1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Undercover at Germany's refugee agency

June 6, 2018

Germany's Office for Migration and Refugees is mired in scandal. Its employees have been accused of corruption and sloppy work. Journalist Abdullah Khan worked there undercover and spoke to DW about his experience.

BILD reporter Abdullah Khan
Image: BILD/Stefanie Herbst

DW: As a journalist, you went undercover to work at Germany's Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) between February and May 2016. How did that happen?

Abdullah Khan: I was very interested in the migration of refugees. Working for [German newspaper] Bild, I joined some refugees traveling along part of the Balkan route. That's where I got the idea, because all refugees who arrive in Germany file their asylum applications with the BAMF. They were running newspaper ads, looking for people to work there. So I applied. I quit my job at Bild and started my job as an administrative assistant. It took three months from applying to starting the job.

Was is easy to get in? You had no prior experience in this field.

Yes, it was rather easy. I think I met some basic criteria. I speak four languages, for example. But at the time, they needed to hire some 3,000 extra people so they probably took anyone who they thought could get the hang of things, even without any relevant work experience.

Read more: German asylum scandal: Bribery charges are 'nonsense,' says lawyer

Did you receive training? What did you learn?

When I started they had just cut the 10-week training period to 10 days. They gave me a quick introduction to the data management system and the steps we would have to take applicants through. That was it, a crash course. To this day, I'm not sure what kind of documents I made my applicants sign. There were many pages of legal disclaimers which nobody explained to me. 

As an administrative assistant, you were not in charge of granting or rejecting asylum applications. What exactly did you do?

People came to me who wanted to file their first asylum application, or a subsequent application. Asylum-seekers dropped off questionnaires with personal information they had completed with the help of translators. I then typed this information into our computer system. I issued initial residential permits and had them sign legal disclaimers.

A record number of asylum applications were made in 2016. Almost 750,000 applications were filed. What did this mean for those working at the BAMF?

I had expected to be required to work extra fast. But there were times when we could not work for days because the computer system was broken, or when we did not receive new files. Due to these internal problems we were sometimes forced to sit around.

Read more: Germany's asylum system in numbers

I was also responsible for sending out letters to applicants on whether or not they would be allowed to stay. When I arrived at work in the morning there were boxes of letters to be processed waiting for me. I got started and was not even halfway through the first box, when two more boxes would be brought in. It was an incredible amount of work. And it never stopped. It was like working on an assembly line. Stamping documents, and more documents, and even more, without knowing what I was actually doing. Piles of files and hordes of people, every day. I will never forget that.

How did your colleagues deal with this pressure?

My experience was that BAMF employees did what they could. The current crisis should not be blamed on them. They are doing what they are supposed to do. The atmosphere was tense due to the intense workload. But I was impressed with how patiently my colleagues dealt with applicants. It was tiresome when you had an applicant sitting before you who was blatantly lying, for example about his or her age. That was stressful.

What did you do when you suspected someone was lying?

That is always a difficult situation. I once had an applicant who looked 50 but claimed to be just 24. His explanations was that he is an actor, and that actors look older because of their work. In that case you make a note in their file that their age is probably incorrect. So you hope the final decision-maker checks this.

Office of the BAMF
The BAMF processed a record number of asylum applications in 2016Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Read more: BAMF office in Bremen allowed at least two extremists to enter Germany

Were you explicitly asked to work extra fast?

Not directly. But we were told during our training how many minutes each step should take. There were lists where we should say how many files we processed each week — little things that increased the pressure.

Could you have manipulated the applications?

Yes, of course. That would have been easy. Every administrative assistant has access to the data system. It lists how old an applicant is, where he or she comes from, and reasons for fleeing. Even administrative assistants like me could have changed whatever they wanted. But in those four months that I worked there nobody offered me money to manipulate the files.

In 2016, the BAMF was criticized for not processing applications quickly enough. Was this a fair criticism?

You need to be careful about that. I do not think employees are to blame. But the politicians should have given more support to and stabilized the department in earlier years. That did not happen. I worked there in 2016. Now, two years have passed, and nothing has changed. If you don't scrutinize the mistakes made over the years, where will it end?

Read more: Bavaria plans tougher approach to asylum-seekers in Germany

How did your time there come to an end?

After a while, all work processes kept repeating themselves. That meant I could finish my research. I quit and then wrote my report for BILD. I warned some former colleagues about what was coming before publishing the piece. I was surprised by their reaction. They thought it was exciting that someone finally publicly reported about their work. 

Abdullah Khan works as a reporter for German newspaper Bild.

DW journalist Julia Vergin
Julia Vergin Senior editor and team lead for Science online