In August, the United States issued a worldwide terror alert saying there was a "continued potential" for the al-Qaeda terror network or its supporters to carry out attacks on US citizens "particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula."
The terror warning, coupled with a highly heated debate on Arab and Turkish immigration to Germany, triggered a wave of public and official resentment towards Muslims and vigilance against illegal immigrants, especially Arabs.
Germany tightens its grip on both visitors and immigrants
German embassies in Egypt and some other Arab countries where illegal immigrants come from became on high alert and ceased granting entry visas as easily as before.
Even getting married will not easily facilitate getting a visa to Germany as it was before. According to a German teacher who I spoke with at a hotel in Berlin, “I [the teacher] was in Egypt two months ago, and one of my students loved an Egyptian guy who was working in Hurgada resort, but the German embassy in Cairo declined his request to travel to Germany.”
Although he showed them all documents in reference to their marriage, “officials there might have doubted that he tended not to get back to Egypt if he got a visa.”
In what seems a cat-and-mouse game, some immigration seekers started to develop their strategy. They go first to non-EU Eastern European countries, as entry visas to those countries are much easier to obtain than EU visas. They then get smuggled one way or another to Western European countries.
In an attempt to stem this overflow of illegal immigrants, the German government has made several agreements with neighboring EU countries in Eastern Europe with porous borders, including Poland, to beef up patrols on its borders with Ukraine and Belarus.
Despite all German efforts to stem the flow of illegal Arab immigration, such movement is uncontrollable and quite impossible to prevent as long as there are rich countries in the West and other over-populated countries whose citizens suffer war, poverty, instability or vulnerability.
As per capita income is declining for many Egyptians in comparison to rises in prices due to the ongoing political turmoil, illegal immigration was the only resort for many to flee rampant unemployment and poverty at home.
A study carried out by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicated that the main reasons behind Egyptian migration are the low wages and salaries and the lack of employment opportunities, especially among new graduates.
Why immigration is uncontrollable; ways to get a stay
To that end, even if illegal immigrants go through a tough transition in Germany in the beginning, they live on the hope that they will get better-paid jobs if they stay longer. Therefore, the only thing that illegal immigrants focus on once stepping their feet in Germany is “how to get a residence permit to stay longer. It does not matter if you work or not in the beginning, work will come when you get a residence,” according to Sayyed Ibrahim, an illegal Egyptian immigrant in Berlin.
Marriage is the trump card for any illegal Arab immigrant in Germany to get a permanent stay, with the help of the presumably German wife.
“If marriage is not available, it is not the end of life; you can apply for ‘Azour’ refugees’ asylum. Hide your passport, and make up stories like you are from Gaza and live in Egypt and were persecuted at home. Then apply as an asylum seeker,” said Palestinian and Lebanese drug dealers in Berlin I came across. Both men got a residence through this method.
After getting the most-likely renewable, one-year residence, “wannabe” refugees are not allowed to work, according to the residence document issued. Furthermore, German authorities send them to far away villages where work opportunities are much fewer than the capital. In return, the German government covers the costs of accommodation and pays them monthly state aid, around 300 Euros.
Yet, Palestinian and Lebanese refugees, like many others, bypass these restrictions and go to other cities like Berlin to work in what is called the “Aswad” black market. These jobs require no work or residence permits and is untaxed as it is underground work. In any case, they had to rely only on themselves without any assistance from the government.
“Germany is the best country in Europe for the ‘Aswad.’ Here you can live and find some sort of work like construction. Police here are not so vigilant, but given the fact that you are undocumented, you would work on a day-by-day basis and expect harder times in the beginning,” said an Egyptian who first travelled by a smuggler from Egypt to Libya, where he took a boat to Italian borders. In Italy, he stayed for two years and worked hard, but he came to Germany because there were no more work opportunities in Italy as there had been in the past.
“I came here three years ago, illegally, then applied as an asylum seeker, and during the first year, I married a girl from Germany. Once you marry, you can be a resident. Then after 8 or 10 years, you can get [a] European Union passport and German citizenship and find more well-paid jobs than being illegal,” said a Moroccan whom I met on his way for the German language exam that he had to pass to prolong his settlement duration.
The fact that Germany is one of the biggest industrialized countries in the world encouraged many Egyptians and Arabs to try to travel “legally or illegally.” They consider Germany to be the cheapest country in Western Europe compared to the neighboring countries like Netherland or France.
Inflows of Arab immigrants began in earnest in the 1970s. Turkish immigration began even earlier in the 1950s in response to a labor shortage prompted by economic recovery in Germany. Some statistics estimate Arabs in Germany to be roughly 38,000 and others estimate 1 million. Turkish immigrants alone number 2.5 million. However, there are many more unregistered and illegal immigrants that remain uncounted.
Tough life awaiting illegal immigrants
Yet, life for most rural Egyptians who immigrate illegally is not as sweet or a piece of cake as most at home daydream of.
“What is widely circulated that these immigrants saved much money in Europe or lived better life is shit, and if they say that [they lived a better life], they are liars. Honestly, they live in nasty lodgings, worse than the like in Egypt. As for work, it is pretty hard. You have to accept poor-paying jobs in housekeeping or restaurants, jobs you would never accept in Egypt,” said Mohamed Safwat, a 60 year-old Egyptian businessman who immigrated in 1960 to Germany. He then opened a chain of restaurants in Germany and Denmark.
“If a work manager recruits people for 10 Euros when they have residence and work permits, he will hire you just for one Euro because you are illegal, and you cannot complain or say no. Otherwise, he will report you to the police and deport you back to where you come from… yes you can live here, but you will not save as much money as you dream or as people believe,” Safwat added.
Today more than ever, the West is becoming the dream of a frustrated young generation in Egypt who, unlike their fathers or grandfathers, finds it difficult to immigrate or even to visit the West. But the more difficult it is, the bigger the dreams of wealth, freedom and better life are and the more worthy the deadly adventure to achieve the dream is.
Older generations who made it to Germany in 1970 led a blissful life when they arrived because the country welcomed new immigrants. More job opportunities were available. Now, amidst the global financial crisis, almost all European countries have closed their doors, declining applicants only applying for entry visas.
Despite the fact that most of older generations have gained things they now appreciate and don't want to lose, such as well-paid jobs, health care, and good education for their children, “what we gained was often not all what we dreamed about,” said Moustafa Said. According to Said, a 50 year-old Egyptian who immigrated to the country in 1970s, “Such benefits came with around-the-clock hard work and I did not fully enjoy the luxurious life, simply because the competition is very high. Once you forget that, you are out of the league.”
Benefits of immigration for immigrant-exporting countries
According to IOM estimates, the number of Egyptian migrants abroad is approximately 2.7 million. Approximately 70 % of them are residing in Arab countries and the remaining is living primarily in Europe and North America.
The World Bank estimates that if countries with declining populations allowed their workforce to grow 3 per cent by letting in an extra 14 million migrant workers between 2001-2025, the world would be USD 356 billion a year better off – with the majority of these funds flowing to developing countries.
"These numbers aren't just about economics. They need to be placed in a human context too. Economic growth equals human and social development and security," said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. "In many parts of the world, migrants' remittances have already done much to lift communities from extreme poverty, put food on the table, given families a home and children an education. All these things mean a better future for them and as a result, for the rest of the world too."
“In a way or another, the immigration is like a tax that developed countries have to pay for the suffering they inflicted on peoples in developing countries due to past colonialism and for what they stole during their long-time occupation,” said a journalist based in Berlin, referring to countries like England, France, Italy.
The benefit of immigration to hosting countries
Germany is also in need of Arab and Turkish immigrants, and the German industry has made it clear that the country needs an influx of qualified workers, regardless of what cultures they come from because Germany’s declining birth rate is already affecting the economy. There are shortages of engineers, doctors and geriatric nurses. Meanwhile, Germany cannot weigh on citizens from Eastern Europe or EU states, especially in the long term because they are in the same boat with Germany concerning the birth rate.
According to IOM's recently launched World Migration Report, international migrants are on a steep rise because of population decline in the world's industrialized countries; a 25 percent drop in population is expected by 2050. This will significantly increase the demand for migrant workers at a time when the labor force in developing countries will increase from 2.4 billion in 2005 to 3.6 billion in 2040.
Yet, the fact is that Germany is in a demographic crisis in which the German population is not only aging but also shrinking at a rapid rate. This makes Germany afraid that in the long term Arabs and Turks will create a reality much like the United Arab Emirates in which the number of Asian workers and residents is larger than the Emirati citizens.