News | German / European History - Migration / Flight - Western Europe - Southeast Asia Between Agency and Exploitation

Generations of Vietnamese migrants have come to Germany in search of a better life



Sen Nguyen,

Vietnamese shoppers in the Dong Xuan Center in eastern Berlin, 10 November 2010. Photo: IMAGO / koall

Four years ago, the discourse around Vietnamese migration to Europe changed forever. On 23 October 2019, the bodies of 39 individuals — 28 men, eight women, and three children — were discovered in the back of a lorry headed from Belgium to the UK. This June, an eleventh person was convicted for his part in the operation that resulted in the deaths, after seven other people responsible for the events that led to the tragedy received jail time totalling over 92 years.

Sen Nguyen is an independent journalist, podcast host, and producer based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She writes features and analyses that unpack nuances and provide context behind policies and developments of public interest, with a particular focus on marginalized populations from Vietnam and Southeast Asia

The event elicited large-scale, cross-border cooperation between several EU countries, and saw collaboration between German, Vietnamese, and British law enforcement. It cast a light on the Vietnam–Europe migration corridor and spurred new discussions about safe and legal labour migration from Vietnam to Europe and beyond.

All of the victims embarked on that final journey in search of a clandestine way into the UK. Their shared origin was Vietnam, with the majority hailing from the Nghe An province, where many of Vietnam’s migrants originate. Post-war unemployment and limited economic opportunities at home and high levels of demand for labour in the receiving countries continues to feed both formal and informal migration from Vietnam, generating huge remittances amounting to 13.5 billion US dollars in 2022 alone.

Four years after the disaster in Essex, many Vietnamese migrants continue to move to Europe and especially Germany, often illegally, as the country has become an increasingly attractive destination. Many hope that new laws will make the process fairer and more humane, acknowledging the importance of Vietnamese workers in Germany’s labour market and society.

A History of Mobility

Vietnamese migration to Europe is by no means a new historical phenomenon. Indeed, the founder of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, himself first made contact with Communist revolutionaries while working in France in the early 1920s. Modern migration from Vietnam to Germany, however, first began several decades ago as an expression of mutual cooperation between socialist countries.

The end of the Vietnam War and the country’s reunification in 1975 saw a wave of refugees flee to countries like the US and West Germany. Yet soon thereafter, tens of thousands of Vietnamese who had not fled after reunification began arriving in Eastern Europe as contract workers. Most of them ended up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) thanks to a bilateral agreement between the GDR and the Vietnamese Ministry of Labour signed in 1980.

Despite receiving identical wages to their German counterparts, Vietnamese workers were denied opportunities for advancement and professional growth.

Researcher Eva Kolinsky, who interviewed 30 former Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR, notes their complex working and living conditions that exhibit the stereotypical Vietnamese entrepreneurial spirit and echo the challenges faced by contemporary migrant workers in Europe today. According to Kolinsky, despite their recruitment as a token of appreciation for their military service, academic achievements, employment history, and political involvement at home, upon arrival in East Germany they found themselves engaged in menial, grim, repetitive, or perilous jobs that were shunned by local workers.

Despite receiving identical wages to their German counterparts, they were denied opportunities for advancement and professional growth. Residing in segregated hostels overseen by German supervisors, they were confined to limited activities and permitted minimal interaction with the local populace. Their activities were also closely monitored by Vietnamese group leaders and interpreters, who reported to both the Vietnamese Embassy and the secret service.

Despite these adversities, they established their own entrepreneurial ventures and social circles within their community by producing and selling high-demand items like clothing and computers. They carved out spaces for themselves, thriving amidst challenging circumstances in the GDR.

On New Terrain

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a significant turning point, turning thousands of Vietnamese migrants from documented to undocumented workers veritably overnight. PhD candidate Trang Nguyen at the University of Erfurt’s Max Weber Centre provides a concise overview of this transition.

Germany’s black market for cigarettes emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the period of transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Germany was the largest illicit cigarette market in the EU, with Berlin boasting the highest prevalence of illicit cigarettes in the country. When visa obligations were lifted in 1989, Polish citizens could travel to West Berlin without visas, leading to the sale of cheaper contraband Polish cigarettes by street dealers, which soon spread to the eastern parts of the country.

Many Vietnamese guest workers who lost their legitimate employment with the collapse of the socialist system soon became involved in the illicit cigarette trade, marking a transition from legal to illegal work. Some initially bought cigarettes from Polish travellers, but in early 1991, a large-scale illegal cigarette trade run by Vietnamese individuals began. Some Vietnamese sellers collaborated with Russian military officers to facilitate cigarette smuggling, but this collaboration ended when the last Russian troops withdrew from Berlin in 1994.

In May 1993, German authorities granted legal residency to former Vietnamese guest workers, and many gradually left the illegal cigarette trade. However, criminal networks found the lucrative black market attractive, and soon smuggled thousands of undocumented Vietnamese workers into the country to work it.

German police launched a massive crackdown on the open market in 1996, which led to a significant reduction in vending spots. Nevertheless, even today, young Vietnamese men and women can often be seen selling illicit cigarettes from plastic bags in front of train stations or the Dong Xuan Center, a famous Vietnamese market in eastern Berlin.

Vietnamese contract workers in a dormitory in East Berlin, 1990. Photo: IMAGO / Werner Schulze

Integration, Aspiration, and Challenges

Today, the descendants of Vietnamese refugees, former guest workers, international students, and undocumented migrants make up a visible and vibrant minority in Germany. Official statistics show the Vietnamese population significantly outweighs every other group of South and Southeast Asian nationals except Indians. As of late 2020, there were over 100,000 Vietnamese nationals in the country of over 83 million people.

Phi Hong Su, a sociologist at Williams College, explains the complexity of Vietnamese diaspora networks in Germany in her latest book, The Border Within: Vietnamese Migrants Transforming Ethnic Nationalism in Berlin. She describes how Vietnamese migrants in Germany formed friendship networks based on their region of origin and how they arrived in the country. Refugees resettled in West Berlin while contract workers lived and worked in East Berlin.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, refugees remained in their districts, while some contract workers moved to the western part of the city. Despite being free to move around, friendship networks remain divided between North and South, contract workers and refugees, and legacies of communism versus anticommunism.

One exception to this rule, according to Phi, was Linh Thuu Pagoda in West Berlin’s suburban Spandau neighbourhood, founded by Vietnamese refugees and later opened to contract workers after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The small Buddhist temple with a meticulously maintained garden remains the only social institution that consistently brings together Vietnamese worshippers from various migration backgrounds and regions of origin.

The Feminization of Vietnamese Migration

Women account for a little over half of the Vietnamese population in Germany. According to researchers, they are mostly students, apprentices, and family members who arrive in Germany on family reunion grounds either through their spouses or children.

29-year-old Mai Thi Phuong Loan is part of that feminization of migration. The Hanoi native went to Germany in 2020 to reunite with her husband, also a Vietnamese national who had studied and worked in the country long before Loan’s arrival. After spending about a year acclimating to life in Germany, she started taking up part-time jobs, including waitressing at a sushi restaurant, before landing a full-time position in supply-chain management in the city of Offenbach, near Frankfurt am Main.

Women account for a little over half of the Vietnamese population in Germany.

“In Vietnam, connections can get you a job. In Germany, it is hard for descendants of powerful people to cut in line. Everything in Germany has to be orderly”, she explains, adding that her previous job experience handling logistics for imported goods from Vietnam allows her to interact with many fellow Vietnamese in her community.

“Vietnamese over here work very efficiently”, Loan added, while observing that undocumented people she knows or hears about work as hard and as much as possible to save money. “No matter which way they choose to come here, I support it.’’

Caught in the Surge

The experience of Vietnamese migrants in Germany must be situated within the EU’s broader migration policies and shifts.

Since the record surge in refugee arrivals in the EU in 2015, often referred to as the “long summer of migration”, the EU has ramped up its border controls The boom of right-wing movements and anti-immigration rhetoric and policies across the EU, including in Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, and Sweden, have pushed a further closing of the borders.

According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, between October 2016 and December 2017, there were five persistent challenges in migration to the EU: access to territory, reception conditions, asylum procedures, unaccompanied children, and immigration detention. Researchers say the EU responded to the record number of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees in recent history with stronger border controls, while also struggling to manage the flows. This was “expressed through mass detention of new arrivals, lack of organization and resources in refugee camps, dual negotiations with transit countries, increasing human trafficking networks and the lack of solidarity and agreement about the European relocation scheme”.

The surge of asylum seekers and the lack of capacity to handle the workload have also had on effect on the paperwork process for Vietnamese migrants in Germany. Tong Giang [name changed for privacy reasons], a Hanoi native who has lived in Germany since 2015, experienced this first-hand.

Giang used to live in Darmstadt during Germany’s historic acceptance of asylum seekers in 2015 and the arrival of Ukraine refugees in 2022. He recalled times when his visa was expired for over a year without him being able to renew it, or long queues in front of the foreigners’ registration office at 4:00 in the morning. The whole experience made him feel like he was “begging” for legality.

Three months ago, he and his Vietnamese wife moved to a smaller town near Munich, where Giang said the population of foreigners is much lower compared to Darmstadt. “Eight years in Germany, but I only feel like an actual human living in Germany at this foreigners’ registration office these last three months”, he said, adding that he appreciated the hospitality and attention he has received there.

“Maybe you feel you are not being respected or regarded as a person. But you couldn’t blame them [the staff at Darmstadt] because of the amount of work they have. If I were them, I couldn’t have done differently”, he added.

Deported Vietnamese guest workers wait to board their flight home at Schönefeld Airport, East Berlin, 6 November 1990. Photo: IMAGO / Ulli Winkler

Filling Germany’s Labour Gap

Despite pushback from conservatives, the fact is that Germany requires migrant workers to fill its growing labour gap. To this end, the German government recently revamped some of its immigration laws, the Skilled Immigration Act (FEG), to attract more migrant workers — a major shift in German immigration policy.

Vietnam, along with countries like India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, has been identified as one of the 12 “high-potential partner countries” that can fill the labour gap in Germany, which needs an annual net immigration of 400,000 workers, according to a recent report published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), an advisor to the German authorities on foreign and security policy.

The analysis of their potential is based on “their labour-market situation, willingness to cooperate and occupation-specific potentials”, while the German Federal Employment Agency “also considers the migration potential for employment-related migration (unemployment level and demographic development) and ‘affinity with Germany’ (e.g., those learning Ger­man or already living in Germany)”, the report noted.

Under the new immigration law, migrants with an EU Blue Card stand to benefit from a lower salary threshold, while the introduction of an Opportunity Card allows eligible migrants to stay in Germany to look for employment, among other new additions and improvements. Applicants will also be able to apply for recognition of their professional qualifications after they have arrived in Germany, as opposed to prior to their arrival.

According to Nguyen Hong Ngoc Lam, programme manager at the Vietnam branch of German government-funded pilot project Hand in Hand for International Talents, which helps migrants find permanent employment in Germany, the new law represents a positive sign for Vietnamese migrants in particular. The assessment of their local qualifications often takes too long, and the waiting time can contribute to them quitting halfway before they even make it to go to Germany.

Prior to the revamped Immigration Act, Vietnamese workers had been recruited to work in the old-age care and health care sector since 2012. The Hand in Hand for International Talents programme has recruited Vietnamese migrants, along with people from Brazil and India, to work in construction and as electricians, in IT, or in the hotel and restaurant sector since 2019, according to the SWP’s report.

Integration Is Not a One-Way Street

Nguyen Hong Ngoc Lam often acts as a kind of bridge between Vietnamese migrant workers, their prospective employers, and relevant German authorities. She welcomed the fact that the German authorities have allowed non-EU migrant workers more access to their labour market with the recently adopted policies. That said, more observation is needed to see how they will be implemented, considering that Germany’s digitalization of the visa application process needs much improvement, unlike Australia’s, which she describes as “incredibly fast and efficient”.

German businesses also need to take into account their role in welcoming migrant workers and improve their onboarding policy, the process of helping new employees’ integration. “Integration is not one-sided”, Lam explains; adding that employers should make more efforts to understand the migrants’ culture, while also managing their expectations regarding language proficiency considering the difficulty of the German language.

Lam thinks the support strategies her programme offers also help prevent documented workers from quitting their job and/or overstaying their visa, which might make them more vulnerable to exploitation. This includes helping workers navigate conflicts and misunderstandings they might have with employers, providing support should they wish to change employers, and advising them on visa and other legal matters.

The experience of undocumented migrant workers in Germany, by contrast, is characterized by legal challenges to enter or remain in the country with little to no protection against exploitation such as labour abuse due to lack of status, underscoring a stark contrast between two groups of migrants within the same populace.

Between Migration and Exploitation

Vietnam began sending workers to friendly countries like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but today, Vietnamese workers’ mobility has been greatly expanded by bilateral agreements between Vietnam and EU countries, whereby the former provides labour migrants in the form of “labour export programmes” to countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

These official migration corridors intersect and overlap with smuggling and trafficking networks. The Essex tragedy along with other reports from NGOs and journalists show that Vietnamese migrants involved in these networks tend to leave Vietnam legally using either tourist, student, or work visas before traveling through a few countries to reach a final destination, be it the UK, Germany, or elsewhere, and may remain without documents. It is common among the Vietnamese diaspora in Germany to hear anecdotes about various ways undocumented migrants obtain valid permits to remain in Germany, including through marriage and attachment to their children.

These official migration corridors intersect and overlap with smuggling and trafficking networks.

Researchers Nga Thi Thanh Mai and Gabriel Scheidecker argue in a co-authored study that the strategies migrants use to be legally documented in Germany are “not necessarily illegal, but more like legalization strategies”. They use an example of a pregnant woman who goes by Thi to illustrate their argument. Thi arrived in Paris and walked to Berlin as an asylum seeker when she was eight months pregnant. She asked a German citizen to testify he was her son’s father, allowing him to become a German citizen and her to stay in Germany temporarily.

She then brought her two children in Vietnam over on reunion grounds. Her ex-husband in Vietnam, the father of these two children, visited them on tourist visas many times. He might be able to stay in Germany with a residence permit if he manages to prove a relationship with the next child Thi might bear.

In a separate interview with both researchers, Nga, a post-doc at the University of Zurich, said these strategies are not only typically used by Vietnamese migrants, but “a trend for migration for third countries to Europe, not just to Germany”. Scheidecker adds, “They are using the legal paths, so you can’t simply say it is illegal. When you are a businessman or woman, you know how to make use of your legal space and maximize your profits, nobody will say you are illegal.”

German law does not define fatherhood by biology but rather by whether he is married to the child’s mother at the time of birth, whether he has acknowledged paternity, or whether his paternity has been established by court. Scheidecker, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich, added that while there is no legal obligation for the father to be biologically related to the child, grey areas emerge when there is payment involved for the father, which then is “not sincere”.

The scholar is also troubled by the stereotypical narrative about new Vietnamese migrants in Germany. While there have been cases of exploitation, he argues that the popular portrayal of Vietnamese as victims of abuse and human trafficking might appear to serve the interest of protecting them but actually takes away their agency and demonizes other migrants in the community, such as Vietnamese owners of nail salons and restaurants — common workplaces for many Vietnamese. “It’s victimhood [of some migrants] based on criminalization of other migrants”, he said, adding that this narrative has also led to discussions about shutting down the Dong Xuan Center in Berlin.

In another example, Scheidecker referred to a 2021 German documentary called Merchandise Child aired by Deutsche Welle, arguing that it did not serve the victims, but “rather it seems to criminalize the Vietnamese diaspora in Germany and serves as an argument for even stricter border regimes”.

Nga, on the other hand, calls for the accountability of the immigration system. Nga is a Vietnamese migrant herself who has conducted many interviews with migrants and studies about Vietnamese migrants in Germany. She has encountered many migrants with difficult lives, including single, divorced moms who raise their kids alone and see working abroad as the only way “to have a bright future”. “They are victims of this whole system which creates all kinds of documents to go somewhere to be able to work and earn money. There’s also victimhood there in a system of controlling migrants”, she said.

Nga added that undocumented migrants in a more hospitable immigration environment, when provided with legal documents, can achieve economic and mental wellbeing and might not have to choose between coming home to their children in Vietnam or remaining in Germany for years because they still have not gained a valid residency permit. “Stricter migration policy does not help. It only makes people more miserable to migrate somewhere, but when migration would be loosened up, people can choose.”