The Refugee Detectives
Inside Germany’s high-stakes operation to sort people fleeing death from opportunists and pretenders
Three years ago, overcome by the squalor of my home, I decided to hire a cleaner. I scanned Craigslist, feeling a prick of guilt; few things arouse class angst as reliably as the purchase of domestic help. Then I remembered another option. Near my Connecticut home was a refugee-resettlement center. On weekdays, dozens of recent arrivals loitered there, eager for work. This seemed to offer a solution to both my squalor and my angst. To pay a Craigslist gig worker felt a little icky. To pay a refugee—well, that felt magnanimous, almost patriotic.
I wrote to the resettlement center, which sent me a stack of résumés. Even the ones from Congolese herders were well formatted and in English—the result, surely, of polishing by the center’s staff. The stories, I found, made propulsive reading, despite the outline form. I was tempted to request more résumés for the understated drama alone. Each was the timeline of a life interrupted in a distant, volatile land and now picked up, improbably, in a snowy New England town.
The other trait distinguishing these résumés was that nearly every one contained what I, as someone whose job often involves listening skeptically to people’s stories, would call irregularities, little details that seemed odd, that begged for explanation. An Afghan with no formal education claimed to know a language not spoken in any country she had visited; an African doctor whose CV could have gotten him a job with the World Health Organization in a week was working a cash register in Bridgeport. Two refugees claimed to be from, respectively, Zambia and Tanzania, countries without war or persecution that could justify asylum. (The refugees had almost certainly claimed different nationalities in their application for asylum.) Another said she was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a major generator of refugees—but spoke languages that suggested origin in the now relatively safe country of Rwanda. It was as if the center had sent me a dozen jigsaw puzzles, all with either missing pieces or extra ones.
All of the refugees were qualified to clean my house. (The doctor was overqualified, and I wondered whether I should be cleaning his.) But detail after detail hoisted my eyebrows. An asylum officer had heard each story—or some variant of it—and judged the claimant credible enough to welcome him into the United States. For my part, it was hard not to conclude that most of the stories were shot through with lies.
Twenty-four years ago in this magazine, Robert D. Kaplan published a real downer of an article, titled “The Coming Anarchy,” about a “bifurcated world” in which rich and comfortable First Worlders would be surrounded by an increasingly wretched majority. One of the visionary pessimists Kaplan quoted, the Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, likened this future to a scene in which a limousine passes through crime-afflicted streets in New York. The poor encircle the rich, who look out from behind rolled-up windows. Global chaos would threaten the integrity of borders, Kaplan wrote, and the fate of the limousine occupants would be intertwined with the disorder in the slums around them.
For nearly two decades, Kaplan’s pessimism looked mistaken, as the world’s poor got steadily richer and the world less violent. Wars in Angola and Sudan, in Colombia and the Balkans, either stopped or de-escalated. The rich did well, too, and upgraded their limos. According to the United Nations, total worldwide migration to high-income countries increased by 89 percent from 1990 to 2010. Some citizens of rich countries might have preferred more migrants, some fewer. In any case, the migrants’ presence didn’t stop the rich countries from doubling their GDP in the same period, and none were overwhelmed.
But this picture began to change seven years ago, with the onset of the Syrian civil war. The war has killed about half a million people and driven more than 5 million Syrians into exile—mostly in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, but also in Europe. The Syrian war coincided with the 2011 fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and a mass migration of sub-Saharan Africans across the Mediterranean. Qaddafi had both encouraged and controlled African migration to Libya, and after his ouster, immigrants took to the sea in Dunkirk-esque flotillas of fishing boats, rafts, and other small vessels.
The world had not seen a refugee tsunami like this since World War II. It has barely touched American shores, but more than 2 million migrants crossed into Europe illegally in 2015 and 2016 alone. The wave has crested, but as the waters recede they reveal a changed political landscape—and nowhere more so than in Europe’s largest country, which took in vastly more asylum-seekers than any other.
On January 19, 2017, Barack Obama’s final phone call to a foreign leader as president was to German Chancellor Angela Merkel—a passing of the mantle of “leader of the free world,” it was said, on the grounds that the incoming occupant of the White House had declined it. But almost immediately, Merkel faced challenges to her leadership of Germany, let alone the world. Her Christian Democratic Union survived the country’s federal elections last September, but its far-right rival, Alternative for Germany (AfD), became the third-largest party in the Bundestag. In the run-up to the election, one of the AfD’s leaders, an elfin 40-year-old named Frauke Petry, publicly contemplated whether German border guards should shoot refugees caught sneaking in, and suggested Germany had let guilt over its Nazi past get in the way of good policy. Afterward, it took Merkel four months to form a government; the vote and the process weakened and diminished her.
Europe has long understood that its borders cannot, and should not, be completely sealed: Many asylum-seekers are fleeing death, and the obligation to save them is legal as well as moral. But neither can borders be abolished without the risk of abolishing the countries of Europe as distinct political and cultural units. At its peak, the inflow of refugees into Germany was so heavy that the government removed whole trains from civilian use, in order to shuttle asylum-seekers from one corner of the country to another.
Yet no matter how they are scattered, it is impossible to hide 1 million newcomers in a country of 83 million. I have visited Bamberg, a small city in Bavaria, many times over the past decade. It is known for its centuries-old breweries, and is so comically Teutonic that in hiking season, one regularly sees men wearing lederhosen without irony. In 2016, to my astonishment, a Syrian shop—with a sign in Arabic and a selection of Middle Eastern foods—opened next to my two favorite breweries, one founded in 1536 and the other in 1649. For those like me who enjoy hummus with their lager, this development was serendipitous. For those worried about the erosion of German culture, it was evidence that the Muslim world, having failed to sack Vienna in 1683, is now coming back in a bum-rush.
Merkel said Germany could absorb the refugees, and her defenders emphasized the economic contribution they would eventually make. “Wir schaffen das,” she said in 2015: “We can do it.” But her critics worried that she didn’t fathom the magnitude of the problems such an influx would cause—or, worse, that she fathomed it and lied to avoid controversy. As the difficulties became more evident, the anti-immigrant right hung “Wir schaffen das” around her neck like a lead weight.
Those same critics also noted that intermingled among the refugees were economic migrants, surfing the tsunami opportunistically—and the right wing has relentlessly stressed the loose relationship many of the asylum-seekers had with the truth. Certain circumstances, such as age, complicate deportation when an asylum-seeker’s claim is rejected. As a result, tales abound of Afghan “children” with full beards and mustaches.
The blurring of the moral reasons for accommodating the inflow with the economic ones raised suspicions that German liberals, who favor more-open borders, were pursuing an end run around the public’s wishes. “Seeing the crime [that Merkel] is committing, and how she is ignoring the opinion of the people, makes us fear for democracy,” one brewery worker, who claimed to have voted for Merkel’s party in the past, told Politico in 2016.
These concerns have festered. The new migrants tend to be young and male, and therefore at times unruly, and the far right has stoked fear of swarthy men’s lust for European women. But accompanying the xenophobia are worrisome facts. Two years after the peak of the influx, more than 80 percent of refugees were jobless, in a general population whose unemployment rate is 5.5 percent. Successful integration is not assured.
Even formerly reliable members of the pro-immigration left have begun to acknowledge the challenge. Boris Palmer, a member of the center-left Green Party and the mayor of Tübingen, told me last fall that he was alarmed by the rise of the AfD. “For the first time since the end of the Nazi period, we see people in parliament who are openly racist and xenophobic.” But he said Merkel’s party, along with his own, denied unpleasant truths that even ordinary Germans could observe. “You can’t convince people with untrue arguments,” Palmer said. “The simple reality is that people see which refugees are coming, and most of them are of little value to our labor market.” The issues of economics and compassion, he said, should have been separated. “Save the people who need saving. But don’t tell me they’re good for the labor market.” Like many well-intentioned falsehoods, that one backfired. “Now we have the far right.”
Throughout his 25 years as a member, Palmer said, the Green Party has “always fought for refugee rights.” But “two years ago I made my position on refugees public: that there are certain realities, and fighting for refugees means facing those realities.” (He said the party now treats him as a “heretic.”)
In practice, facing those realities means looking some asylum-seekers in the eye and saying no—in a way that is humane and palatable to the left, but also public enough to assure conservatives that the government’s policy will keep Germany German. Open the limo door wide enough to take aboard as many refugees as possible, and slam it on the fingers of any faker trying to take a refugee’s place.
That mandate—separating refugees, who will be allowed to stay, from economic migrants, many of whom will not—has launched a gigantic bureaucratic project, sure to offend everyone. Of the 2015 and 2016 asylum applicants whose fates the government has so far settled, roughly a third have been rejected. That number is bracing, and the process is continuing. Its failure would probably mean the end of a government—and with it the end of a liberal vision for Germany’s future.
The headquarters of Germany’s Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, or Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (known by its acronym, bamf), is an enormous, echoing building in the city of Nuremberg. Prisoners of the Nazi regime put the final touches on the structure in the 1940s. bamf is among the most politically sensitive bureaucracies in the German state today. The agency’s workers told me they faced procrustean criticism, from right-wingers who view them as refugee huggers and, more rarely, from lefties who say they are bureaucratic cover for a mass-deportation op. “One side thinks we are bleeding hearts, and the other says we are fascists,” a staffer told me. Picture Lady Liberty with a Birkenstock on one foot and a jackboot on the other.
bamf decides which of the millions of migrants who have washed into Germany will be permitted to stay. All asylum applicants are interviewed by the agency. In response to the influx, the government has stepped up its efforts to make that process expeditious and compassionate. But it has also begun to make the process more aggressive in detecting fraud, and thus more pleasing to nationalists who want the flow to stop altogether.
To get a sense of these interviews, imagine the following game. You meet someone who claims to be from your hometown, and you have to decide whether he’s telling the truth. You can ask him anything you like: Which high school did you attend? What color is city hall? Do people get around on buses or trains? Is there a McDonald’s? If so, where? The other player may prepare however he wishes, memorizing facts, maps, events. If he convinces you, he gets a million dollars. If he doesn’t convince you, he dies. You have 10 minutes to decide.
bamf investigators have played a version of this game roughly 1 million times in the past three years. Does the applicant come from where he claims to? Would he really fear for his life if he returns? The interview is conducted by a government employee who usually has no direct experience of the country the applicant claims to have fled. I exaggerate the game’s stakes only slightly: The prize is legal status in a society safe and wealthy beyond the imagination of an average Syrian or Afghan. The penalty, in the worst case, is a one-way ticket to a country that may or may not torture him to death.
bamf has developed techniques to play the game—training government employees as human lie detectors, then fanning them out across the country. In December, I visited bamf operations in Nuremberg and Berlin, meeting executives and staff and sitting in on interviews with asylum-seekers. bamf’s leaders are cautious about letting members of the media observe their agency’s techniques, and after several days I understood why: Some methods are secret and, if revealed, potentially useless. (I was the first journalist granted broad access, and then only under the condition that I obscure certain details, in part to protect the privacy of applicants.) But it was also clear that virtually everything the interviewers did or said could infuriate one political extreme or the other, and that it might be easier to work in the shadows.
From 1953 to 2014, bamf did just that. Germany took in thousands of refugees annually, quietly and without much controversy. (It helped that many of these asylum claimants were from the Balkans or the Soviet bloc, and therefore white.) But nearly 1 million migrants turned up in 2015 alone, so fast that they spilled out of the bamf system and onto the street. The agency was caught unprepared, and its acronym became a byword for incompetence.
When the influx began, “due to the huge backlog it would take months just to schedule an interview” for an asylum-seeker, Katrin Hirseland, a bamf senior executive, told me. Describing the scramble during that period, bamf employees use the language of emergency. The agency hired new staff by the thousands, including managers from the German military, and it undertook a massive effort to train new and existing staff in Sherlockian techniques to spot fraud and weed out economic migrants. “Under regular circumstances this would have taken years,” Hirseland said. “We had to get an infrastructure built in weeks. We had no choice.”
BAMF began with technology. Within its fortress in Nuremberg, I met Justus Strübing and Julian Detzel, two engineers in the agency’s tech think tank. Both young ethnic Germans, they dressed formally for people in the tech sector. They spoke to me mostly in English, slipping into German only for nuance.
Perhaps the agency’s largest challenge is an asylum-seeker population whose members are, in many cases, actively thwarting efforts to identify them. (In other cases they tell the truth—“I am poor; I want to work”—but they simply do not qualify as a refugee.) “We have seen people show up with fingerprints burned off with fire or acid,” Detzel told me. Reasons range from justifiable to sinister: Some want a new identity to increase the distance between themselves and villains in their home country. Others are villains themselves and prefer not to face justice. By the height of the crisis, 60 to 80 percent of asylum-seekers were arriving without a passport. Some had discovered that their passport constrained their story—you can’t claim to be 16 if your passport says you are 28. Once this inconvenience became well known, passports began disappearing, except when they corroborated the bearer’s claim.
bamf adopted work-arounds. “There are some identifiers that we just carry with us,” Strübing said. The first is our face. bamf’s facial-recognition software, and the mammoth database from which it draws, is by now “godlike,” one staffer said with reverence. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it make an error.” Think of all the times the government snaps your photo: at the airport or the DMV, when you apply for a visa or get thrown in jail. If a man who shows up at the Austrian border has the same face, but not the same name, as a man who applied for a visa in Cairo five years ago, bamf knows something is amiss. Already the system has detected numerous asylum-seekers who tried to apply more than once, telling different stories of flight and persecution. bamf officials declined to give a full list of the government departments against whose databases they compare photos, but it likely includes spy agencies and law enforcement. If you claim to be Eritrean but are found to have been denied a visa when you applied as a Kenyan 10 years ago, your story is probably beyond salvage.
Other bamf tools yield less-decisive evidence. “What we are looking for is a Hinweis,” Strübing said—a hint, a clue—to alert bamf caseworkers to a dubious claim. “Almost no single thing we discover will tell us for sure whether a person is lying. But we can gather these Hinweise, and they begin to tell us where to look.”
Most refugees carry a phone, and like the rest of us, they seldom go anywhere without it. When I visited bamf’s refugee centers, most of the people waiting to be interviewed were playing on their phone. Hanging on the wall of the think tank’s lab was a black nylon bag stuffed with a whole RadioShack’s worth of cords. “Here we have cables for every phone you have ever seen,” Detzel said, fishing out a few bizarre-looking ones he said were for phones available mostly in China. Every bamf reception center for refugees now has a duplicate set. In cases where the claimant has no passport or other identity papers, bamf can have her phone confiscated and download metadata—but not messages—to check her story. If she claims to have been in Turkey for the month of September, but the phone shows calls made from Yemen, the bamf case officer will ask her to explain.
The highest-grade cunning, though, involves tests that an applicant could fail without knowing he had failed. Occasionally, for instance, bamf officers meet applicants who claim ignorance of languages that would give them away—a supposed Somali, say, whom they suspect of being Kenyan. The average German employed by bamf would have no hope of tricking the applicant into admitting he knows a Kenyan language not spoken in Somalia.
But here, too, technology has delivered. If a case officer suspects that a claimant is lying about his native language, she’ll call a number on the office phone and ask the claimant to speak for two minutes. To demonstrate, Strübing handed me a drawing of a domestic scene—a typical kitchen from about 100 years ago, where a family was preparing for dinner—with instructions to speak into a handset and describe what I saw. (I wondered what a Congolese herder would make of an antique German kitchen.) The computer, which had been told nothing about me, returned this verdict:
100.0 percent: American English
So far, so accurate. I decided to try to fool it.
I spoke into the phone again, but this time in Egyptian Arabic. A German of Syrian descent was in the room, quietly laughing at my slang from the streets of Cairo. (Suppose that a Syrian came to the United States and spent two minutes trying to describe a Civil War–era painting using Ebonics.) She recovered her composure and allowed afterward that my Arabic was comprehensible, reasonably grammatical, and Egyptian-inflected. The computer was less impressed:
72.0 percent: Unknown languages
8.4 percent: Vietnamese
6.2 percent: American English
13.3 percent: Other languages/dialects
Now it was my turn to laugh. Vietnamese? It had correctly sniffed me out as a speaker of American English, but apparently couldn’t tell that I had been speaking Arabic.
Andreas Jödecke, who runs bamf’s operations in and around Berlin, reminded me that the computer didn’t need to return an accurate result to return a useful one. Investigators are merely looking for a Hinweis—a loose thread to pull, an inconsistency that called out for scrutiny. I speak not a word of Vietnamese, but the computer may have recognized that in trying to produce Egyptian sounds, I had occasionally overshot my mark and made sounds characteristic of neither American English nor Egyptian Arabic, but another language altogether. It knew something was up.
“We had a guy come in who said he was from Mosul, Iraq,” Jödecke told me. The human translator said his accent sounded funny, so the asylum-seeker was sent to the phone. After the test, he waited outside while they examined the results. The report proposed that he was French Canadian (46 percent), or maybe German. That combination suggested he might be a European trying to launder his identity after an extended stay in Iraq—a returned foreign fighter, perhaps.
Jödecke said bamf had a procedure in place for just such a possibility. “When we went out to get him,” he said, they were ready. They had called a swat team.
Jödecke doesn’t summon swat teams casually. In 2016, he was one of bamf’s emergency hires, on loan from career service in the German military. Now a colonel, he previously served five years in a security role with the United Nations. He is cagey about his military specialty, but in conversation he let slip that he had traveled in troubled foreign lands.
This background is unusual for refugee work. Others I met at bamf were trained in law, social work, or another field in which a human touch is prized. Jödecke is not a stony-faced killer—he has a ready smile and borders on jovial. But when I suggested that hearing tales of misery for a living might leave a person emotionally drained, he smirked. “The truth,” he said, “is that we are not that empathetic.” He noted that bamf provides counseling to employees traumatized by the stories they’ve heard. But there are benefits to being coldly rational—and real costs when bamf fails to root out impostors. If you acknowledge that, reasonably or unreasonably, countries will limit the number of places offered to refugees, it then follows that every faker has the potential to send a real refugee to his doom.
BAMF had referred me to Jödecke after I’d asked to meet its top detectives. (As a regional director, Jödecke does not conduct the interviews himself, but relishes meeting and observing asylum-seekers and applying his expertise.) He is canny, and one way his military training seems to have prepared him for his current job was by inculcating an instinct for adversarial situations. He works on a dynamic battlefield, and his enemies adapt. He and bamf have to adapt faster.
Jödecke and another German officer now seconded to bamf, a military historian named Bernhard Chiari, brought me to a Berlin refugee center’s waiting room, a big holding pen resembling a DMV. Here, Jödecke said, you could tell a lot just by observation. He stood back and guessed the applicants’ ethnic and national origin. “Afghan Hazara … Syrian … Eritrean,” he said, browsing the thin crowd. He cautioned that nationality might be guessable from a distance, but refugee status rarely is. “You can’t assume that a refugee is someone with physical scars,” he told me. “You can waterboard someone, and it will drive him mad, but he’ll look just fine.” And he reminded me that even when an applicant is caught in a lie, the assessment usually continues. Some lies are irrelevant, or prove nothing about whether the applicant fears persecution. “Almost every Syrian has a good reason to want to hide his identity,” if not his nationality, Jödecke told me. The applicant might still have enemies in Syria, for instance, and might have some in Germany, too. Likewise, Jödecke said, Eritreans facing persecution “generally have no ID” of any kind—and those who do have usually acquired fake papers only after fleeing. “We know your passport isn’t real.” Having a fake Eritrean passport is a sign that you might really be from that country.
But sometimes there are signs of a more fundamental deception, and Jödecke scans crowds for them, like Dr. House eyeing a waiting room during clinic hours. Within minutes of an asylum-seeker’s arrival at a bamf reception center, long before a complete interview is conducted, little details can be telling, like the style of baggage they had chosen to lug from Syria. “I once saw a whole family get off a bus—several girls with clean black hair. They had hard-shell suitcases,” he told me, a curious choice. “When [real refugees] get off the buses, you can sometimes smell which ones have been on the west Balkans route for 40 days.”
He had lived through the stages of the crisis—new asylum-seekers, with new strategies and new plans. “In 2016, we started to see a wave of unaccompanied minors,” he told me. “It was because every clan chief in Afghanistan decided to send his son to Germany at once, as an anchor child.” Opportunists, he said, have been nimble in their efforts to evade detection and make the best of their chances. If an Afghan asylum-seeker notices that bamf took special interest when he mentioned mistreatment by Afghan police—a claim that would help his case—other applicants will begin to arrive with stories of just such mistreatment at the ready, whether or not they are true. Word of what gets claimants in circulates, Jödecke said, and “within about four days,” news makes its way “down the west Balkans route,” forcing bamf to react and adjust.
Successful refugee stories are sometimes passed down verbatim. (“You are going to Germany, the land of paperwork,” one refugee was warned by a trafficker. “Get your story straight.”) One bamf employee I spoke with in Berlin seemed fond of challenging these recycled stories. “I will stop them after their first three words and tell them, ‘I’ve heard this story. Let me tell you how it ends. What are you really doing here?’ ”
I thought back to the stack of résumés at my house in Connecticut. What does a true story sound like, and how do you tell it from a false one? How do you distinguish a lie that matters from a lie that doesn’t? The employee said he looks for a story that is “plain,” one that makes sense on its own and doesn’t twist into a nest of elaborate narrative threads when he asks a straightforward question. (“You said you were first threatened by the Taliban in 2011. Why did you wait until 2015 to leave?”) But even some true stories might make no sense. A peculiar résumé could just reflect the vagaries of life, and a lie might be told to save face—to claim education that an asylum-seeker doesn’t really have, say, or to hide the shame of rape—rather than to disguise identity.
Some interactions simply baffle. Once, Jödecke said, a record search revealed that an Iranian applicant had visited Germany dozens of times before. “We asked him why he never applied for asylum.” The man broke down. “I’m a child pornographer,” he admitted. “One of my customers was found in Iran, and if I go back, they’ll kill me.”
“He wasn’t a refugee, and we weren’t going to be his way of saving his skin,” Jödecke told me with a shrug. But, he said, “everyone has a right to apply.”
In Nuremberg, bamf introduced me to a middle-aged caseworker named Torsten Wojtalla, who now trains other investigators. He quickly brought up the word empathy, too, but more earnestly than Jödecke had. “I am required to show professional empathy,” Wojtalla told me. “Try to imagine the situation for these people when they meet me: All eyes are on them. To them, I am a judge. Sometimes they are shivering with fear.” The interaction will change their life, and the lives of their descendants. “I give them tea. I look them in the eye with my full attention, even though I don’t know what they are saying until the translator speaks. I don’t type while they talk.”
But like Jödecke, Wojtalla has by now heard many true stories and many high-stakes lies. “You look for the details,” he said. A real story is strange, and things happen that have no relevance to the question of refugee status. These details, paradoxically, make the story more credible. “In a real story, days go by when nothing happens,” he said: “ ‘I sat in a cell, and I watched a cockroach run back and forth from one corner to another.’ ”
“Imagine you meet a friend, and he asks you about your vacation,” Wojtalla told me. “The story will go like this: ‘First we did this, then we did that, then we did that.’ You’ll forget things and have to go back.” (I made a mental note that Wojtalla needed to work on his vacation storytelling.) “But a story devoid of detail, or where every step fills out the narrative, tends not to be a true one.”
Wojtalla also listens for the generic. “ ‘I was beaten’ is not how a person talks who was beaten. What were you beaten with?” Does answering that question tax the applicant’s memory? Getting asylum does not depend on what you were beaten with—so if you’re fabricating a story of torture, you might not think to specify an instrument. But if you’re the one getting your knee crushed with a tire iron, the fact that it’s a tire iron, and not a billy club, will remain vivid in your mind. “What is important is not what happened but what you feel,” Wojtalla told me. “A story without feeling is a story built from just facts. And that is not how people experience life.”
While Wojtalla is listening to the applicant’s story, he said, he is testing details against factual knowledge—of which bamf has assembled a large, secret database. I observed one applicant who claimed to have gone to school in a particular neighborhood of Damascus. The interview, which was conducted by a friendly young woman, stayed casual, then took a sudden and decisive turn to the factual. “What color uniform did you wear in school when you were 10?” the caseworker asked. The applicant knew the correct answer, and was ultimately granted refugee status. If a claimant spent time in prison, or in the army, could he draw a map of his cellblock or his barracks? Were the food trays plastic, tin, or paper?
The emphasis, Wojtalla stressed, was not on finding the liar but on finding “the pearl”—the person who has suffered, and to whom humanity owes protection. But both he and Jödecke seemed to have landed at the same conclusion: If you care about finding the pearl, you had better care about finding and discarding the cheap costume jewelry passing itself off as the real thing.
We have no way to know whether bamf’s new techniques and procedures have yielded accurate results: After cases are adjudicated, false claimants don’t reveal their cards, like triumphant bluffers at a poker table. Some asylum-seekers challenge negative verdicts in court, and some of these challenges succeed. (bamf says it is confident that its new methods have improved the accuracy of its decisions.) But many opt to accept the judgment and go back to their home country, some with a small cash payment from bamf to discourage a judicial appeal and to ease their way.
What bamf has achieved, beyond doubt, is a more limited political goal: to begin to assure Germans that their government’s refugee policy is not simply the absence of a policy. One perplexing question for liberals worldwide is why conservatives seem not to care about the data suggesting that over time, refugees improve the countries that receive them. For one, they can relieve demographic pressures. (Japan’s population is aging, and because immigration remains low, the development of geriatric-helper robots is a national concern.) And refugees tend to be enterprising. “Consider how much courage and determination it takes to put your 2-year-old daughter on your back, grab your 4-year-old son by the hand, and start walking toward Europe,” James Stavridis, who was the supreme commander of nato from 2009 to 2013, told me. “I want that person on my team.”
A pessimistic answer is that some conservatives may want to preserve their ethnic or cultural dominance, and are willing to beta test diaper-changing robots rather than let people of a different race into their country. But many conservatives say they view refugees as a threat to order, not a threat to culture. The establishment of bureaucracies such as bamf, and the assurance that procedures—any procedures—are in place to vet immigrants, may assuage this concern. Let a million refugees in—just give me some confidence that they’re going through a process.
In her 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land, an ethnography of conservative white Louisianans, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild noted her subjects’ fury at “line-cutters”—the immigrants (among others) who supposedly broke rules and didn’t wait their turn for their shot at success. Ariela Schachter, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has likewise found that native-born white Americans view immigrants negatively if they think the immigrants are “illegal”—but also that a substantial amount of the animus vanishes if they discover that the same people have legal status in the United States. Some people who seem racist might just be extremely legalistic.
For those convinced of the overwhelming moral and economic good of immigration, confronting those who disagree can be frustrating. I share that frustration. Drive more than a couple hundred miles in the United States, even in an area as densely populated as the Northeast, and you’ll rapidly see large, undeveloped spaces, many of them not especially beautiful. They are reminders that most of America is still, strangely enough, empty. The establishments punctuating the emptiness—the roadside inns and gas stations—tend to be operated by immigrants. Many came from benighted places, countries of the “shithole” variety, where extreme poverty is common and a 3 a.m. shift at the front desk of a Motel 6 is worth risking your life for. The idea that America doesn’t have room for more such people strikes me as ridiculous and sad.
But these are the politics of our time. The quality of mercy is strained, and the strain from perceptions of illegal immigration has already wounded the United States. Voters have elected politicians, even deeply flawed ones, who purport to be bulwarks against anarchy at the border. bamf’s efforts to improve its refugee process—like Volkswagen engineers scheming to get better mercy-mileage out of their democracy—are ones we should observe and, perhaps, emulate. Attitudes may improve toward refugees and other migrants if the process becomes credible, and the public learns to trust it and not worry about being tricked. “Wir schaffen das” is a much more effective slogan when the thing we can supposedly do is a task of clearly limited size.
Roughly a third of the asylum-seekers whose applications were rejected in Germany in 2015 have contested their rejection in court. Their cases, which swamped the courts in 2016 and 2017, are now yielding a wave of decisions and appeals, some sending immigrants home and some granting them a new home in Germany. As these batches of judgments have come down, they have revivified the refugee controversy, even though far fewer new migrants are arriving. To have bamf gumshoes scrutinizing asylum claimants, in this environment, is an investment in faith in government institutions. Under the present global circumstances, that’s an asset worth protecting.
This article appears in the April 2018 print edition with the headline “The Refugee Detectives.”