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Haunted By Its Past, Germany Scrambles To Document Migrants

  • Daniella Cheslow

Ahmed Greri, who came to Germany from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, said he had been waiting for his identity documents for 17 months while authorities puzzled over his paperwork. He received a refugee travel document in late July.

Ahmed Greri, who came to Germany from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, said he had been waiting for his identity documents for 17 months while authorities puzzled over his paperwork. He received a refugee travel document in late July.

In Germany, a country known for its fastidious record-keeping, the fingerprints of thousands of migrants are still waiting to be scanned and entered into a national database.

The incongruity is partly due to the overwhelming number of migrants -- 1.3 million since 2015 -- who have arrived in Germany as Europe deals with a polarizing refugee crisis. But it's also the result of Germany's darker history, in which the Nazis and later communist East Germany's Stasi used intrusive data collection and government records to exert totalitarian control.

To avoid a repeat of the past, Germany instituted strict decentralization of police power and some of Europe's most stringent privacy-protection laws. But the effort to account for past wrongs, critics say, has left the country vulnerable.

"Last year, we said, 'All right, so it's our duty to help people,'" said Sascha Langenbach, a spokesman for Berlin's Senate Department of Health and Welfare, a first stop for all migrants arriving in Berlin. "We talked about humanity, humanitarian reasons. We don't talk about security reasons. Maybe that was naive."

System Overload

Langenbach said his office has struggled to provide food, housing, medical attention, and registration to nearly 100,000 people who have arrived in the capital since 2015. Sometimes, migrants have waited days or weeks to register with authorities. At first, refugees provided fingerprints via ink on paper, not digitally, Langenbach said.

The "ancient method" of data collection, he added, was made worse because each of Germany's 16 federal states has its own police and secret police, with separate and often incompatible databases. The lack of a unified approach led some migrants to register in multiple places, drawing multiple benefits, Langenbach said.

As of February, six months after Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Syrian asylum seekers to Germany, a reported 130,000 people who had registered as refugees had essentially disappeared after failing to report to their listed residence, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Such failings were baffling for Rania, an Arabic-German translator working in the Berlin immigration offices. Last year, Rania, the daughter of Syrian parents, noticed that many Arabic-speaking migrants claimed to be Syrian but had different dialects, and some said they had no identification documents.

"Fifty-fifty, I thought, 'OK, you are lying,'" she said.

But Rania could not voice those doubts on her interview forms. Instead, she was told to pass verbatim notes of her conversations with migrants on to her superiors.

"I was surprised, but then I thought, 'OK, it's their problem,'" said Rania, who used a false name because she was not authorized to speak to the press.

Newly arrived refugees wait on October 9, 2015, to register in Berlin's state office for health and social affairs.

Newly arrived refugees wait on October 9, 2015, to register in Berlin's state office for health and social affairs.

Deutsche Welle quoted the head of Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees as saying the authorities did not know the identities of up to 400,000 people in Germany. A spokeswoman for Germany's Interior Ministry said her office intends to sift through the backlog by the end of this year, stressing that a figure of 400,000 unclarified migrants is not accurate.

Langenbach estimates that there are about 20,000 people in Berlin who have begun their asylum process but whose cases have not been clarified -- which means authorities may determine they are from "safe countries" such as in the Balkans or North Africa and are not qualified to remain.

"It sounds so negative. You know, there are not like 20,000 terrorists from Syria in Berlin. That's simply not true," he said. "We are on the way to find out who is really a war victim."

Past Is Present

The German past is deeply embedded in the national psyche, said Felix Mueller, a guide at Berlin's Stasi Museum, which shows how East Germany's Stasi -- the Ministry for State Security -- spied on citizens to root out dissent.

"The people want security. They don't want to be afraid," Mueller said. But, he added, "We don't want the state to know everything about us."

In a telling example of this sentiment, last month a German consumer advocacy group threatened to sue the maker of the mobile game Pokemon Go for passing user data to third parties.

Mueller spoke while walking through the museum, which includes examples of wires used to listen in on private homes, cameras hidden in watering cans and on neckties, and a glass jar containing a yellow rag -- part of an archive of body scents the Stasi surreptitiously collected from citizens to use as forensic tools in crime investigations. The organization was in service for four decades beginning in 1950. By decentralizing police and other government functions, Germany hoped to avert the intrusive power of the Stasi, and of the Nazi regime before it.

Now, the realities of the refugee crisis are challenging the old structure. In February, Germany instituted a national refugee ID card, tied to a nationwide database on refugees, and then began the slow work of transferring the records of new arrivals from each of the 16 states to the central system. Kira Gehrmann, spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, said that since 2015 about 900,000 people have applied for asylum and were automatically entered into a national database. But there remain tens if not hundreds of thousands of migrants who have yet to file their requests, she said.

Gehrmann said the national database should be completed by the autumn and that the government expects all migrants applying for asylum to be on record by the end of the year. She said some asylum seekers arrived in Germany before 2015, meaning it would be difficult to judge how many migrants were still waiting.

"I can tell you how many asylum applications have been processed," but not how many are still in the pipeline, she said.

The interview process has evolved, as well, Langenbach said. Officials search migrants who claim to have lost their documents and sometimes retrieve passports from their underwear. Rania, the translator, said she can note her doubts on her forms. And police working at registration centers can instantly check the records of the migrants against national and European criminal files.

After five attacks in Germany -- including three attacks committed by migrants -- that left 15 people dead in July, Merkel announced that her administration would take further steps to tighten security. She said authorities would make it easier to deport migrants who do not receive asylum and would increase detection of radicalization in mosques.

But the specter of the past remains. Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmeier, warned that "you can only have absolute security in an absolute surveillance state."

In the meantime, the gaps in data have become a lightning rod for Merkel's critics.

Alexander Gauland, the deputy chairman of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, said the pipeline of migrants with unclear identities is so dangerous that Germany needs to temporarily ban all Muslim immigration until the issue is resolved. He also hopes to freeze reunification for refugees who still have family abroad.

"Constitutional law has to be changed," Gauland said.

Migrants in Germany say they are grateful that in the meantime, the system is grinding on.

Ahmed Greri, who came to Germany from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, said he had been waiting for his identity documents for 17 months while authorities puzzled over his paperwork. He received a refugee travel document in late July.

"I have this identity so my wife and son can come here," he said. "Now I have to search for work. For these two. Now I have a chance. Before, none."

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