Trafficked and Trapped: Vietnamese Cigarette Sellers in Berlin

by Tobias Kuehne:

Names in this article have been altered upon request.

“Cigarettes?” The question comes nervously from a hunched, furtive figure, hardly visible to the ordinary passerby. It is a Vietnamese cigarette seller, standing in a corner of a Berlin subway  station, anxiously awaiting customers interested in his smuggled tax- free wares. He is careful to keep one or two escape exits nearby. A few friends keep watch, ready to sound the alert if a police officer sidles by. The sellers never carry the packs themselves. Instead, they hide their contraband underneath loose gutters and trashcans, making it difficult for police to prove any wrongdoing.

Aboveground, the story looks very different. Vietnamese-owned Chinese restaurants, Thai massage spas, and nail salons have sprung up all over the city. First-generation Vietnamese immigrants form a tight-knit but prominent business community in Berlin. Many Berliners wonder about the connection between these two economies. does revenue from illegal cigarette sales flow into legal Vietnamese-owned businesses?

Berlin rooftops (Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

“We are not aware of a connection between legally-owned Vietnamese businesses and illegal cigarette sales,” said Heidi Voigt, chief of the sixth police district of Berlin. On the other hand, Trinh, a Berlin High School student born of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants, said that “almost every second Vietnamese immigrant dealt cigarettes” in the early 1990s. Among the community of first-wave Vietnamese immigrants, she said, “everybody knows who used to deal.” But since the early ’90s, the situation has changed: a second wave of immigrants, seeking a share of the illegal cigarette market, has pushed out many of the original sellers.

Two Separate Waves

The first immigrants from North Vietnam came to Berlin in the mid1980s, when East Germany hired contract workers from their “socialist brother country.” Most of the Vietnamese contract workers invited to East Germany came to Berlin but lost their jobs after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. With no assets, residency papers, or knowledge of the German language, the Vietnamese community turned to informal enterprises to survive. Some opened flower or food stands. Some began dealing cigarettes.

Vietnamese bought medium-sized shipments from Polish smugglers and sold them individually, often with great profit. “My dad tried it for a few weeks, and he earned some good money,” said Trinh. “But he was chased by the police once, ran across a street, and nearly got hit by a car. When my mom found out about this, she forbade my dad to continue dealing cigarettes.”

The lucrative illegal market for cigarettes soon attracted organized criminal elements. Human traffickers smuggled indigent Vietnamese into Germany, promising them quick money and easy work selling cigarettes. As more Vietnamese flooded into Berlin, violent competition erupted between “old” and “new” immigrants over selling spots and clientele. Over 50 Vietnamese were killed in gang wars during the mid-1990s. The former contract workers were eventually pushed out of the illegal cigarette market and “had to confine themselves to legal businesses such as food vendors, vegetable stands, and flower stands,” said Lam, daughter of two first-wave parents. Following the bloodshed, the two groups of immigrants occupy strictly segregated spheres: “My parents only have friends among former contract workers,” said Lam’s friend Dinh.

Two Separate Fates

When first-wave immigrants were pushed out of the cigarette market, most had accumulated enough assets during its infant stages to land on their feet. “Our situation is not great, but decent. Also, we’re completely legal, which is very important to my parents,” said Lam.

Cigarette sellers of the second wave have not, however, found the riches they were promised. Instead, they find themselves trapped. The traffickers that smuggled them into Germany hold them in debt even while they struggle to “support themselves and send money back to their families in Vietnam,” said Lam. Mafia gang leaders even force sellers to “purchase” coveted subway corners that allow for an easy escape from police. Second-wave Vietnamese immigrants have become the “last link in a chain of organized crime that does not leave much for them,” said Dinh.

While minor activities in the old non-violent illegal market have, in time, helped to create real contributors to Berlin’s legal economy, activities in the new highly structured, brutally controlled illegal market have not. And as the market has turned from grey to black, the prospects of those who depend on it have grown darker.

Tobias Kuehne ’12 is a Mathematics & Philosophy and Literature double major in Branford College. Contact him at