Picture by Alena Zelenskaia.
Does love always have to overcome obstacles? Binational couples may give a straightforward answer to this innately rhetorical question – yes. Before moving in together, they have to bring a third party into their relationship – the State – and go through a strict and formalised state border control. For migrant partners coming from ‘third countries’, a term used in Germany and the European Union as a whole to describe countries not in the EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA), borders are particularly ‘thick’. Beatrix Haselsberger explains that thick borders consist of multiple boundaries with many functions imposed upon them, which makes them ‘more difficult to cross, both physically and mentally’.
Legally, the ideal formal way for a foreigner to marry a German citizen in Germany looks like this: a (wo)man applies for a ‘fiancé(e) visa’, the partner receives this limited permission to enter the country, they marry within three months, and then the partner returns to their country of origin where they make a new application at the German consulate for ‘family reunification’. However, when marrying abroad, the first border crossing is not necessary, and migrants are expected to apply for a visa at the embassies or consulates to ‘reunite’ with their spouses. The German consulates closely cooperate with Foreigners’ Registration Offices and Civil Registry Offices in Germany throughout this process. In their joint efforts against fraudulent, forced and other intolerable forms of marriages, which, for instance, mask economic migration, migrants and their partners are treated as potential security threats and objects of border surveillance. According to Anne-Marie D’Aoust, this is performed through ‘everyday routines, little security nothings’.
This empirically grounded contribution draws on narratives about visa application processes at the German consulates, told by binational couples, consisting of partners from Germany and third countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan). It sheds light on strategies of managing marriage migration at external border control agencies and couples’ strategies for overcoming rejection and immobility.
At the German consulates
Applying for a visa at German consulates is divided into three stages: a preparatory phase, an appointment phase and a waiting phase. Basically, all migrants must pass these stages, and marriage migrants are no exception. Before applicants’ visas are approved, they have to fulfil the necessary requirements for entering Germany. That means gathering a variety of documents. Certain papers, like the language certificate, entail what Miriam Gutekunst describes as an ‘exclusion of certain candidates, depending on their educational background and financial means’. Marriage migrants must prove that they acquired a basic level (A1) of German with an acknowledged certificate from Goethe Institute or other comparable institutions. This requirement is justified as a reliable integration measure. Nevertheless, if the applicant seeks a family reunion with a German child, knowledge of the German language is not necessary.
Marriage to a German citizen, attested by a marriage certificate, does not necessarily entitle a non-citizen to receive a residence permit. The German Residence Act (§ 27) requires marital cohabitation. Since the ‘legitimacy’ of a marriage cannot be observed, the judgement upon it has to be made with respect to data. The German consulate abroad and the foreigners’ authorities in the country can demand to prove the intention to live together, as paragraph 86 of the same Residence Act sanctions. During the appointment phase, marriage migrants under suspicion may be interrogated:
‘The most stressful part was the interview at the Consulate in Yekaterinburg. I have not expected that our marriage could be perceived as sham (… )I was in love at that time, and their questions seemed to hurt me (…) They asked a lot of questions. The interview was tough and long.’ (Lera, 30, Perm)
This part of the procedure is perceived as inevitable, and couples are normally aware of its vigilant function. Sometimes they try to anticipate questions, discuss them and prepare answers. The other strategy is to memorise questions asked during the interview, in order to train the German partner ‘the right answers’: ‘I expected that they would call her after my interview and ask the same questions. But they did not.’ (Tanja, 23, Moscow).
The decision-making process is delegated to different employees with various levels of cultural and social expertise across all involved institutions. In the German consulate in Moscow, local staff are responsible for answering phone calls, accepting documents, doing initial interviewing, making remarks on the cases, and providing first impressions (or suspicions). Local employees in the German consulates in other non-EU states, such as Morocco, fulfil similar roles, as Miriam Gutekunst discovered in her PhD dissertation Grenzenüberschreitungen. Local staff, however, neither wear name badges nor introduce themselves. Thus, applicants are not able to assign responsibility for mishandled cases. Such strategies are part of a regime of subordination and subjectification of migrants.
Time, the only non-renewable resource and therefore the most valuable, plays a significant role in the distribution of power. The German consulate organises applicants’ time: from the very beginning of communication with migrants, time slots allocated for appointments are limited and in most cases do not coincide with the planned dates of travelling to Germany. This postpones family reunification as the document check may last for an undefined period of time (‘up to 12 weeks or longer’). Furthermore, waiting lines inside the Consulate also contribute to the time dimension of power relations.
Waiting leads to immobility that in some cases lasts for months. Marriage migrants become particularly active during this phase. Lera’s future husband had lived with her in Russia, before they decided to move to Germany. She does not remember what documents she had to collect because her fiancé was more involved in the process. He was a known businessman in the region and contacted the Consulate himself. A representative of the German mission met the couple, shook her fiancé’s hand and the next day her visa was ready. Lera attributes this to the fact that they travelled from another city and had a small child. Normally neither children nor distances between cities of origin of migrants and a German mission play a role during the waiting phase. To reduce the waiting time, migrants respond by frequently calling responsible authorities, presenting them with ultimatums (‘I was already at the Embassy three times. It was the fourth… They said that my visa is not ready yet! I said, I would not go anywhere without my visa’) and threatening to call their German partner (‘And I said: “My husband is German”. It always works. I said that I would call him and he would call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’). The appeal to the nationality of the partner shows how subordinated non-citizen migrant spouses are within this system. Embassies and consulates’ obscurity and indefinite waiting periods are regarded as institutions that immobilise people. Therefore, one of the major strategies of navigating it is to avoid this border regime.
Avoiding consular processing
Liza, 30, is from Ukraine. She met her future husband through a local matchmaking agency in Kyiv. The couple decided to get married in Germany and bypass the German foreign missions:
‘We have a friend, our advisor in these matters. He went through it [marrying on a tourist visa] (…) He also has a Ukrainian wife, so he is an expert.’
In 2017, the EU approved visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens. No longer needing a tourist visa to go to Germany is widely regarded by Ukrainians as an achievement in international relations and as a first step to freedom of movement. For some, applying for permission to marry instead of travelling directly and then marrying is a ‘setback’. Marriage migrants from Russia, who have valid Schengen visas, may also avoid both steps of consular processing, marry in Germany and hand in applications for residence permits directly to the local foreigners’ authorities.
In Germany, the decision for whether a marriage migrant will be sent back to his or her country of origin to apply for family reunification at the consulate depends on the official in charge at the Foreigners’ Registration Office. In rare cases, migrants are obliged to return. With few exceptions, borderwork in Germany itself is considered friendlier and more easy-going than in its outposts. Moreover, in Germany the communication with officials either rests completely on German spouses, or happens with their constant partaking. German citizens emphasise their constitutional right to live with their lawful spouses, and see the need to send them back for legal procedures as a violation of this right. During the 2020 pandemic, couples had stronger cases against completing visa applications in the non-citizen migrant partners’ countries of origin. At a Foreigners’ Registration Office in a small German city, Vera, 29, and her husband succeeded in persuading officials to issue her residence permit without leaving Germany. One of the strongest arguments was COVID-19: ‘If I had gone, what was in general difficult, it would be unclear what [papers] to collect and how, because all Russian authorities went into super-quarantine’. The increased border restrictions paradoxically softened the requirements for family reunification and marriage visas, which could be seen as ‘thinning’ borders.
All participant names have been changed.
This work-in-progress is a part of a bigger research project, ‘Sonderforschungsbereich 1369’, at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, dedicated to the Cultures of Vigilance (Transformation, Spaces, Techniques).
Alena Zelenskaia is a research assistant and PhD student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. Before occupying this position, she worked as an instructor at the American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, and at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. Alena’s research interests include communication studies, forced migration, minority studies with a focus on Europe and the post-Soviet region. Her current project is dedicated to marriage migration from third countries to the European Union. She holds an MA in International Relations (Saint Petersburg State University) and an MA in Social Anthropology (European University in Saint Petersburg).