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Unpicking the Asylum Scandal That Shook Germany

Alleged corruption in Germany’s asylum system has been used recklessly to advance a hardline agenda, says researcher Lena Riemer, describing an agency under huge strain, not a hotbed of corruption.

Written by Lena Riemer Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A family walks past the Berlin office of the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) on May 18, 2018. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Since May, the political arena in Germany has been shaken by a scandal involving employees of the country’s asylum agency. Alleged wrongdoing at the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has damaged public trust in the asylum system, strengthened migration hardliners, including the interior minister, Horst Seehofer, and even come to threaten the governing coalition.

But, away from the heat and noise of media headlines, this is really the story of an underfunded and overwhelmed government agency and a political class frightened to leave any space to their right for extremists to exploit.

The affair began with an internal report alleging corruption at the BAMF branch in Bremen. This report alleged that the migration office approved asylum applications en masse without considering them in detail.

An even greater cause for concern was the suggestion that a cabal of employees, including lawyers and intermediaries, were bribed to influence asylum decisions, and that buses were chartered to bring asylum seekers to Bremen where their cases could be fast-tracked. Media covering the report claimed that some of those granted asylum in this way were considered to be a potential security risk.

Weeks after the release of this BAMF-report, journalists discovered that incorrect figures had been published and false suspicions had been raised. Instead of 1,200 wrong asylum decisions, procedural mistakes were found in 975 cases. This however does not mean that the decisions to grant asylum were not themselves wrong. In total, 578 of the 1,336 asylum decisions that were reviewed had to be reassessed. The BAMF report also spoke of criminal investigations against seven employees for bribery and other offenses.

Among the real victims of this scandal are also BAMF employees whose innocence has been prejudiced and the asylum seekers at whose expense this controversy has raged.

Despite the welter of serious accusations covered in the media, the German prosecutor has ended up formally investigating only one individual. The BAMF employee in question stands accused of contravening internal regulations but not of any criminal offense.

The political response has reinforced the public perception of scandal. The head of the refugee and migration agency, Jutta Cordt, was dismissed even though the Bundestag Committee on Internal Affairs was still examining the allegations.

While investigations continue, it seems fair to say that the scandal has been artificially hyped and the mistakes uncovered would be unlikely to surprise anyone with basic understanding of the workload at BAMF in recent years. Among the real victims of this scandal are also BAMF employees whose innocence has been prejudiced and the asylum seekers at whose expense this controversy has raged.

Throughout the affair, Seehofer and his office have fed negative opinion with inflammatory statements. A May 23 statement declared that the Bremen center “deliberately disregarded legal regulations and internal procedures” and further announced that all decision in asylum cases were suspended until the final completion of the preliminary proceedings. This overreaction is emblematic of political and media responses.

Some politicians and media outlets concluded early on that there was an immense corruption scandal at BAMF and that the entire asylum system would need to be overhauled. The inflated revelations started an intense political debate that saw 80 percent of respondents in one survey say they distrusted the asylum procedure. The collapse of trust has made it easier for conservative and far-right calls for a more restrictive asylum system to win support.

Media and politicians still adjusting to the recent success of the rightwing party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AFD), have been overly ready to give hardliners space and the oxygen of publicity. Migration and asylum has become an issue which seems to splinter German society, and decides elections.

Even when many of the darker claims made in the BAMF scandal were debunked, the image of the agency has not recovered. Those who want to argue that the open-border policy of 2015 was wrong have had their voices amplified. The BAMF revelations are set to have lasting policy consequences as new proposals to restrict the system have poured forth.

Throughout the affair Seehofer and his office have fed negative opinion with inflammatory statements.

Absent from much of the discussion has been a realistic acknowledgement of the burden the agency was under. In 2017, German authorities decided more than half a million asylum applications. This number has been at an all-time peak since 2015 and amount to more cases than all other E.U. states combined. This scale comes at a cost: Inexperienced and insufficiently trained case officers were hired, the local agencies were overloaded with work, and the premise of quantity over quality prevailed.

The consequences of this policy are becoming visible now, years after its implementation. German administrative courts overruled 40 percent of rejected asylum decisions in past years and now irregularities at the BAMF in Bremen and elsewhere are made public. Given the described situation, such developments are not surprising at all, and it is hypocritical to claim that such a turn of events was completely unforeseeable.

It was a political decision to handle as many cases as possible as quickly as possible, which was a understandable given the circumstances at the time. Dumping all the blame on BAMF employees lacks proportion or fairness.

In order to prevent similar situations in the future and to regain public trust in the asylum system, a new strategy is required. The asylum agency must undertake a fundamental retraining of its officers and make available more long-term positions in order to safeguard its capacity to process the load of applications. At the same time, politicians and media of all stripes ought to promote trust in the system and resist the rush to judgment while the facts are still being established.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply

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