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Germany probes asylum cases amid scandal

Kate Brady
May 5, 2017

Thousands of refugee cases are to be scrutinized as a result of the Franco A. scandal. The German soldier managed to register as a Syrian refugee, allegedly with plans of carrying out terror attacks.

Flüchtlinge Deutschland
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

It was the night of September 4, 2015. The first of three nights which would see tens of thousands of refugees cross into Germany. After months of rapidly increasing numbers of asylum seekers, this marked a turning point in what became Germany's refugee crisis.

Before too long, more than 13,000 people a day were crossing Germany's borders in the hope of finding asylum. By the end of 2015, the total exceeded 1 million.

Under pressure

Overwhelmed and understaffed, Germany's Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF), which is responsible for interviewing asylum seekers and determining whether their applications are granted, drafted in more staff.

Management accountants, geography experts and even army soldiers were enlisted to deal with the mammoth task, more than doubling the number of BAMF employees from 3,000 to 7,300.

With the authorities under unprecedented pressure, it was in the fall if 2015 that suspected right-wing extremist Franco A. seemingly seized his chance.

The 28-year-old army lieutenant was granted asylum after he posed as a Syrian refugee named "David Benjamin," allegedly in order to be able infiltrate a number of targets and carry out terror attacks. 

- German defense minister arrives in France to probe terrorism scandal

- The Bundeswehr's image problem - is it overrun with right-wing extremists?

With skepticism already running high over the authorities' ability to competently handle the record numbers of asylum applications, the case, which came to light last week, sparked uproar in Germany.

BAMF investigates 2,000 cases

In light of the bizarre case of identity fraud, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has launched an inquiry in a bid to uncover systemic problems in the asylum process, such as inadequate background checks and screening.

The fact that Franco A. was granted asylum was the kind of "flagrant error that is not allowed to happen," BAMF spokesman Johannes Dimroth told Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine" paper.

As part of the investigation, some 2,000 asylum applications that were granted between January 1, 2016, and April 27 of this year are being reviewed, including those of 1,000 Afghans and 1,000 Syrians.

The selected cases were chosen based on similar patterns to the Franco A. case, such applicants without papers and single applicants of a certain age group.

Refugee gives their thumb print
Faced with an unprecedented number of asylum seekers, authorities reportedly struggled to carry out the necessary checksImage: DW/K. Brady

Employees suspended

Decision makers involved in every step of Franco A.'s asylum application will also be scrutinized. Employees responsible for his case, including the interpreter, have been "suspended from further duties," the Interior Ministry said.

Asked at a press conference on Friday whether there were failings to be found in the migration office, de Maiziere simply answered: "We will know after the investigation."

Hopes for technology

In an interview with German local paper "Münchner Merkur," BAMF head Jutta Cordt remained optimistic, claiming that according to current findings, nothing pointed to structural deficiencies in Germany's asylum procedures.

Refugee with picture of Angela Merkel
Hundreds of thousands seized the chance to seek asylum after Chancellor Merkel's historic decision to open the bordersImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Stache

Cordt added, however, that in future the agency would "make better use of modern technology."

The use of language identification software in the asylum procedure is already being tested to clearly identify the origin of refugees, she said, adding that she hoped analysis of mobile phone data would also help clarify exactly who people were.

Quality or quantity?

Despite the boost in employees at the height of the refugee crisis, training was skimped on, with some new case officers receiving as little as 10 days of training compared to the usual 14 weeks.

"More often than not, people made decisions on applications even though they knew nothing," Hubert Heinhold, a Munich-based lawyer specializing in asylum cases, told "Die Zeit."

"They don't know the basics of asylum law," he added. 

While BAMF struggled to keep up with the relentless influx of refugees, quality reportedly fell, and being granted asylum or not was described as being a matter of pure chance.

Sebastian Ludwig from the Protestant Church-run social organization Diakonie told DW in October 2016 that it was an "extreme challenge for every organization."

"Dealing with 1 million asylum cases by the end of the year as announced by the BAMF bosses is purely a case of quantity, not quality," Ludwig said.

BAMF deputy head Uta Dauke insisted on Friday, however, that this had never been the case.

"Quality was always and still remains the main question," she told DW.