An Immigrant Experience – or Something Like It

This is going to a bit of a different, more personal piece from me. A few months ago, for a variety of reasons, I decided that I would spend the summer in Berlin. I’ve now been here for two weeks, and turning up in a foreign country – not for a short trip but with the intention of staying and living for a while –  has given me a chance to reflect on what it means to be an immigrant first-hand.

In many respects, I’m having to deal with a lot of the same challenges that immigrants everywhere face. I have to negotiate the local administrative system with a very slender grasp of the native language: registering with the authorities here catches you in a bureaucratic regress, with every document you’re required to supply being dependent on you producing a different one. Given that it’s unlikely you can convince someone to employ you directly, you will be working on a freelance basis, yet this requires dealing with the tax office in German before you can be paid a cent. It is also illegal to work here without health insurance – and I haven’t even begun to figure that one out.

These are barriers that immigrants face every day, and yet I wonder: is ‘immigrant’ really the right term to use in my case? I might not be a citizen of Germany, but I am (under the Maastricht Treaty) a citizen of the European Union, which means that I can travel and work without limit in over 30 countries. I didn’t need a visa to get here – I was able to book a one-way flight from London Heathrow airport, and the twelve golden stars on my passport stopped anyone raising questions along the way. This being a major EU city, there is already a pre-existing community of young, international Europeans with similar experiences to me to make me feel at home. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I have the means to go about life here whilst looking for a job – including paying for German language classes to help me integrate more quickly.

These are the things that really matter, and they are manifestly not present in the experience of immigrants from outside the EU. The lucky ones are granted visas and enrolled on assimilation courses to help them access the culture and administrative system where they settle. The unlucky ones are here illegally, disappearing through the crack between national civil and international human rights and falling prey to poverty and exploitative labour practices.

Our mainstream rhetoric around immigration is based on a well-worn binary opposition: either you are on the inside, a fully legitimate member of the polity, or on the outside, an alien who poses a vague challenge to ‘the community’ as it stands. In reality, I’m now realising, intra-EU migrants don’t really fit into either category. We inhabit the space in-between, on a spectrum from those who are fluent in the language and culture on their locality to those – like me – who are still orienting themselves in a new environment. We are the human markers of an incomplete European Union.

Of course, the other luxury I enjoy compared to many other immigrants is the ability to revisit my country of origin, which I will be doing in order to vote in Britain’s EU referendum on 23 June. If that ballot swings the wrong way, I will certainly have to re-evaluate my place and prospects in north-east Germany.

You can download the article in PDF here.


James Bartholomeusz (1992) is from the United Kingdom and is a policy officer at the Project for Democratic Union.

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  1. Good insight. Being an international student or immigrant in the US isn’t easy either, given our complex culture and language. Assistance must come from numerous sources to aid these young people embarking on life’s journey. Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments, immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow students, and informative books to extend a cultural helping hand so we all have a win-win situation
    One such new award-winning worldwide book/ebook that reaches out to help anyone coming to the US is “What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” It is used in foreign Fulbright student programs and endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors. It also identifies “foreigners” who became successful in the US and how they’ve contributed to our society, including students.
    A chapter on education explains how to be accepted to an American university and cope with a confusing new culture, friendship process and daunting classroom differences. Some stay after graduation. It has chapters that explain how US businesses operate and how to get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to work with/for an American firm here or overseas.
    It also has chapters that identify the most common English grammar and speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.
    Good luck to all wherever you study!

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