At the end of 2004 there were 83,526 Vietnamese, of whom 17,893 were born in Germany. The community numbers over 110,000 including those who have taken German citizenship. Dresden, 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.

Historical context

The majority 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 unification 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.

An average 3,000 Vietnamese a year became naturalized German citizens in the eight years 1995 to 2002.

Current issues

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.

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.

Rampant unemployment in the former East Germany following German reunification, and the German government's repatriation programme for Vietnamese nationals, has fuelled intolerance. The community was isolated in specific housing and 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 have set up legitimate free enterprise businesses.

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.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.