Insights from TRAFIG field work in Germany

By Simone Christ

The German research team

Germany is one of the destination countries in western Europe for people who have to flee from their homes. In BICC’s fieldwork in Germany that we are responsible for in the project, we use different qualitative methods: semi-structured interviews, biographic interviews, expert interviews and focus group discussions. After we had to postpone fieldwork due to the COVID-19 pandemic, empirical fieldwork in Germany started in August again.

The German research team consists of the BICC staff members Simone Christ (responsible for the TRAFIG field research in Germany), Benjamin Etzold (TRAFIG scientific coordinator), Maarit Thiem (TRAFIG project coordinator), Gizem Güzelant (student assistant in TRAFIG who is currently writing her master’s thesis at the University of Bonn within the TRAFIG project), and four students—Mara Puers (University of Cologne), Juliette Simon (University of Trier), David Steffens (University of Trier), and Philipp Themann (University of Bonn)—who are going to write their master’s thesis related to the TRAFIG project.

Unexpected challenges: Fieldwork and COVID-19

Even though we were able to resume field research face-to-face from summer onwards, this is now very different from our usual fieldwork experience. Whereas previously, when conducting field research with refugees in Germany, we got to know refugees in welcome cafés in the shelters or accompanied them to their appointments at different agencies; in a nutshell, we were able to immerse ourselves into the field. With COVID-19, all this is no longer possible. Our concern now is to ensure that we do not put our respondents and ourselves at risk and to strictly follow the hygiene standards. Access to the field is thus proving to be much more difficult than it was before.

Another challenge to every research situation with refugees is that there is a power difference between us, the privileged researchers, and our interviewees, most of whom are in vulnerable situations. This power imbalance is even more striking in this current health crisis, as, for example, some of our interviewees still live in refugee shelters with shared rooms, bathrooms, and kitchen, where keeping a physical distance is just not possible.

Preliminary findings

Protracted displacement in Germany?

The term protracted displacement is usually used in the context of displacement in the Global South. Can we also speak of this in western Europe? Based on our research, we argue that protracted displacement also exists in Germany. Refugees whose asylum application is rejected but who cannot return usually receive a temporary suspension of deportation; they are tolerated in Germany. Very often, this situation lasts for many years. These people are de facto excluded from any integration measures such as language courses or access to the labour market. The tolerated stay becomes protracted, hopelessness and legal insecurity determine their everyday lives for many years.

Feben is one of them. Feben is a young woman from Eritrea whom I met several weeks ago. Her asylum application was rejected, but she has a tolerated stay. For three years already, she has been living in limbo—she does not have a work permit and cannot do anything else than waiting. Feben tried hard to get a work permit by approaching the foreigners’ registration office, yet she has been unsuccessful. She told me:

"I would like to learn, do an apprenticeship and live independently. I do not want to sit like a poor woman only at home. I am young, I have strength, I want to work. Now I am like an old woman, sitting at home, getting only money from social services. I asked for a work permit a thousand times, but the social security office said I shouldn't come here anymore.“

Container shelter in NRW, Germany. Photo: Simone Christ, BICC


The mobility of refugees in Germany largely depends on the legal status they have. Under the Geneva Convention, recognised refugees can travel freely, except for their return to their country of origin. Nevertheless, they are facing mobility restrictions—In Germany, they are not allowed to move from one federal state to the other within the first three years. Asylum applicants or people whose deportation is suspended must even ask the foreigners’ registration office for permission to leave their municipality.

This can lead to paradoxical situations, such as in the case of Mehmet: Mehmet found a well-paid job that corresponds to his qualifications within a relatively short time. However, he is assigned to a refugee shelter in a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia, around 150 km away from the city where he found the job. As his asylum application is still pending, he is not allowed to move there, even though the foreigners’ registration office allowed him to take up this job.


The interviews conducted so far show that among refugees there are different degrees of connectedness: Some have large networks; others’ networks are disrupted. Asma, a woman from Syria, has built up local and transnational network contacts. When Asma arrived five years ago, she befriended a German woman. As her daughter goes to kindergarten, she got to know some of the other children’s mothers. Besides her local contacts, Asma also depends on her transnational network for support. Having had a stillbirth, Asma is pregnant again. Her family, in particular her mother and her two sisters in Syria, are her source of transnational emotional support. Whenever Asma has an appointment at her gynecologist’s, they think of her. Asma reports: “They all have my doctoral appointments in their calendars. After the appointment, when I go home, I contact my mother and my sisters.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Nadim, a young man from Syria. Even though he learnt German quickly and tried hard to get to know other people here in Germany, he did not succeed. Nadim feels lonely: “No one has visited me at home for two years.” He has also lost all connections with his former friends in Syria. It is only his core family, his sister in Germany and his parents in Syria, with whom he keeps contact.

The relation between mobility and connectivity: The case of family reunification

The interlinkage between mobility and connectivity becomes apparent in the case of a family reunification. A family reunification enables refugees stuck in countries of first reception or transit countries to be mobile by building on familial connectivity. Only members of the core family are entitled to family reunification. Even though recognised refugees have the right to privileged family reunification, it is often a long-lasting and emotionally very demanding procedure.

Between 2016 and 2018, people with subsidiary protection were no longer allowed to enjoy mobility through family reunification, and to-date, a maximum of 1,000 people per month can apply for reunification. Two years may seem short. But what about children who are separated from their parents for years? What is the emotional cost of having to maintain parent-child relationships only via WhatsApp?

The case of Dahab from Eritrea tells us about the burdens of a protracted and undetermined family reunification process. Her two children who are under-age live as refugees in Ethiopia. Dahab applied for privileged family reunification back in 2016. But the road to family reunification has been and continues to be very rocky— bureaucratic hurdles have so far prevented Dahab’s children from joining their mother in Germany.

In April 2020, the children had an appointment at the German embassy to apply for a visa. But as a consequence of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the appointment was cancelled, and the children have so far not received an alternative appointment. Just a few days before I started writing this blog post, a violent conflict began in northern Ethiopia, where Dahab’s children live. The region is blocked, and reliant information is missing. Dahab has been trying to get in touch with her children, yet unsuccessfully. After having waited for so many years, the situation has become even worse: Besides the difficult situation around the mobility of her children to Germany, now her connectivity with her children has also been disrupted.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the TRAFIG Consortium or the European Commission (EC). TRAFIG is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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