Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Life in the Poor but Sexy City – Economic Migrants in Berlin

Written by on . Published in What's Texas without the twang on .

As the European crisis deepens, more and more Europeans are moving to Germany in the hope of a better future, the country portrayed and hyped in the media as Europe’s economic powerhouse. The migrants’ favorite destination seems to be Berlin, which is not surprising as Berlin is a tolerant and culturally diverse city with relatively large communities of foreigners from many countries. It’s also the cheapest capital in Europe where for the price of a one-bedroom apartment outside of central London you can get a three-bedroom flat in downtown Berlin.

This is what migrants expect. Yam Yam Berlin. Photo taken by fronx on Flickr.

This is what migrants expect. Yam Yam Berlin. Photo taken by fronx on Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Currently, Berlin is particularly attractive for economic migrants from Bulgaria, Romania and Spain. In 2012, almost a third more Bulgarians and Romanians, and 22 percent more Spaniards came to the city than in 2011. Most of them are in one way or another excluded from participation in the economic life of their home country. In Bulgaria and Romania, the Sinti and Roma are pushed to the outskirts of the cities where they live in ghetto-like conditions and are neglected by the authorities. Being cut off from employment and education they leave the country and head to social welfare states such as Germany. In Spain, more than every second young person is without a job even though many of them are well educated and have a university degree. Since Germany’s economy has a growing demand for qualified employees, young Spaniards pack their bags and head north.

But there are two problems in Berlin: First, as the state with the highest unemployment rate in the whole of Germany and a state that lacks the strong industrial base other parts of the country enjoy, it is hard even for Germans to find a job here. When I take the subway or walk around Berlin, I almost always encounter unemployed or homeless people roaming through the subway cabins or streets asking for money or food, collecting deposit bottles or trying to sell one of the city’s street papers. And secondly, most German companies require you to speak a decent standard of German.

Once in Germany, many Sinti and Roma end up selling their bodies or begging for money. Some of them manage to get social welfare by outsmarting the system. But it is almost impossible for them to get an apartment on the market. In the magazine DER SPIEGEL, I read about how in Berlin Sinti and Roma families end up in scrap property paying more than 700 euros for one tiny room without  heating and with an out of order toilet.

Begging for money. This is how reality often looks like. Berlin-Moabit. Photo taken by Bjoern Schwarz on Flickr.

Begging for money. This is how reality often looks like. Berlin-Moabit. Photo taken by Bjoern Schwarz on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

For many Spaniards too it’s a hard struggle in Berlin. One of my Spanish friends has a Master’s degree and now works – aged 27 – as an au pair, hoping to learn German from scratch in one year along the way so she can get a real job. Right now she completely depends on the family for whom she works, receiving monthly pocket money in return. Before coming to Berlin, she worked as a temporary door to door insurance salesperson and a burger flipper at  McDonald’s and Burger King. Another friend, who is actually an interior designer, now tries to eke out a living by doing freelance graphic design, but can hardly make ends meet even though she doesn’t pay taxes and lives off soup most of the time.

Apparently, many migrants come to Berlin looking for a better future for themselves and their families only to find themselves in a situation that is not so very different from the one they left their home country to escape from.

In Germany, when talking about Berlin, one phrase constantly reoccurs which was originally coined by the city’s mayor: Berlin is poor, but sexy. Some European economic migrants might be better off if they had considered the first part of that statement before.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Rani Nguyen Rani

Rani Nguyen, 27, is passionate about human rights work. He currently is involved in Europe’s largest career fair for LGBTs and people wanting to get inspired and connect with progressive organizations — STICKS & STONES. There he is mainly responsible for the organization and development of 24/7UNICORN, Europe’s leading LGBT Diversity Congress bringing HR and diversity managers from major national and international organizations together. Prior to joining STICKS & STONES, Rani worked as an assistant and speech writer to Thomas Sattelberger (former board member at Deutsche Telekom, Continental, Lufthansa), where his area of focus were topics such as demographic challenges, women in top positions, inclusion of minorities and migrants etc. He also has been published in some of Germany’s most important media (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Deutsche Welle, taz). Rani holds a B.A. in French Philology with minors in Spanish and Dutch from Freie Universität Berlin.