Immigration Offices: A Foreign Student’s Nightmare

Translated by Translators for Justice

By Said Rezek

Since economists began to complain about a shortage of skilled workers in Germany, politicians have been calling for a more welcoming culture in order to attract qualified workers. According to the results of a new study, however, foreign university graduates in Germany feel anything but welcome.

As a university town, Bayreuth, Germany can rightfully hold its head up high. It is regularly ranked above average in reports on study and research conditions. The problems foreign students are having with the local immigration offices, though, are considerable, as Professor Bernd Müller-Jaquier and his research team discovered. Their recent study sheds light on the deficiencies and irregularities experienced by foreign students at the Bayreuth immigration office.

For example, the immigration office, not the university or the professor, decides whether a student is allowed to change his or her field of study. The university is not consulted in this decision, which can have costly consequences for the already hard-up students. Furthermore, if a student is allowed to change fields, he or she is then required to leave Germany in order to apply for a new visa. Changing fields cost the Chinese master student H., for example, 5,000 Euros and many months of lost time.

Latent Atmosphere of Aggression and Intimidation

According to the Bayreuth study, it is quite common for an immigration official to initially indicate that an application will be approved, only to decline it at the last minute. Quite often when the student meets such resistance from the immigration office, the university has to step in. Professor Müller-Jaquier especially criticized the tone used by immigration office officials when speaking with the students, a tone which he described as a form of communication with underlying aggression and intimidation. As the professor explained to MiGAZIN, the attitude of immigration officials and the immigration office director towards foreigners is the most important factor.

A majority of the foreign students interviewed for the study reported that they do not feel welcome in the immigration offices, that they are not properly treated, and that they are simply regarded as “dumb foreigners”. Müller-Jaquier and his team conducted 80 interviews in total and have come to an unfortunate conclusion: these practices are well established in the system.

Officials Point Fingers at Difficult Laws

The city of Bayreuth, on the other hand, speaks of isolated instances. MiGAZIN was told that this criticism could certainly not be based only on the performance of the officials in the immigration office, but rather had its roots in the very difficult legal situation. They went on to say that immigration laws are exceptionally complicated and are determined by both federal and states directives.

A quick glance at the study, though, shows that not every problem can be traced back to the complicated legal situation. One example: the immigration office sometimes limits the duration of a student’s stay in Germany up to the due date of his or her bachelor’s or master’s thesis, although this testing phase is only finished after the paper has been graded (2 months) or another test has been repeated.

Many Questionable Decisions Go Unreported

In another case, the immigration office in Leipzig issued a document to a Russian student for her move to Bayreuth that was supposed to serve as a “temporary visa”. The immigration official in Bayreuth, however, refused to accept the document, calling the official “ignorant” and accusing the student of having told stories to obtain the document illegally.

The study describes the list of such instances as long and states that the number of questionable decisions that go unreported is likely very high. Many foreign students do not question the practices of the immigration offices, either because they fear the institution itself and the decisions made there that affect their well-being or because they are not aware of their rights, states the study.

Students Without Passports

According to the study, it becomes exceptionally problematic for foreign students at the University of Bayreuth when they need to get by without their identification papers¾often for months at a time¾simply because the immigration office delays their applications and holds their passports too long. Consequently, the students have no way to prove their identity and risk time-consuming procedures if questioned by the police.

In order to improve the situation, the University of Bayreuth’s research team analyzed the behavior of immigration officials in 14 German university cities and made 16 procedure recommendations. But when the officials already regard foreigners with skepticism or even have a negative or hostile attitude toward foreigners, Müller-Jaquier explained, then recommendations or instructions are of little use. The resistant nature of the laws governing foreign-student stays, he said, provide enough of a legal foothold for applications to be denied or delayed.

Roots of Defensive Mentality

The University of Bayreuth’s research team firmly believes that the practices observed in Bayreuth’s immigration office show that this office has a false understanding of the university’s regulations and the students’ obligations. The practices, they say, show the true face of the defensive mentality of those in positions of responsibility

Where did this attitude come from? The employer representative Peter Clever gave an interview for the German radio network Deutschlandradio, in which he offered one possible explanation: “Over the last few decades we have encouraged our offices to be on the defense. We said: keep these people away! They only want to get into our social system! And now we have to be clear that we need these professionals, that we need to care for them and welcome them. Making that change in the minds of the officials, though, won’t happen overnight.”

Download: A free copy of the study (only available in German) “Ausländische Akademiker und deutsche Behörden. Ein Bayreuther Forschungsprojekt.“ can be downloaded here.

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