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Life in the shadows

Nastasja Steudel / sstMarch 27, 2014

An estimated 400,000 people live in Germany without proper legal documentation. This prompts them to lead a life in fear - with virtually no rights and no access to proper health care.

Documentation (photo: David Ebener dpa/lby)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Every time when Maria (not her real name - eds.) traveled by train, she bought a valid ticket. She never jaywalked - not even if there wasn't a car in sight for miles. She was diligent at work where she wiped multiple floors, cleaned bathrooms and living rooms 12 hours a day. Maria was always on time and didn't call in sick once, even though she hardly managed to survive on the little income she made.

That's the life Maria lived for 15 years, until the Ecuadorian was pressed for time one summer day in 2009. On that particular day she didn't take her usual way to work which is a bit longer, but safer for her. Instead, she opted to make her way through the main train station and walked into a group of police randomly checking people for their papers, which is legal in Germany even if the people being asked to identify themselves are not suspected of a crime. Maria couldn't present her papers, because she never had any in the 15 years she had been in Germany.

Deportation after 15 years in Germany

Because the school's summer holidays were about to start, the authorities let her daughter finish 6th grade. Had it not been for her daughter, who was born in Germany, Maria would have been placed into custody pending deportation on the spot. Maria had long left her partner who was also living undocumented in Germany.

Her daughter only knew about Ecuador from school books and only spoke broken Spanish. Before Maria was deported, she said her goodbyes to Sigrid Becker-Wirth who had helped her and her daughter when they had fallen ill. "It was awful," the 61-year old recalled.

Sigrid Becker-Wirth and Ulrich Kortmann (photo: Nastassja Steudel)
Becker Wirth and Kortmann see an undocumented patientImage: DW/N.Steudel

Former teacher Becker-Wirth is head and heart of the human rights initiative MediNetz Bonn. She - together with Ulrich Kortmann and 10 other fellow campaigners - has set out to put people without documents in touch with doctors who are willing to help. They treat undocumented patients without any bureaucratic hassle and for free. The initiative was founded back in 2003 with the goal to soon become obsolete. But nothing has changed politically speaking since then, Becker Wirth said.

Today her network consists of more than 80 doctors in different medical fields in and around Bonn. The initiative is independent and runs on donations. Becker-Wirth is reluctant to talk about numbers, but said the organization spent some 43,000 euros ($59,000) on medical treatment in 2013 and didn't go into the red.

Trust no one

Every Monday, the "undocumented" can stop by between 5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. in a plain house in northern Bonn to get advice. It's estimated that there are some 4,000 people without papers in the western German city of Bonn and its surroundings. Some of them greet Becker-Wirth with pure joy when she opens the door to her tiny office. Others are scared and sit down while averting their eyes.

It gets crowded in the improvised waiting room. Three women from the Philippines quietly talk. Next to them, a man from Peru reads a fairy tale to his son in German. A couple from Kosovo waits anxiously with a stack of X-ray images. Shortly before 8:00 p.m., a Syrian man joins the group. No one wants to go on the record with their story. Letting the wrong tiny detail slip - they fear - could give them away and destroy their hard-won existence. It took Becker-Wirth some time to gain their trust and get them to tell her what help they're looking for.

MediNetz Bonn (photo: Nastassja Steudel)
Undocumented people can come seek help at MediNetzBonnImage: DW/N.Steudel

Between four and 15 refugees come to her during office hours. In addition to the usual sicknesses like the flu, angina or bilious complaints, she also sees severe diseases like tumors or cancer. Out of fear to lose their job when they get sick, and because they don't know where to turn to, many come see a doctor when it's far too late.

Becker-Wirth said a woman suffering from breast cancer turned to them when she could already see changes in her body - it was clearly an advanced case. Another patient has fallen ill with tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease. The German government should surely be interested in treating these people, Becker-Wirth said.

Help if you play by the rules?

But the authorities are only willing to help if people play by their rules. The German social welfare law for asylum seekers gives undocumented people living in Germany access to certain services. However, that only applies to severe illnesses - and only if they disclose their residence status as undocumented residents. The authorities can then also issue an exceptional leave to remain, which is lifted when the patient has recovered.

Because MediNetzBonn can't afford expensive procedures like chemotherapy, Becker-Wirth sometimes has to organize such a status for their patients. But she doesn't like doing that.

Sometimes, due to the constant high pressure of being discovered, not knowing how to make ends meet, many refugees develop psychosomatic illnesses or a post-traumatic stress disorder. Becker-Wirth and her team can then also ask for an exceptional leave to remain.

Becker-Wirth said she doesn't know what happened to Maria and her daughter after they have been deported. She can only hope that they are well and that the girl managed to fit in to a new - foreign - environment. Whenever she comes across such cases today, she tries to call on a commission dealing with cases of hardship.

Waiting room (photo: Nastassja Steudel)
Many people without documentation fear to talk about their personal livesImage: DW/N.Steudel

"Children who were born in Germany and have their friends here are virtually residents," she said.

After 10 years of work for MediNetzBonn, Becker-Wirth said she has learned everything there is to learn about laws regarding aliens. She is now pushing for an anonymous health insurance certificate in order to integrate the undocumented into Germany's health system.