In Interviewing Asylum Seekers, Moral Difficulties the Hardest

In April, the Atlantic magazine ran an informative article by Graeme Wood about the techniques German immigration authorities use to try to sort legitimate asylum seekers from those who aren’t entitled to that status.

In addition to outlining the cultural, political, and economic difficulties connected with absorbing refugees, Wood focuses on the methods used to question the asylum seekers. There are essentially two classes of people that are weeded out. The first are people seeking asylum status not due to fear of persecution, but rather to escape poverty and political instability. The second are much more nefarious- criminals looking to use asylum to escape justice back home or others hoping to launder their identities for whatever unsavory reasons.

Both groups lie and exaggerate to suit their purpose. Wood details some of the fascinating means authorities use to detect this, including a computer device that listens to a person speak for two minutes and then uses their word pronunciations and accent to reveal where they are originally from.

But figuring out the truth often just leads to a moral issue. What if a woman seeking asylum claim she will be tortured because of her religion, but really what she faces back home are beatings from an ex-boyfriend and she has no way to support herself and her children. Immigration authorities, with their sophisticated means of seeing through lies have succeeded at finding that out. This does not sound like persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group. So according to the law she should not qualify.

But how different is her plight than that of another woman who faces beatings by religious authorities due to her past conduct which was forbidden by the religion or her heretical views, and also will have no way to support herself due to banishment imposed for that reason? Although the reasons are different, aren’t they in practice fleeing similar fates?

As Wood makes clear, absorbing asylum seekers into Germany (or any other country) is expensive and difficult. Refugees are clearly an economic burden at least at the beginning, and the argument that they eventually become an economic plus is tenuous and uncertain. In addition, they indisputably change the cultural character of the country that absorbs them. They open up their own shops with signs in their own language selling foods and goods like they had back home. Of course some folks don’t like those kinds of changes happening in their homeland. This gives the absorption of refugees fragile political support.

One of the most important points Wood makes is that rejecting everyone who doesn’t strictly meet the criteria for asylum may in a sense be the kindest thing to do. Accepting everyone who wants to come in is impossible, and an attempt to loosen the rules and allow in a flood may result in the door soon being slammed on everyone, including those whose need for asylum is clear.

But I wouldn’t personally want to be the one that has to tell people they are being deported back to their home country because even though the difficulties and dangers they’re fleeing from are real, they don’t fall into the precise legal categorization of asylum. What an awful thing to have to do.

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