At the height of the influx of refugees into Germany in 2015–17, there was little doubt that mixed among the worthy cases were economic migrants taking advantage of the chaos to seek their fortunes in Europe. Perhaps out of instinctive pro-immigrant sentiment, Germany’s Left obscured the difference. Its Right, writes Graeme Wood in a new article for The Atlantic, focused on some of the putative refugees’ “loose relationship” with the truth of their circumstances in order to delegitimize the whole lot.
One interpretation of the right’s stance, Wood writes, was that the conservatives were, essentially, racist — indeed, this has been the dominant interpretation on the left. “But many conservatives,” he reports, “say they view refugees as a threat to order, not a threat to culture.” And that’s where Germany’s bureau of refugee detectives comes in. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, or BAMF, which Wood visited, has the task of sorting real sob stories from crocodile tears. By hiring thousands of new staff and implementing new procedures and technologies, BAMF could start to convince Germans — in typical bureaucratic fashion — that order has not broken down. “Attitudes may improve toward refugees and other migrants if the process becomes credible,” Wood writes, “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.”
Limiting that task, Wood explains, is delicate operation. It means sorting out the real refugees from the liars. And so far, of the applications from 2015 and 2016 that the government has reviewed, about a third have been rejected.
For its part, BAMF has several tools for ferreting out the truth. Its facial-recognition software and massive database gets around the problem that 60–80 percent of asylum seekers arrive without a passport (a number that seems linked in part to the fact, Wood writes, that a passport constrains one’s story). “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.”
BAMF also checks refugees’ stories against their cellphone metadata to see if their locations match up. And there are language tests. A BAMF employee can have the applicant call a number and speak in his or her purported “native” language for two minutes. The computer on the other end will return a verdict about how natively the applicant is, in fact, speaking.
Can BAMF’s sophisticated techniques and technologies lend greater legitimacy to Germany’s refugee process, and to that of other market democracies? It’s certainly worth a try. I can’t say I agree with Wood in every respect. In particular, I don’t think he gives the case for immigration restriction its due. He conflates concerns about the ability of aging societies to assimilate large numbers of newcomers with racial prejudice, which strikes me as a mistake. Yet he is right to observe that a chaotic immigration system saps faith in government institutions, and that this poses dangers all its own.