The Refugee Detectives

In The Atlantic’s April issue, Graeme Wood wrote about Germany’s high-stakes effort to sort people fleeing death from opportunists and pretenders.

I research refugee flows in the Middle East and teach courses about refugees and human rights at Johns Hopkins, and I found Graeme Wood’s recent article to have some important problems that I wish to draw your attention to.

Wood appears to be on a mission to create an exciting story of liars being caught, but he’s missing some important context in some places, while in other places his account is stigmatizing and misleading.

Allow me to be more specific.

Midway through the article, Mr. Wood talks about asylum-seekers who burn their fingertips because they may, he argues, be “villains” or else seek to escape “villains” in their home countries. This mystified me. The tone and word choice strike me as a shallow attempt to drum up drama. But more importantly, he’s leaving out or covering up the key reason asylum-seekers actually do this, which is to avoid being registered on the Eurodac system that, under the Dublin regulation, would have them deported from Germany, for example, to the first EU country in which they set foot (usually Greece or Italy, these days). They often feel they have no choice and it’s a desperate move to allow them to migrate on. In any case, “villains” have little to do with it except in very rare cases. There’s plenty of literature on the fingerprint burning phenomenon, and I wonder why Mr. Wood didn’t address it.  His account is misleading at best and deceptive at worst.  

The tone of the article struck me as deeply suspicious and mean-spirited about migrants’ motives, creating a false dichotomy between those who flee persecution and those who flee more prosaic but just as extreme conditions. He seems to imply that there are genuine refugees who are fleeing certain death, on the one hand, and child pornographers who are lying to get into Europe, on the other. This misleading representation implies that there’s little in the middle. It leaves out all those who are fleeing generalized violence and/or who may not know their perpetrators’ identities, and who wouldn’t qualify as 1951 Convention refugees even though their reasons for fleeing are just as extreme and real to them. Someone who reads this article without understanding the larger context that Mr. Wood is addressing would derive a mistaken impression of what a lie means and what truth means in these contexts, where categories like refugee and migrant often blur.  

I’m not against articles that are skeptical of refugee motives, by any means, but I expect them to at least be well-researched and argued, not ignorant of basic aspects of refugee law that are so crucial to the core of their argument.​ In search of an exciting story, Mr. Wood has left out important facts and nuances, an obfuscation that simplifies and exoticizes refugee narratives and stories in a damaging way.

Ilil Benjamin
Baltimore, Md.

As program director at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a German political foundation, I have spent the past two years working with refugees and city officials across Germany and the U.S. on the issue of refugee integration. Graeme Wood’s “The Refugee Detectives” shows a lack of understanding of Germany and the local migration context, and fails the most basic standards of ethical reporting on migration.

Wood cites the “worrisome facts” that “two years after the peak of the influx, more than 80 percent of refugees were jobless,” concluding that “successful integration is not assured.” This comment shows a striking lack of understanding of German integration policy. Unlike the U.S., Germany places a stronger emphasis on language learning and job training than on immediate entry into the workforce. Contrary to the article’s suggestion, the fact that 80 percent of refugees are unemployed after two or even three years says more about German labor and integration policy than about the promise of integration.

Portraying migration in terms of natural disasters is a time-honored tradition of anti-immigrant movements that dehumanizes the individual and inspires fear in receiving communities. Yet Wood repeatedly describes migrants coming to Europe as a “tsunami,” seemingly unaware of the political minefield he has entered. A tsunami must be stopped before it floods the homeland; the idea of building a wall closely follows.

Most of all, it is troubling that the editorial process did not question Wood’s overarching argument, which employs, deliberately or not, a right-wing, anti-immigrant trope of “good” and “bad” migrants. Wood describes migrants who do not qualify for asylum as “cheap costume jewelry passing itself off as the real thing.” This language is dehumanizing. The men, women, and children who do not qualify for refugee status are often economic migrants fleeing desperate poverty. Yet people fleeing lack of opportunity, starvation, or chronic unemployment should be no less deserving of reporting that highlights their humanity than those fleeing war and persecution. Wood’s own troubling bias on this issue is evident from his opening anecdote, in which he assumes that the CVs of the refugees he would like to hire to clean his house are “shot through with lies.” Oddly, Wood does not describe conducting any research to prove this claim. I myself have spoken to dozens of refugees, and their stories are indeed messy and complex. Nuance and accuracy are often lost in the multiple translations between countries and agencies. This is not necessarily the fault of the refugees, nor does it prove intentional deception. However, Wood blithely ascribes any presumed inaccuracies in the refugees’ CVs to their dishonesty. He places himself in the position of judge, not reporter, and this leads him to frame the entire article in terms of snooping out the “good” refugee amid the “liars.”

It is one thing to publish an article critical of Germany’s asylum policies. It is another to publish an article that simply accepts the right-wing framing of the immigration debate, shows deep gaps in local knowledge, and fails to provide context where context is needed. At a time when political parties are shoring up anti-immigrant sentiment among voters across Europe and the U.S., Wood’s piece is irresponsible journalism and should not have been published by The Atlantic.

Hannah Winnick
Director, Transatlantic Dialogue on Democracy & Social Policy
Heinrich Boell Foundation North America
Washington, D.C.

In “The Refugee Detectives,” Graeme Wood, after a cursory review of résumés belonging to refugees resettled to the U.S., arrives at the conclusion that most of them were lying. In doing so, he betrays ignorance of the obstacles faced by America’s refugee population—and their resilience.

An uneducated Afghan who speaks a foreign language? Wood cannot comprehend that someone may have been motivated or talented enough to learn a foreign language. Refugees from “countries without war or persecution” must have lied about their nationality—Wood cannot contemplate that LGBTI individuals, even from countries without conflict, can face extreme danger. Highly educated people now working bagging groceries? Liars. Never mind that many states do not recognize foreign professional certifications, limiting refugees’ employment and wage-earning opportunities and often forcing them to work below their skill level.

Discarding decades of scientific research on the effects of torture, Wood then goes on to explain that a true narrative from a survivor of torture will, necessarily, provide extensive details about their trauma. A flat affect without details? Fabrications.

Wood presumes equivalence between the United States’ resettlement program the Germany’s asylum proceedings—not only a different country, but also a distinct process. The United States resettles refugees after a years-long vetting process, involving several interviews and intensive background checks. They are also encouraged to begin working immediately to pay back their travel fees and take almost any job that is offered to them—including cleaning the home of a journalist.

Fact is: Refugees are survivors of lived traumas many of us cannot begin to fathom. Yet, when they arrive in the United States, refugees strive to immediately contribute to their new communities. They should be treated with dignity and respect in the resettlement process and upon arrival.

Betsy Fisher
Policy Director, International Refugee Assistance Project
Urban Justice Center
New York, N.Y.

Graeme Wood replies:

My article was written to infuriate exactly the class of letter-writer that has responded in tedious triplicate here. They consider it “mean-spirited” or “dehumanizing” to describe the asylum process in anything but the pious language of victimhood. They pretend, feebly, that the distinction between refugees and economic migrants—one enshrined in international law for the protection of the most vulnerable—is morally irrelevant. Refugees’ fates depend on our caring about these distinctions, and it is curious that people claiming to be their champions are most eager to cheapen the categories that protect them.

Ilil Benjamin says asylum-seekers burn off their fingerprints to avoid being identified and removed from Germany to the EU country where they first arrived. In other words, the asylum-seekers do not fear being sent back to Syria; they fear being sent to Italy. He makes my point for me: If BAMF [Germany’s Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, or Federal Office for Migration and Refugees] is trying to defeat this technique, it is following the Dublin protocol as intended and indeed thwarting fraud and deceit.

Hannah Winnick is right to point out that many asylum-seekers are still engaged in language- and skill-training three years later. That this process takes more than three years is, however, the whole point. And the rate of employment of refugees after their extended period of education isn’t encouraging: In Sweden, where better statistics are available, only half of the refugees who have been in the country for nine years have a job. About everything else Winnick is wrong. The résumés I judged to be suspicious included more details than I could ethically include in my article, and I subjected them to the scrutiny of area experts who found them even more suspicious than I did. “Nuance and accuracy” can cover many lies, but claiming a false ethnicity or country of origin is not among them.

Betsy Fisher is equally obtuse on these issues. An uneducated Afghan peasant might, of course, learn a language not spoken in Afghanistan or a bordering country. Similarly, a Canadian of French descent might learn near-fluent Nahuatl. The point, I wrote, was that these were “irregularities” that would very reasonably provoke an asylum caseworker to investigate further. Similarly, she doesn’t know the full employment and educational history of the refugee who was a doctor and now works a cash register. But I do, and his case is no less irregular. (The resolution of those irregularities could be, as I wrote, either damning or exculpatory.)

Fisher ends by calling for treatment of refugees with dignity and respect. One indignity to which refugees are exposed routinely is being treated as if their situation is no more precarious than that of others who face no persecution whatsoever. The detectives at BAMF seem to get this. Others, it seems, do not.