permit lies on a desk at the Foreigners' Registration Office in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Wolfram Kastl

While the government has put forward plans and strategies to reform immigration law – including bringing in a new points-based system and stressing the importance of facilitating the recognition of foreign qualifications, streamlining administrative processes, and strengthening the welcoming culture – so far, concrete proposals for improving the experience of foreigners in the country’s immigration offices are lacking.

READ ALSO: Explained: How to apply for Germany’s new ‘opportunity card’ and other visas for job seekers

In its 'Key points on the immigration of skilled workers from third countries' paper published on November 30th, the government acknowledged the need to identify issues in the immigration offices.

“We will bring together representatives of all the authorities involved in the visa process to discuss any remaining difficulties in the procedures and to jointly develop good and sustainable solutions," read the paper. "Other stakeholders can be invited to discuss specific topics, such as educational migration.” 


The proposals mainly focus on improving the situation upon arrival in Germany; the key points paper lays out plans for pre-integration services and preparatory courses on the topic of "Living in Germany", as well as supporting “skilled workers and their families in their entry and first steps in Germany”. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of transparency’: What it’s like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

Foreigners The Local spoke with pointed out problems with immigration offices arise when they are already living here and have to apply for visa extensions and residency permits.

As yet, this seems like an open point that the coalition government need to address in their proposed immigration reforms, if they not only want to attract workers to Germany, but also to enable them to settle in the country on a long-term basis.


Are the immigration offices really that bad?

A spokesman for the Berlin State Office for Immigration strenuously denied claims that employees take arbitrary or subjective decisions and stressed that decisions are taken in accordance with the relevant national and EU laws and guidelines, as well as international agreements with other countries. 

“Employees of the state immigration office are required to regularly interpret existing discretionary powers in favour of the persons concerned,” he said.

The book "Foreigners Law" stands on a desk at the Foreigners Office in Bietigheim-Bissingen (Baden-Württemberg) in 2015. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Wolfram Kastl

The spokesman also pointed out that, in Berlin, negative decisions are the exception and, in 2021 alone, only one percent of over 150,000 residence titles applied for were rejected. 

READ ALSO: How one German immigration office plans to tackle long waiting times

“The state office of immigration’s positive decision-making and issuing practice has been at this level for a long time," the spokesman said.


The situation in the country’s biggest immigration office has also been made more difficult by the increasingly complex legal situation and the challenges of Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the spokesman pointed out.

This has led to a "continuous increase in the compression of working hours and a higher frequency of appointments,” he said. 

The Berlin state office of immigration has been taking steps to improve the situation – having established a dedicated counselling service in June 2020 and appointing an ombudsman since September 2020.

While these measures mark a move in the right direction, they are only a first step. Taking into account the experiences of the people that The Local has spoken to, it seems that much further reaching measures and the attention of the federal government would be needed to make foreign nationals feel like they are really welcome in the country.


Comments (6)

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Michael Richardson 2022/12/24 22:36
I had planned to move to Germany in 2019/2022, but the pandemic postponed that, and then Brexit meant my UK citizenship meant nothing. My interactions with the consulates has been very frustrated. I'm a mature, highly-sought after IT specialist who brings my own company with me. My frustrations with very long delays, run arounds, and lack of clarity means that I probably won't move from Canada to Germany in 2023 either.
GS 2022/12/20 17:11
There is a gap between policy and reality. There is the intent to "attract" skilled labor at highest levels. On the flipside, the "average person" wants to shout at foreigners for not speaking German the day after they arrive - especially if they look a certain way or don't fit the stereotype of skilled labor (fair-skinned). The question is - with several options, why should any "skilled person" be willing to put up with this? A bottom-up change in attitude is needed.
Artur 2022/12/14 12:27
within the immigrant community the Ausländerbehörde is often referred as Anti-Immigration Agency. I guess this sums up the reputation this bureau has.
Emelia 2022/12/13 23:08
I've luckily never had my visa become problematic (touch wood), but I'm also white and from Australia, and work in tech. I've had the immigration office loose my paperwork and tell companies I don't have permission to work, when I absolutely do, only for them to magically find the paperwork weeks later.
Emelia 2022/12/13 23:07
"In 2021 alone, only one percent of over 150,000 residence titles applied for were rejected" That's still 1500 applications for residence titles that were rejected in 2021. That's not an insignificant number really. People here "1%" and go "that's not much", but it really is.
Emelia 2022/12/13 22:54
This article refers to Ausländerbehörde but the correct name now is the Landes amt für Einwanderung (it changed a few years ago to try to be less alienating to foreigners)

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