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African migrants in Germany: Are they welcome?

December 8, 2022

With Germany planning to relax its immigration laws, African migrants tell DW about their experiences of prejudice and bureaucracy.

Mo stands in the aisle of his supermarket holding up a packet of fufu
Mo is positive about Germany, where he has a successful business and a solid jobImage: Kate Hairsine/DW

Some half a dozen customers fill the aisles of the M&D Afro-Caribbean supermarket in Karlsruhe, a mid-sized town in southwestern Germany. They're here for the fufu, yams and other West African specialties sold at the store.

The shop is a side business for 42-year-old Mohammed from Accra in Ghana, who'd prefer not to see his last name online. He works full-time at a nearby Daimler plant that produces luxury Mercedes cars. His Ghanaian wife, Faustina, runs the store, which gives her time to look after their four children.

"It's very nice to stay in Germany," says Mo, as he likes to be called. He's full of praise for the country's social security system and health insurance and appreciates German discipline and orderliness. "To live in Europe, I think Germany is the best."

But it hasn't always been easy for him here. Mo came to Germany, where his uncle was already living, more than 20 years ago as a political refugee. He initially struggled with the bureaucracy of getting his papers and a work permit, something he thinks Germany needs to improve. Learning German was also "very, very difficult." Back then, there were none of the free language courses the city now offers to new immigrants.

Marked by stereotype

Plus, Germans have certain assumptions about Africans, he says, especially the men.

"The moment they see a Black man, they [Germans] think you must be stupid," he tells DW. "Sorry to use this word, but most of them see a Black man and think he is a refugee or sells drugs."

Germany, a country of nearly 84 million people, actually has few African immigrants. In 2021, only 450,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa were registered in the country — although this doesn't count those who have assumed German citizenship. When Mo arrived in Germany two decades ago, it was even less, with a mere 164,000 sub-Saharan Africans officially living here.

When Mo lived in a village outside Karlsruhe, the police often stopped him to see his papers or check that he had paid for the shopping in his bag. Once, he had to remove his clothes during a drug check, something he found "very, very embarrassing."

More recently, he said, the police came to his supermarket because someone found it suspicious that Black people were standing outside on the footpath being "loud and talking on their phones."

"They have a bad mindset about Blacks," Mo said. "They see them like bad people."

Racism in the workplace

A 2018 study found that a third of Africans living in Germany reported being treated badly or abused. This is a much higher rate than Africans reported in most other EU member states. Many also said they felt discriminated against looking for a job or an apartment because they were African.

Mo's experience at work is positive, though, he stresses. He doesn't feel he stands out at the plant, where so many nationalities work side by side. And having a contract with Daimler, one of Germany's biggest companies, makes him beloved by rental agencies, who see him as a secure tenant.

Growing diversity

Delicia Hofmann from South Africa lives just up the road from the Afro-Caribbean shop. She met her German husband, who visited South Africa in 1996, just two years after the country elected Nelson Mandela in its first post-apartheid elections. It was "very uncomfortable" for an interracial couple at that time in South Africa, she says, so she moved to Germany, where they married.

A university graduate who had luckily learned German at school at home in Stellenbosch, she quickly found a job in customer care for a company pension fund. At the time, Hofmann was the first Black person among 800 staff.

"People looked at me but in a curious way. I noticed it, but I didn't feel weird or funny," she says, adding that it has probably been easier for her as a woman in Germany because Black men are treated much differently. "I felt welcomed in most places, but after years I realized that is because I could speak the language."

It took her a while to build up the confidence to "showcase" her Africanness by wearing certain clothing or a headscarf.

As Karlsruhe and Germany become more international and open, she feels even "more positive" about living here. Just over a fifth of Karlsruhe's population of 306,000 is now foreign-born. "I feel that most of the people here are open to that," Hofmann says. "And they also see the need for change."

Infografik Ausländische Bevölkerung Deutschland EN

For Hofmann, one of the biggest pluses of living in Germany is the freedom of movement she wouldn't enjoy as a woman back in South Africa. "I really appreciate going out and being out on the street and knowing I'm actually safe, even if I come home late on my bicycle." she says.

"Actually, cycling around is a luxury for me."

Dual citizenship dispute

She does have one big gripe, though, shared by Mo from the Afro-Caribbean store — Germany doesn't allow dual citizenship with non-EU nations apart from neighboring Switzerland.

Both Mo and Hofmann refuse to give up the passports of their countries of birth for a German one. "I know it's just a piece of paper, but it's a piece of paper that is linked to my heritage," Hofmann says.

The current government has promised to allow multiple citizenships as part of a wide-ranging overhaul of Germany's immigration laws, something she is looking forward to. "Then I can say, 'OK, I'm now a German citzen.' Because I feel at home in Germany, and I would like to also have the right to vote."

Waiting for papers

Just three blocks away from the Afro-Caribbean supermarket, a few men sit on a couch at the One-Love Afro Barber Shop waiting for a haircut. One of them is 24-year-old Waham from Eritrea. He's been living in Germany for seven years, having fled his country's draconian compulsory military service.

He was in Italy before he came to Germany but finds it better here because there are more opportunities for work and to learn skills. Plus he's able to attend German lessons provided by the city.

Afrikaner in Deutschland
The One-Love Afro Barber Shop in Karlsruhe is a popular place for young African men to hang outImage: Kate Hairsine/DW

What he doesn't understand, he says, is how tortuous Germany makes the application process for Eritreans and others like him who are seeking asylum here. Germany is wasting their skills, he says, as they can't work while they are waiting in bureaucratic limbo.

Half of all German companies say they have had to cut back on business this year because they can't recruit staff.

"There's lots and lots of work in Germany," he says, "but those without the proper papers can't work. That doesn't make sense."

Living without family

As part of their immigration reform, the German parliament has passed a bill to lower the bureaucratic obstacles in the asylum system. It provides a path for people who have lived in Germany on a "tolerated stay" permit for at least five years to gain permanent residency.

But even if it becomes easier for those already here to work, Waham still warns against seeking asylum in Germany. The system of family reunification doesn't work here, he says, adding that he knows many Eritreans who have been waiting for years for their wives or children to be allowed to come.

Under German law, recognized refugees can bring their partners and children into Germany. But Eritreans are often unable to get the documents from their own government to prove these family ties.

"Life here is more difficult without your wife, your children, without your family," Waham says.

What's it like to be Black and queer in Germany?

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.