German law promises refuge to those persecuted in their home countries. Now it has been revealed that German intelligence uses the asylum process to find out more about those coming here - and those who stay behind.
When refugees apply for asylum in Germany they have to go through a long process before their stay is approved. Employees of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees ask them questions about the situation in their home country and whether they face political persecution.
They agency is also interested in finding out how refugees arrived in Germany, whether criminal smugglers helped them and whether applicants entered other European countries before arriving in Germany. If they did, international law says they must return to the country of entry.
But unknown to the public, there is another authority that can take charge of the process. The Berlin-based Office for Interrogation (HBW) is officially part of the chancellor's office. Since 1958 if has gathered information to help Germany's domestic Federal Intelligence Service (BND). Many observers believe it is in reality part of the BND.
Journalists from the daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and public broadcaster NDR reported that HBW employees ask whether asylum-seekers know specific people in their home countries who might belong to a terrorist organization or have information about weapons caches. In theory, this information could be used by intelligence services to find or kill terrorists.
A dangerous game?
Lawyers who advise asylum-seekers about their rights frequently encounter the HBW. Victor Pfaff has been working in Frankfurt as an asylum-rights lawyer for more than 40 years. He has met many HBW employees, finding them always to be very polite and happy to hand out their business cards. "We shouldn't enshroud them in a fog of mystery," he said.
Pfaff said the agency denies being part of the BND, even though both organizations report directly to the chancellor.
Asylum-seekers had never complained to him that this questioning caused them problems, Pfaff said. On the contrary, he sometimes approached the HBW for help in speeding up difficult asylum cases. He said if his clients are able to provide useful information, their residence permits can be issued in a matter of days.
But deals like this only happen rarely, Pfaff said, warning that information can also be gathered without consent. "It is problem if German intelligence is secretly present at a an asylum hearing and provides this information to foreign intelligence." If this happened, asylum-seekers might feel they were being used. Pfaff said he had heard of such cases, and believed they posed a danger, because terrorists could take revenge and kill alleged traitors.
Warnings for attempted spying
Claus-Ulrich Prössl heads the Cologne Refugee Council, an organization that assists asylum-seekers throughout the procedure. Prössl said he believes the BND and the HBW are closely connected, and had even heard of cases where people were questioned by BND employees. "A few refugees were hoping that their asylum process would go more quickly, while other refugees did not understand what was going on and were worried."
Prössl warns asylum-seekers to be careful: "Unfortunately, after the NSA affair, we have to assume that all information will be passed on." He said he did not see any data protection or confidentiality and worried that the information thus gathered would not stay within the borders of Germany. There must be a reason, he said, why the state of North Rhine-Westphalia had given up on its own security questioning.
Cologne-based lawyer Zaza Koschuaschwili also warns applicants about questions that have nothing to do with the actual asylum process. Sometimes the quality of the available simultaneous translators is poor:"It often happens that interpreters is add their own interpretations or opinions to a statement." His clients would often complain that they had been musunderstood, he added.
As a lawyer and a native of Georgia, Koschuaschwili can speak both languages and knows his clients' rights. But whenever the HBW gets involved, attorneys are frequently excluded from interviews.
Participation is not meant to have drawbacks
DW asked the HBW for an interview to shed light on the relationship between itself and the BND. Its director promised to provide the desired information once a series of questions had been discussed with the chancellor's office. That process is still ongoing.
Six months ago, Sharmila H. came to Germany from Afganistan. Although she is still waiting for her interview, she says one thing is already clear to her: "I will not answer just any questions," if intelligence agencies speak to her - just who she is and why she came here.
Pfaff and Koschuaschwili wish to reassure those who are unwilling to cooperate with German intelligence that they should have no fear about the regular procedure for granting asylum.
Sharmila H. hopes they are right.