Asylum Scandal Jolts Germany, Unsettling Merkel’s Government
Lax and possibly corrupt control of migrants triggers probe, sows new political tensions
A scandal over the handling of asylum requests is threatening to destabilize German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fractious coalition and trigger a parliamentary inquiry into her open-arms migration policy.
A criminal investigation into alleged corruption at Germany’s migration agency has uncovered serious flaws in the processing of asylum claims going back several years, law-enforcement officials said.
The Federal Interior Ministry temporarily closed the agency’s branch in the city-state of Bremen last week after state prosecutors opened an investigation into civil servants, lawyers and interpreters suspected of colluding to grant asylum to at least a thousand migrants, including possible criminals and terror suspects, in exchange for money.
This week, as public pressure mounted on the government to lay out the full extent of alleged wrongdoings at the agency, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was summoned before parliament’s home-affairs committee to be grilled by lawmakers for several hours.
Pollsters warn the revelations could rekindle fears among voters that the state relinquished control over who enters the country. Such fears played a big role in turning the anti-immigration, anti-Islam Alternative for Germany, or AfD, from a fringe grouping into the largest opposition party in parliament in September’s election.
The allegations are also causing tension in Ms. Merkel’s left-right ruling alliance. Leading members of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in the coalition, said this week they might support opposition demands for a parliamentary inquiry that could become a public trial of Ms. Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders.
Mr. Seehofer, long one of the sharpest conservative critics of Ms. Merkel’s decision and a minister in her government since March, apologized for the mismanagement on Tuesday.
“There could be only one response to the very serious and scandalous incidents in Bremen, namely a thorough investigation and total transparency,” he said, while adding that the responsibility lay with his predecessor and Merkel confidant Thomas de Maizière.
The Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees, or Bamf, found in an internal report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that indiscriminate approval of asylum claims by the agency’s Bremen branch had created an “enormous security risk.”
The Bremen office manager now under investigation, identified only as Ulrike B., told the newspaper Bild that politicians were responsible for her agency’s shortcomings and that the true extent of the problem was much greater than reported. She denied accepting money.
The government probe has now spread to 10 other Bamf offices with above-average asylum approval rates, out of a total of 51 offices. Authorities say they are scrutinizing a sample of 18,000 suspicious decisions with the help of the country’s intelligence services.
“Merkel is avoiding responsibility. She is silent, does nothing and wants to ride out the loss of control at Bamf,” SPD vice chairman Ralf Stegner told journalists last week. “Lack of leadership is Angela Merkel’s principle.”
A spokesman for Ms. Merkel said she was following developments and supported the investigation. He added that the parliament had the right to decide whether to initiate an inquiry into the matter.
Relishing the chance to embarrass the government, the parliamentary opposition has seized on what it sees as the leisurely pace of the interior ministry’s reaction to the Bremen case.
Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats, said he would request a parliamentary inquiry next week into the refugee policy of Ms. Merkel’s governments since 2015.
“I’m convinced that a full investigation is the only way to come to terms with what happened because…people are losing faith in the legal system and there is a real danger they will resort to prejudice and supporting protest parties,” Mr. Lindner told the Journal.
The AfD has voiced its support for the parliamentary inquiry. The party won nearly 13% of the vote last October on the back of popular backlash against burgeoning immigration. The left-of-center Green and Left parties are still pondering their stance, partly out of concerns about giving the AfD a platform for anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“The AfD only want headlines,” Green Party legislator Katrin Göring-Eckardt said. “It is clear we will not cooperate with the AfD.”
For Mr. Seehofer and other advocates within the government of a tougher immigration policy, the case could be a blessing in disguise, affording a window to reform the country’s entire asylum-review system. The minister said he would make detailed proposals shortly.
Even if no criminal wrongdoing can be established elsewhere in Bamf, the scandal in Bremen has implications far beyond one branch office. It comes as a reminder of how the country continues to struggle to absorb the more than 1.4 million asylum seekers who have arrived since the beginning of 2015 and the more than 10,000 who stream into the country every month.
Rudolf Scheinost, the official representative of Bamf staff, said his agency was forced in the 2015-2016 period to operate by “market benchmarks“ under pressure from Ms. Merkel’s government, instead of following legal procedures. The agency was expected to process one million claims a year, while its capacity was estimated at 100,000 for that period.
“It was churning out decisions about the fundamental right to asylum on a conveyor belt,” Mr. Scheinost said.
Even today, only just over half of the agents responsible for dealing with foreigners and asylum seekers have access to fingerprint scanners, according to the Interior Ministry, meaning considerable doubts persist over the identity and nationality of many newcomers. More than 550,000 people whose asylum claims have been rejected still reside in Germany, some 230,000 of them marked for deportation.
Rainer Wendt, head of one of Germany’s biggest police unions, said the new revelations were merely the tip of the iceberg.
“The feeling of security has been collapsing and now people feel the state has lost control. There are hundreds of thousands of people here of whom we don’t know who they are,” Mr. Wendt said. “This is a giant risk. No country in the world would tolerate this.”