Germans who marry foreigners separated from beloved by strict German language requirements

Associated Press + More

By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER, Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) — Michael Guhle met the love of his life on the beach of a little fishing village in Vietnam. Thi An Nguyen was selling freshly cooked mussels and fruit to the German tourist and they immediately clicked. Soon the Berlin nursing home worker was saving up all of his money and vacation days to visit Nguyen.

Marriage was supposed to bring them together. Instead, it was the beginning of a long ordeal apart. Germany blocked Nguyen from entering the country after she flunked the language test that Germany requires aspiring immigrants to pass — even those married to Germans.

"I thought marrying the person you love and living together was a human right," Guhle said in his modest two-room apartment on the outskirts of Berlin. "Apparently this is not the case in Germany."

Germany adopted German language regulations for prospective immigrants in 2007. Most EU countries — including France, Italy, Spain and Sweden — do not require foreign spouses to pass mandatory language tests before they join their partners in Europe. Austria, Britain and the Netherlands are among countries that require language tests before foreign spouses can enter the country, but experts say Germany's test is the toughest.

The European Commission has criticized the law in Germany, saying it may violate European treaties. And a legal challenge to the European Court of Justice is expected to be heard this month. As things stand, however, binational couples like Guhle and his wife face costly and daunting challenges.

Germany defends the law as a way to prevent forced marriages and to help immigrants integrate more easily. Critics maintain the law discriminates against the uneducated and poor. Most agree immigrants should learn German, but opponents of the law say that could be done more quickly, cheaply and easily in Germany.

"Well-educated people who can afford the language classes won't have any problems meeting the language requirements quickly — but not the others," said Hiltrud Stoecker-Zafari, the head of the national Association of Binational Couples and Partners. "Therefore we think: This country obviously wants to send out the message that financially weak and not well-qualified spouses should not even come here."

Fueling that argument are some of the exceptions to the German language proficiency rule: People with university degrees and people who have founded companies are exempt.

Another quirk: If a non-German EU citizen living in Germany wants to bring his or her non-German speaking spouse to the country, that's not a problem. A Frenchman living in Berlin could bring his Vietnamese wife to Germany immediately — but not Guhle.

"We only wanted to live together," said Guhle, a soft-spoken 43-year-old with a stubbly beard and warm gray-blue eyes. "How are you supposed to learn German if you are poor and uneducated and live in a remote Vietnamese fishing village?"

The government defends the measure, saying it requires only basic language knowledge — including conversational German and some reading and writing skills.

"If an immigrant doesn't have to start from scratch but already knows how to communicate, he will be more motivated to successfully work on his integration after he has received his visa," said a spokesman for Germany's Interior Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ministry policy.

While the government does not have statistics to show how many forced marriages were prevented by the regulation, the spokesman said that authorities have repeatedly been told by German diplomatic missions abroad that victims of forced marriages use the language test as a way to avoid getting into an unwanted marriage.

"They repeatedly and on purpose fail the test to make sure they don't get a visa for Germany."