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International students from Ukraine face deadline in Germany

Loveday Wright
August 7, 2022

Ukrainian refugees in Germany can easily apply for a two-year residency permit, but the fast-track immigration process for Ukrainian nationals is not available for everyone who fled the war.

two international students working in a library
International students who fled Ukraine for Germany, are demanding more time to get settled hereImage: Valentina Barreto/Westend61/imago images

When Marvin arrived in Dnipro, Ukraine, to begin his degree in civil engineering back in 2018, he felt like he was finally on track to achieving his dream. "I was so, so happy," he told DW. His mother wept tears of joy. "Because this was something that seemed impossible." Having grown up in Sierra Leone with little money, Marvin had saved for years and battled through an expensive and lengthy visa process to get there.

This month, he was supposed to graduate. But after the war broke out in late February, and the bombing started in Dnipro, Marvin decided to flee. Now in Berlin, he feels stuck in limbo. While Ukrainian citizens are being fast-tracked through Germany's immigration system, the situation for many third-country nationals who fled the war, including international students like Marvin, is more complicated. Most now have just weeks left to apply for permission to stay in Germany.

Xavier (left) and Ikem
Nigerian students Xavier (left) and Ikem are anxious about the future Image: Loveday Wright/DW

Thousands of international students affected

The number of international students without Ukrainian or EU citizenship who are hoping to continue their studies in Germany after fleeing the war in Ukraine is "in the low thousands," according to the German Rectors' Conference (HRK), the association of German universities. 

Calls are mounting for this group to receive the same treatment as those with Ukrainian passports.

Thanks to an EU-wide directive,Ukrainian citizens who have fled to Germany have until August 31 to apply for a temporary residence permit, initially for two years, which allows them to work, study and receive social benefits. The same applies to 'third country nationals' who are married to or in a long-term partnership with a Ukrainian citizen; people who were recognized as refugees in Ukraine; or those who cannot safely return to their home countries, in particular people from Syria, Afghanistan or Eritrea.

Non-Ukrainians wait longer at border

Most others can only stay in Germany without a visa until the end of August. After that, they will need to apply for a regular residence permit.

"The German government seems to purposely forget the fact that the war did not differentiate between who gets affected and who doesn't," said Xavier, a 25-year-old Nigerian who was in his first semester of a law degree in Kharkiv. 

Marvin sees the different rules for non-Ukrainians as discriminatory, an extension of the racism he experienced whilst fleeing. "I wasn't expecting that, especially for a country like Germany, with its history. […] It's really disappointing for a country that purports democracy and purports human rights for all."

In an email to DW, Germany's interior ministry rejected accusations of discrimination in its policy regarding third-country nationals who have fled Ukraine, saying the different treatment followed the EU requirements. 

press conference held by BIPOC Ukraine & Friends
The campaign group BIPOC Ukraine & Friends in Germany is calling for equal rights for third-country nationals who fled Ukraine Image: Privat

Tough hurdles for a student visa

Students like Marvin and Xavier have the option to apply for a student visa in Germany. But for that, they would need to first be accepted onto a university course and show they have around 10,000 euros ($12,000) in a blocked bank account to show that they can support themselves.Most university courses in Germany also require a good level of German and a certificate to prove it.

"This means equal treatment for all third-country nationals who want to study in Germany," the Interior Ministry told DW.

But for many of the international students who fled Ukraine, meeting these requirements is simply not possible in such a short space of time.

Marvin has already applied to several German universities offering engineering courses taught in English. Although he's from Sierra Leone, where English is the official language, he had to pay €235 to take the IELTS English language test as part of his application. But he's worried his lack of savings could rule him out for a visa, even if he is accepted. He thinks the government should waive the requirement for a blocked account for those in his situation. "Had it been under normal circumstances. I would've understood. But now it's not a normal circumstance. […] All my hope is in winning a scholarship."

It's the same for Christina (not her real name), a 21-year-old aerospace engineering student from Tanzania who was studying in Kharkiv. "My parents had a small amount of money that they used to save for an affordable country such as Ukraine, and Germany requires a blocked account," she says, breaking into tears. "It's very hard for me. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Christina from Tanzania says she's waiting for the war to endImage: Loveday Wright/DW

'No future' at home

Christina dreams of becoming an avionics engineer and eventually training as a pilot. She says her family, who saved around 5,000 euros/USD little by little over many years for her education, are expecting to see her succeed. "I can't go back with nothing. People are hoping for much from me, so I can't just leave and go back to Tanzania. I have to fight for what was lost."

Twenty-year-old medical student Ikem said returning to Nigeria was not an option, and that the country was not safe. "Lots of ritual killings and lots of kidnappings and lots of crime, it's really hard. If you take me right now and put me back in Nigeria, I don't know where I would be. There's no future at all."

Ikem has been trying to continue with his course online. But the situation is difficult. "Most times, professors miss classes because they have some things to do. Some of them are being sent to the war front," he said. "And then the university is still clamoring for funds, so we still have to pay for an uncertain future."

Nigeria's medical council has announced it will not recognize medical degrees issued by Ukrainian universities from 2022, due to many courses having shifted online since the war broke out. Like Christina, Ikem is struggling to get the documents he would need to transfer elsewhere from his university in Vinnytsya, Ukraine. "They don't want to lose a lot of students, so they are withholding transcripts," he told DW.

Black people arriving from Ukraine at Hamburg train station
Many People of Color reported experiencing discrimination whilst fleeing Ukraine Image: Jonas Walzberg/dpa/picture alliance

Temporary permits in Hamburg and Bremen

Hamburg and Bremen are two city-states in Germany that are offering international students who fled Ukraine a six-month temporary permit from the point in time when they register in the city-states. This allows them some time to apply for university courses here and start learning German. Some international students who fled Ukraine have moved to these cities from elsewhere in Germany, in order to make use of the opportunity.

But many also argue six months is not enough to restart their lives here. "You can't probably just get all the things you need in your life perfectly fine in six months," argues law student Xavier, who is staying in Berlin for now. "So that's why I'm also asking for two years, the same way everybody else got it. Same way the Ukrainians got it."

'Just give me an opportunity'

Ikem is determined to finish medical school. "My goal is to help people […] and make an impact on the world." He says he'll go wherever he gets the chance to continue his studies. "I just want to be a medical doctor. That's what I want to be."

Although it currently looks unlikely, all are now hoping for the government to extend the conditions for Ukrainian refugees to include third-country nationals like them — or for other cities in Germany to follow Hamburg and Bremen in at least giving them more time.  "Had it not been for the war or the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, we would not be here," Marvin told DW. "I'm not even interested in social benefits. Just give me an opportunity and see what I can do on my own."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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