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Vietnamese in Germany

  • Profile 

    There are 185,000 residents in Germany with a ‘migrant background’ connected to Vietnam, according to official 2018 micro-census dataDresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg and Berlin are among the main centres for the community. Many have their own businesses, in particular, restaurants, food shops and laundries. The main religion is Buddhism. Politics is divided between the refugees from former South Vietnam who fled to West Germany in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the former Communist guest workers of East Germany. The majority of Vietnamese are in the former East Germany, where they constitute the largest immigrant group. 

    The Vietnamese community in Germany is not an officially recognized national minority. Therefore, its status significantly differs from that of the four national minorities. 

    Historical context

    The majority of Vietnamese were recruited as guest workers by East Germany from the 1950s in cooperation with the North Vietnamese government and, from 1975, when the country was reunited under Communism, the Vietnamese government. These workers were housed in separate communities and were supposed to be sent home after five years. However, many stayed. There was some inter-marriage with Germans. 

    Another group of Vietnamese who immigrated to East Germany were Communist Party members who came to study technology and other subjects at German universities.
    A smaller number of Vietnamese fled to West Germany as refugees from South Vietnam in the mid-1970s. 

    In 1989 there were some 60,000 Vietnamese working in East Germany under contracts, half of them women. After reunification in 1990, Germany offered Vietnamese guest workers US $2,000 and a ticket home, and an estimated 50,000 Vietnamese left. Vietnam refused to accept the Vietnamese who did not accept Germany’s payment offer. Vietnamese who had been recruited to work in other Eastern European countries moved to Germany. In the early 1990s Germany granted these Vietnamese two-year residence permits if they had jobs and no criminal records. However, in 1994 the German government revoked the residence permits of all former Vietnamese contract workers, transforming the entire group into illegal immigrants. Subsequently, an average of 3,000 Vietnamese a year became naturalized German citizens between 1995 and 2002. 

    In July 1995 the German and Vietnamese governments signed a joint declaration whereby 40,000 Vietnamese would be repatriated over five years. Germany agreed to provide up to US $140 million to returning Vietnamese and the Vietnam government. The agreement explicitly recognized that repatriation might be forced. Despite being condemned by the European Parliament, the agreement was confirmed by the Federal Interior Ministry in June 1995. By August 2004, 11,000 Vietnamese had been repatriated, only 3,000 voluntarily. 

    Rampant unemployment in the former East Germany following German reunification, and the German government’s repatriation programme for Vietnamese nationals fuelled intolerance. The community was isolated in specific housing and certain districts in the former East Germany, and largely continues to live in these districts. The illegal status of many after 1994 led to the rise of illegal trading in duty free cigarettes and other contraband, and the emergence of gangs to protect this trade, thus adding a further stigma to the community. However, many more set up legitimate free enterprise businesses. 

    Current issues

    The Vietnamese have been and continue to be the target of racism, including violent attacks. Vietnamese refugees in the former West Germany tend to be better integrated than the larger community in the former East Germany. 

    Those who were educated at German universities now act as a bridge in German–Vietnamese relations and in Germany’s aid and investment programme in Vietnam. 

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