Bureaucratic meltdown

Bribery scandal shines new spotlight on Germany’s refugee policy

Jutta Cordt and Horst Seehofer
Ms. Cordt (left) could be looking for a job soon. Source: DPA

Ever since Germany opened its doors to a million refugees in 2015, the country’s immigration authority has struggled to cope with the additional workload. Time and again, reports of mismanagement and failures brought the federal agency, known under its German acronym BAMF, under scrutiny. But the latest scandal, involving allegations of corruption as over 1,000 migrants were wrongfully granted asylum, may well cost the agency’s boss her job. It is also becoming a headache for the interior minister as opposition parties demand an inquiry.

Prosecutors are weighing criminal charges against BAMF head Jutta Cordt, German media revealed on Wednesday. Reports claimed she had been aware of irregularities since taking office in early 2017 and failed to take action — accusations that she denies.

Ms. Cordt’s boss, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, has also come under pressure in the affair for allegedly withholding information from the public. He has agreed to answer questions from lawmakers in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament, on Tuesday next week. That may not be enough to avoid a full parliamentary inquiry into his claim that he only became aware of the problem last month.

In relative terms, the magnitude of the affair is small: 1,200 asylum decisions are a drop in the ocean compared to the 1.5 million refugees that have entered Germany since 2014. But the scandal further dents the credibility of Germany’s immigration authority at a delicate time. The anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has gleefully seized on the debacle as further proof that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s entire asylum policy has been a failure.

“If the allegations that Ms. Cordt knew of the events earlier than she has previously said turn out to be true, then Minister Seehofer should sack her.”

Linda Teuteberg, lawmaker in the Bundestag and FDP member

The affair went public last month but has been years in the making. In late April, German media reported that a number of employees at the regional BAMF office in Bremen had accepted at least 1,176 asylum applicants between 2013 and 2017, illegally or without adequate review. Days later, public prosecutors in the northern port city announced that the former director of the Bremen branch was under investigation for alleged bribery in hundreds of cases. Five other BAMF employees in Bremen, including an interpreter and three lawyers, are being investigated as well, some also under suspicion of taking kickbacks.

It remains unclear whether any of them really received money in return for their decisions. News magazine Der Spiegel cited the potential involvement of a lawyer in Hildesheim, a city near Hanover, who allegedly received a €1,000 payment in cash from a migrant who obtained refugee status from Bremen’s office shortly thereafter. But others suggest there were non-financial reasons. According to several reports, the former local boss acted out of generosity for the Yazidis, a community from the Middle East that suffered persecution from Jihadi groups in Iraq. Out of the 1,200 dubious asylum decisions made there, many were made in favor of Yazidi refugees.

An embattled Ms. Cordt said last week that some 18,000 asylum decisions made since 2000 in Bremen would be checked over the next three months. But the scandal could spread to other areas of the federal migration and asylum agency. BAMF is subjecting a dozen other branches to scrutiny after significant deviations in the handling of asylum applications were discovered in an initial probe. The investigation could affect some 8,500 cases.

Opposition politicians are already calling for heads to roll. “If the allegations that Ms. Cordt knew of the events earlier than she has previously said turn out to be true, then Minister Seehofer should fire her,” said Linda Teuteberg, a lawmaker for the pro-market Free Democrats. Greens politician Luise Amtsberg agreed that Ms. Cordt “can’t stay in her job” if she ignored warnings that something was going wrong in Bremen.

“A lot needs to be done, not only in Bremen.”

Horst Seehofer, German Interior Minister

Mr. Seehofer seems to have taken the cue. His hawkish CSU party, which faces a difficult election in Bavaria in a few months, is loath to be seen as soft on the refugee question. On Wednesday, he said the Bremen branch of BAMF was barred from issuing asylum decisions until further notice. Broader consequences are expected to follow. “I will make decisions in the coming weeks that will have consequences for BAMF as well as people in it,” Mr. Seehofer said, adding that “a lot needs to be done, not only in Bremen.”

Bremen is not the first reported case of trouble. With BAMF employees under tremendous pressure to process the huge backlog of asylum applications, some mistakes have received intense coverage. Last year, the agency came under fire after reports that a German soldier with ties to the far right managed to be registered as a Syrian refugee in Bavaria without speaking a word of Arabic. Months later, a Palestinian knife attacker killed one person and wounded several others in a knife rampage in Hamburg. It was later found that BAMF had missed a deadline to deport him by one day.

Politically, the scandal is a boon for the far-right AfD — as is any negative news about refugees or how Germany is coping with them. The populist party last week asked the Constitutional Court to review Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders to refugees. It claimed the move was illegal because parliament didn’t give its approval. That seems unlikely to succeed, but any more corruption news out of BAMF certainly won’t hurt the AfD’s case.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: hauteville@gmail.com

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