How is racism in Vietnam

German unity

Noa K. Ha

To person

is a member of the management team of the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM) in Berlin, advisor for community engagement and the promotion of young talent. [email protected]

The story of migration from Vietnam to Germany is a story of the 20th century and the Cold War. The Cold War determined the global order in the second half of the 20th century, and people from Vietnam came to the Federal Republic and the GDR in two very different ways. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of the two German states, the reorganization of global conditions also had a direct impact on people in the diaspora - on their jobs, their residence permits and on the relationship between the various Vietnamese communities.

The history of migration from Vietnam to Germany, which can apparently be reduced to a specific group of people, points to the complexity of the historical, social, cultural and political prerequisites for migrants. Because "migration" is a simple word for a highly complex connection between labor, residence, asylum and citizenship law, the labor, housing and education markets as well as individual experiences. In the following review of the history of Vietnamese migration up to the present day, when German unity is celebrating its 30th anniversary, a few highlights are highlighted in order to outline the social realities of Vietnamese people. What was the social climate like in those times? What was the mood in Germany? What has changed? What is still present?

From Vietnam to Germany

The Vietnamese history of migration begins at a time when migration and refugee regimes were formulated and practiced under an ideological and competing paradigm. Around 185,000 Vietnamese citizens and Germans of Vietnamese origin currently live in Germany. [1] Their routes to Germany up to 1989 can be roughly divided into two: the arrival of refugees from Vietnam, known as "boat people", in West Germany between 1975 and 1986 and the arrival of contract workers in the GDR on the basis of contractual agreements between the socialist "brother states" from 1980 to 1989. In addition to refugee and labor migration, there were forms of educational migration to both German states. More than 300 Vietnamese students traveled to the GDR as early as the 1950s. [2] In the 1960s and 1970s, young people came to study both in the Federal Republic (2055 people by 1975) and the GDR (42,000 people), [3] the vast majority of whom returned to Vietnam. [4] These migratory movements tell a complex story of leaving, exchanging and arriving across generations and countries.

Boat People in West Germany
After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many people fled Vietnam because the country was devastated or because they feared reprisals under the new government. It is estimated that 1.3 million people fled Vietnam, of whom 400,000 to 500,000 are believed to have died. [5] Because of their escape route across the South China Sea, they became known as "Boat People". The coverage of the sea rescue operations, which the journalist Rupert Neudeck started in 1979 with the rented cargo ship Cap Anamur, was followed intensively in West Germany, and in the 1980s the Federal Republic of Germany was one of 16 states that took in 38,000 boat people as contingent refugees. [6] With an unlimited residence permit and immediate work permit as well as integration measures such as language courses, advice and support, the refugees should be given the opportunity to settle down long-term. With the support of charities, including family reunification, 45,779 refugees from Vietnam arrived in the Federal Republic by the 1990s. [7]

Many of them settled in Germany, and their integration into the labor, education and housing markets now point to a successful settlement process. However, hardly any studies are available that deal with the everyday life and life of the boat people and their descendants. [8] The history of the boat people from Vietnam was and is often portrayed as the successful integration of an exemplary minority who appear to be hardworking, polite and conformist. [9] However, there are two things to consider with this interpretation. On the one hand, the Boat People encountered a special social empathy, which can also be traced back to the Cold War. Because they fled from a communist regime and were primarily taken in by western states. The establishment was made much easier for them. Compared to other groups of people who have fled, this is rather an exception. On the other hand, they were also exposed to forms of everyday racism and racist violence in Germany and, with this differentiation, were placed in competition with other migrant groups. This competitive relationship, based on a success narrative as a "model minority", generalizes different groups to one another and ignores both the structural requirements and the discriminatory relationships through a culturalization of differences.

Contract workers in the GDR
In contrast to the story of the boat people, that of the Vietnamese contract workers in the GDR can be told as one of the construction that was primarily based on the interests of two socialist states. As early as the 1950s, Vietnamese children traveled to Germany, who were accepted and schooled as part of a solidarity program between the GDR and North Vietnam. In Moritzburg, Saxony, there was a children's home in which orphans from China, Korea and Vietnam were housed. [10] Later, young people from North Vietnam studied at the universities of the GDR - some of them would later work as interpreters for the contract workers. At that time, the Vietnamese students reported that they were welcomed in a friendly and open manner and that they wanted to travel to the GDR again. In the 1980s, however, they increasingly encountered hostile environments. [11]

Since 3.1 million GDR citizens had left the country by the time the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the labor shortage in the GDR was noticeable. [12] From the 1960s onwards, the GDR concluded several agreements on contract labor: with Poland (1963), Hungary (1967), Algeria (1974), Cuba (1975), Mozambique (1979), Vietnam (1980) and Angola (1984) as well to a lesser extent with Mongolia (1982), China (1986) and North Korea (1986). These agreements largely determined the length and form of the contract workers' residence and comprised agreements between states, which, however, were not made known to the general public.

The agreement on contract work between the GDR and Vietnam was signed in 1980 and allowed the GDR to recruit around 70,000 contract workers. [13] These arrived in two phases: in the first phase from 1980 to 1984 mainly qualified people who worked as skilled workers in the GDR perished, while in the second phase from 1987 to 1989 mainly people without training and German language skills came to the country to take on simple activities, for example in the textile industry. The men and women entering the country were not allowed to agree to contract work and starting a family in the GDR: In the event of pregnancy, Vietnamese women had to leave the GDR. Contacts between contract workers and colleagues or the broader society were not planned: Accommodation and leisure activities were segregated, and settlement or integration into GDR society should be avoided as far as possible. The extensive care and supervision of foreign contract workers was referred to in the GDR as a "welfare dictatorship", [15] whereby the contract workers' own needs played no role. [16]

Viet-German post-turning point

With the end of the GDR, the future prospects of the previous contract workers became precarious. It was not until 1997 that a legal basis was created for those former contract workers who were still living in Germany. Until then, the residence and work regulations had become so difficult that settlement was only possible if they were self-employed, and severance payments were made upon return to Vietnam. [17] In the cities, many former contract workers went into business for themselves with grocery stores, snack bars and flower shops. The economic networks extended from the new federal states to Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where trade centers of ethnicized economies had established themselves in larger cities, known as "Asia markets", [18] where, for example, the opening of the Dong- Xuan Center in Berlin-Lichtenberg 2005. Some former contract workers also moved to West Germany and settled down under the given circumstances. Here it was shown that the social codes of the South and North Vietnamese continued to have an effect. [19] The distinction between North and South Vietnam and an (anti) communist orientation continued to play a role in the relationship between the two groups. In West Germany there are still many more Vietnamese associations and Buddhist communities than in East Germany, which primarily go back to the activities of former boat people, but in reunified Germany they were also increasingly visited by former contract workers. [20]

In the context of the insecurity of the economic foundations of life in a society that was apparently in the process of dissolving, the former contract workers were also confronted with a social atmosphere in which they saw themselves physically threatened. The transformation experience did not place them in a community based on solidarity with the other East German population groups. Rather, their presence was perceived as competition on the labor market, as had been articulated more and more in the last few years of the GDR, and they were met with open hostility. [21] In this respect, from a Vietnam-East German perspective, one should speak of a condensed transformation experience or at least emphasize the interlinking of transformation and migration. However, the descriptions of the transformation experience and the transformation society in the course of German unification mainly refer to the (white) German population group who stayed in the new federal states after 1990. [22]

The early years of German unity were noticeably marked by the fact that some reunited and the others became others. [23] Parallel to the question of the national identity of the now unified Germany, a political debate about asylum legislation developed. [24] The reason was the increase in the number of asylum seekers since the 1980s, which had accelerated again in the global upheaval with the end of the Cold War and the break-up of Yugoslavia. The strong emotional charge of the debate was also reflected in violence against socially constructed others and culminated in the riots in Hoyerswerda from September 17 to 23, 1991 and Rostock-Lichtenhagen from August 22 to 26, 1992, as right-wing extremists in front of hooters Crowds attacked dormitories for former Vietnamese contract workers and asylum seekers and the police failed to intervene effectively for several days. While miraculously no people died here, 8 people were killed and 26 injured, some seriously, in Mölln on November 23, 1992 and in Solingen on May 29, 1993 in arson attacks on houses in which people of Turkish origin lived. Between 1990 and the adoption of the "Asylum Compromise" in May 1993, with which the governing parties CDU / CSU and FDP agreed with the opposition SPD on an amendment to the constitution that tightened the right to asylum, 27 people were killed as a result of racist violence. [25]

However, the racist violence did not only increase with reunification, but had already been a danger in both East and West Germany. [26] With regard to Vietnamese victims alone, five cases are known since 1980 in which people were murdered or died as a result of a racially motivated attack. [27]

Vietnamese diaspora in Germany today

"Viet Germans", "Vietnamese Germans", "Vossis", "German-Vietnamese" - these terms refer to changeable and fluid contextual self-designations in order to establish themselves conceptually in Germany and to make the experiences of the diaspora speak. Many people in many places contribute to this, and it is above all the young women of the second generation with Vietnamese connections who openly and actively deal with their own history. They seek dialogue with one another and reflect on the diversity of their migration history and the homogeneity of the racist stereotypes they encounter.

In 2012, the political scientist Kien Nghi Ha published the volume "Asiatic Germans - Vietnamese Diaspora and Beyond", which enabled a new discussion space for articulating Asiatic-diasporic experiences in Germany across national affiliations and spreading Vietnamese-German perspectives on one's own history in Germany, which made it possible to share experiences with other people who read Asian and other racialized communities. The Hamburg theater director Dan Thy Nguyen staged the Rostock-Lichtenhagen pogrom along with interviews in the play and radio play "Sunflower House". Vanessa Vu, one of the "Top 30 under 30" journalists of "Medium-Magazin" 2018, writes for "Zeit" about racism, discrimination and the stories of the Vietnamese in the German diaspora. Together with radio journalist Minh Thu Tran, she produces the podcast, nominated for the Grimme Online Award in 2019, and the community project "Rice and Shine" on Vietnamese diaspora stories. The journalist Nhi Le runs her own blog, in which she writes about her everyday life in the diaspora and in East Germany as well as about her feminist analyzes of pop culture. [28] The human rights activist Thuy Nonnemann has been campaigning for the rights and interests of refugees and migrants for decades and was awarded the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin in 2013. The science journalist Mai Thy Nguyen achieved six million views on Youtube with her video "Corona is just getting started". [29] Marcel Nguyen is a successful gymnast, and Minh-Khai Phan-Thi is a well-known actress, presenter and director.

All of them and many other people with Vietnamese origins and references bear witness to the diversity in a united Germany. At the same time, they point out that 30 years of German unity is not only a story of pluralization, but also one of the continuity of racist discrimination in post-National Socialist Germany.


I am writing here as an Asian-German person who does not have an explicitly Vietnamese family background of his own, i.e. about a history of migration that is not mine. However, especially in times of the corona pandemic, I share a common experience with other Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese-German and Asian people in Germany: everyday racism in the form of small comments, insults, generalizations and open hostility on the Street. [30] This experience points to a racist stereotyping, independent of personal migration stories and geographical references, and can affect people who are third generation living in Germany who have German citizenship. The result is exclusions that continue to exist and persist even after migration, arrival and integration in educational institutions, in labor and housing markets - and which take place openly in the wake of the corona pandemic.

My thanks go to all those without whose work, knowledge and dedication this article would not be possible.