Dozens of families of ethnic Germans from post-Soviet countries are in distress. Unable to travel to Germany due to the coronavirus pandemic, they have no fixed home and own little else apart from packed suitcases.
"We sold our homes, we gave up our jobs, we told the authorities we are leaving. Now we are renting accommodation and waiting for our departure to Germany. But airline tickets have increased exorbitantly. Many among us have run out of money."
That is what some 300 people had to say in a letter sent to DW. Due to border closures currently in force, ethnic Germans looking to leave former Soviet republics, called Spätaussiedler or late repatriates, cannot travel to Germany, where they had planned to move, and now they're asking the German public and the country's politicians for help.
Germany's migration authorities adhere to special rules that make it easier for late repatriates to obtain German residency and ultimately German citizenship.
The letter was sent by Yevgeniy Alles, from the southern Russian city of Stavropol. He has led the initiative, and stays in contact with ethnic Germans looking to travel to Germany but held up by restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. His appeal, Alles said, was also sent to Germany's Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for dealing with late repatriates' requests.
'Our passports are still at the embassy'
"In order to receive a permanent residence permit in Germany, you're not allowed to have any commitments to private individuals or authorities," Alles told DW in a telephone interview.
Prior to departure, everything had to be settled, which was exactly what he and his wife had done: they sold their apartment, packed their suitcases and, together with their little son, departed for the German Embassy in Moscow, carrying all the necessary documents. At the consulate, they submitted a visa application on March 10. They then rented an apartment in Moscow on a temporary basis. At this point, there were still no travel restrictions in place.
"Even on March 16, when the quarantine was imposed, the consulate told us over the phone that we should wait for our notification. Only on March 20 were we informed that granting visas was suspended because of the quarantine. Our passports are still held by the consulate," said Yevgeniy Alles. The consulate advised the family to return to Stavropol, where they're now renting a flat. They cannot afford to spend too much on groceries, and they will have to borrow the money needed for airline tickets to Germany.
Left in political limbo
The Chervinskiy family from Qaraghandy, a city in eastern Kazakhstan, is in a similar situation. On February 6, Ekaterina, her husband, Denis, and their 3-year-old twin sons, Andrei and Roman, received a notification of admission. On March 5, they submitted their documents as required at the German Embassy in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan.
"Usually, it takes three to five days to receive a visa," said Ekaterina Chervinskiy.
They were, however, informed on March 19 that the visa had been granted but that their passports could not be returned because of the quarantine. The family had no choice but to return to Qaraghandy, where they remain with their suitcases packed — and hardly any money left.
"We are now left in limbo. Germany closed its borders, and Kazakh authorities insist that we're no longer Kazakh citizens and that, as people without a residence, we have to leave the country. But where could we go, and how?" said Denis Chervinskiy. "We gave up our jobs, we sold our apartment cheaply, and now we're close to starving. We think that both Kazakhstan and Germany have simply left us to our own devices."
'We've become practically homeless'
The Gaufler family from the southern Kazakh city of Taraz has tells a similar story of having sold or given away their possessions intending to move to Germany. On March 15, the family departed for Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, where they were to board a plane to Frankfurt, Germany.
"On March 17, we were not even allowed to enter the airport. At this point, only people who had a residence permit could fly to Germany, and we only had a national 'D' visa," Tatiana Gaufler told DW over the phone, referring to visas valid for 90 days only.
At this time, Kazakhstan imposed travel restrictions as well. "We were on the road with three suitcases and we became practically homeless," she said, crying. Tatiana Gaufler is disappointed: "Neither in Kazakhstan nor in Germany does anybody care about us."
Among the 300 people who signed the appeal to the German authorities are some people who are severely ill. One of them is Vladimir Pankratz from the southern Russian city of Orenburg. He was released from the hospital where he was receiving treatment for thyroid cancer so he could accompany his family to Germany. But they are currently stuck in Russia.
Commissioner for repatriates pledges support
At the start of the pandemic, Germany's Foreign and Interior ministries held different views regarding travel restrictions issued by the European Commission for EU territory, Bernd Fabritius, the German government's commissioner for German expatriates and national minority affairs, told DW.
"The Foreign Ministry assumed that those restrictions applied to all citizens from non-EU countries. Arriving late repatriates who were not yet registered as living in Germany are not yet German citizens and are, therefore, according to the Foreign Ministry's interpretation thus far, subject to travel restrictions issued by the European Commission for EU territory. For this reason, I presume that, when the pandemic started, issuing German visas to late repatriates was temporarily suspended in German consulates," Fabritius said.
Later, however, authorities, including those at the Foreign Ministry, decided that late repatriates enjoy a special status when it comes to entering Germany once they have received a note of admission and the necessary D visa, and that possession of these documents exempts them from European coronavirus travel restrictions.
According to Fabritius, there were no known cases of late repatriates denied entry into Germany by federal police after submitting a valid D-visa. He added that "even during the pandemic, Russian Germans from post-Soviet countries arrived at the reception center for late repatriates in Friedland," referring to a transit camp in the German state of Lower Saxony.
Fabritius said he would personally intervene on behalf of people facing particular hardship, such as those in need of medical care,
Fabritius said he would personally intervene for some compensation to be provided to late repatriates in possession of a D-visa facing serious financial hardship because they were unable to enter Germany due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.