Migrants and the ‘Pious Language of Victimhood’

A few weeks ago, the Atlantic published an excellent article by Graeme Wood about migrants in Germany.

Entirely avoiding the usual sentimental cliches which clog many German reports, Wood straightforwardly observed that many of the stories of the migrants he examined for the article were implausible or far-fetched. He also probed deeply into the system employed by the German refugee agency BAMF for cross-checking and verifying the identity and stories of migrants entering Germany, which includes things such as facial recognition software, dialect and accent recognition, special questioning techniques, and other procedures which the BAMF would not disclose.

Overall, the portrait of BAMF is quite different from in most German sources, where the agents are described either as heartless bureaucrats or incompetent softies. Wood — portraying mostly the Berlin office — was impressed by their efficiency. Wood paraphrases the head of the Berlin BAMF, Andreas Jödecke:

Within minutes of an asylum-seeker’s arrival at a BAMF reception center, long before a complete interview is conducted, little details can be telling, like the style of baggage they had chosen to lug from Syria. “I once saw a whole family get off a bus—several girls with clean black hair. They had hard-shell suitcases,” he told me, a curious choice. “When [real refugees] get off the buses, you can sometimes smell which ones have been on the west Balkans route for 40 days.”

He had lived through the stages of the crisis—new asylum-seekers, with new strategies and new plans. “In 2016, we started to see a wave of unaccompanied minors,” he told me. “It was because every clan chief in Afghanistan decided to send his son to Germany at once, as an anchor child.” Opportunists, he said, have been nimble in their efforts to evade detection and make the best of their chances. If an Afghan asylum-seeker notices that BAMF  took special interest when he mentioned mistreatment by Afghan police—a claim that would help his case—other applicants will begin to arrive with stories of just such mistreatment at the ready, whether or not they are true. Word of what gets claimants in circulates, Jödecke said, and “within about four days,” news makes its way “down the west Balkans route,” forcing BAMF to react and adjust.

Wood’s article was light-years beyond the kind of stuff you get in German newspapers, in which reporters usually do nothing more than recycle statements from a government agency press spokesman before spouting their own irrelevant opinions.

As you might imagine, Wood’s piece, by daring to mention that some asylum-seekers were lying, prompted outrage from pro-immigration advocates and migration researchers (two categories which overlap 98%, in my experience). The Atlantic published responses from three people. The first was a private citizen from Maryland: “The tone of the article struck me as deeply suspicious and mean-spirited about migrants’ motives, creating a false dichotomy between those who flee persecution and those who flee more prosaic but just as extreme conditions…. Someone who reads this article without understanding the larger context that Mr. Wood is addressing would derive a mistaken impression of what a lie means and what truth means in these contexts, where categories like refugee and migrant often blur.”

The second letter is from Hannah Winnick the head of the Heinrich Böll (i.e., German Green Party) foundation’s American office. She chimes in with a predictable barrage of cliches: “It is troubling that the editorial process did not question Wood’s overarching argument, which employs, deliberately or not, a right-wing, anti-immigrant trope of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. Wood describes migrants who do not qualify for asylum as ‘cheap costume jewelry passing itself off as the real thing.’ This language is dehumanizing. The men, women, and children who do not qualify for refugee status are often economic migrants fleeing desperate poverty. Yet people fleeing lack of opportunity, starvation, or chronic unemployment should be no less deserving of reporting that highlights their humanity than those fleeing war and persecution.”

Betsy Fisher, the leader of an American refugee group then chimes in: “In ‘The Refugee Detectives,’ Graeme Wood, after a cursory review of résumés belonging to refugees resettled to the U.S., arrives at the conclusion that most of them were lying. In doing so, he betrays ignorance of the obstacles faced by America’s refugee population—and their resilience….”

Fisher person then notes something I’ve pointed out on this blog a number of times: “Wood presumes equivalence between the United States’ resettlement program the Germany’s asylum proceedings—not only a different country, but also a distinct process. The United States resettles refugees after a years-long vetting process, involving several interviews and intensive background checks. They are also encouraged to begin working immediately to pay back their travel fees and take almost any job that is offered to them—including cleaning the home of a journalist.”

(What’s that about intensive background checks and a years-long vetting process before you let people into your country?)

How does Wood react to these criticisms? With refreshing brio, I find. Here he is right out of the gate: “My article was written to infuriate exactly the class of letter-writer that has responded in tedious triplicate here.”


Wood goes on:

They consider it “mean-spirited” or “dehumanizing” to describe the asylum process in anything but the pious language of victimhood. They pretend, feebly, that the distinction between refugees and economic migrants—one enshrined in international law for the protection of the most vulnerable—is morally irrelevant. Refugees’ fates depend on our caring about these distinctions, and it is curious that people claiming to be their champions are most eager to cheapen the categories that protect them….

Hannah Winnick is right to point out that many asylum-seekers are still engaged in language- and skill-training three years later. That this process takes more than three years is, however, the whole point. And the rate of employment of refugees after their extended period of education isn’t encouraging: In Sweden, where better statistics are available, only half of the refugees who have been in the country for nine years have a job. About everything else Winnick is wrong. The résumés I judged to be suspicious included more details than I could ethically include in my article, and I subjected them to the scrutiny of area experts who found them even more suspicious than I did. “Nuance and accuracy” can cover many lies, but claiming a false ethnicity or country of origin is not among them….

Betsy Fisher is equally obtuse on these issues. An uneducated Afghan peasant might, of course, learn a language not spoken in Afghanistan or a bordering country. Similarly, a Canadian of French descent might learn near-fluent Nahuatl. The point, I wrote, was that these were “irregularities” that would very reasonably provoke an asylum caseworker to investigate further. Similarly, she doesn’t know the full employment and educational history of the refugee who was a doctor and now works a cash register. But I do, and his case is no less irregular. (The resolution of those irregularities could be, as I wrote, either damning or exculpatory.)

Fisher ends by calling for treatment of refugees with dignity and respect. One indignity to which refugees are exposed routinely is being treated as if their situation is no more precarious than that of others who face no persecution whatsoever. The detectives at BAMF seem to get this. Others, it seems, do not.

I have little to add, except that the German refugee debate could have used, and could still use, this sort of honesty.