In Germany, thousands of rejected asylum seekers without identification documents are called for interviews each year with foreign delegations and embassies, in order to determine their true identities and potentially expel them.
"The situation is absurd," complains Maria Guggenmos. She works for the Catholic organization Caritas in Dachau in Bavaria. Guggenmos is referring to the case of a Senegalese man who was escorted at the dead of night by a group of policemen who came to search the accommodation center where he was staying in the little village close to Munich.
The center was home to about 20 asylum seekers, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa. "There were seven police officers for just one person," explains Maria Guggenmos. At first they couldn’t find his room, so they searched each and every bedroom. You can imagine the kind of fear that kind of undertaking would trigger, she says.
Then, he told me that they took him to the police station where he was made to wait five hours. At that point, they transported him to the Senegalese delegation in Munich.
This Senegalese man is in fact part of a group of 274 people who were called to attend interviews by the Bavarian immigration authorities at the beginning of March this year. The group was expected to attend a so-called "identification interview" conducted by officials of the Senegalese delegation.
The interview committee comprised four people who had been flown in from Senegal for two weeks, with the specific purpose of identifying their compatriots. The interviews took place in Bavaria because that is where the majority of Senegalese asylum seekers are living in Germany.
"They are afraid every day that the police will return to look for them in order to expel them."
The intention with these interviews is to obtain travel documents for these undocumented migrants whose asylum requests have already been refused in Germany. All the people who have been called for such an interview are people who could be expelled but have been tolerated, sometimes for several years already, because it is technically impossible to actually expel them, since they have no identity papers or travel documents.
Attending these interviews is obligatory. The regional office for asylum and returns (Landesamt für Asyl und Rückkehr, LfAR), which is the public office in charge of processing asylum claims and enacting expulsions in Bavaria, states that every person called to an interview "is obliged to attend in order to clarify their identity." It is even permitted to ensure attendance "against the will of the person concerned."
That is what happened in the case of the Senegalese man taken by the police. He didn’t turn up at the interview he was offered. According to Maria Guggenmos, he had good reasons why he failed to attend. The man in question had a medical certificate. Guggenmos remembers, "he came to see me four days after the interview. He was shocked. He didn’t know what to expect but he was scared he was about to be expelled. Now he is scared that the police will return at any moment, track him down in order to expel him."
Because that is the aim of these identification interviews, which say they are just about establishing a person’s nationality. According to LfAR, the duration of these interviews can be "anything from a couple of minutes to more than half an hour." The duration, says LfAR "depends on the answers to questions and the level of cooperation [from the person involved]."
The interview committee looks at the "language and dialect that a person might speak" as well as "asking questions about regional aspects from the suspected country of origin, the country’s institutions and family ties. That allows us to establish a detailed picture of the person," explain the Bavarian authorities.
When InfoMigrants asks if this procedure is legal, LfAR responds that it has been deployed "for years and has been tested in court several times. There is therefore no doubt regarding the legality of this interview method."
1000s of people called for interview each year
In fact, these identification interviews are carried out by all German states and Senegal is not the only country to send a delegation to carry out the process. According to the German government, between 2019 and 2020, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Sudan, Togo, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Uganda submitted suspected citizens of their countries to this type of interview within Germany.
And this process is not just for citizens of African countries in Germany. Vietnam and Afghanistan cooperated with the German authorities, sending delegations during the same period to carry out a similar process.
All in all, 3,500 people without documents were called to interviews in 2019. In 2020, the figure dropped to just below 500 because of the travel restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Results from this type of process can vary. In the case of Nigeria in 2019, 500 temporary travel documents were delivered to people and a total of 958 people were called to interview. For suspected Sudanese called to interview, only 15 travel documents were issued out of 114 interviews.
"A woman told me that there were a lot of projects, businesses and work in Senegal."
In a parliamentary inquiry to the German Parliament in 2019, a group of Left party members wrote that "these types of interviews have been criticized for years within Germany, because the process is not transparent. Sometimes these interviews just last a few minutes and those called for interview are not allowed to be accompanied by a lawyer."
The group added that, according to information in an article published on the information website and weekly magazine freitag.de in 2016, "there are mistakes made and migrants are identified as Nigerians and expelled to Nigeria, even when they come from other countries." The article recounted the story of a man who said he was in danger in Sierra Leone, who was then (mis)identified as Nigerian and expelled there in 2012.
The story of Adama Dieng
As far as Senegalese citizens are concerned, identification interviews have been regularly taking place in Bavaria since 2017. That was the year a man called Adama Dieng was called to attend an interview. He was expelled to Senegal a year later.
"My interview lasted about ten minutes," remembers Adama Dieng, who says he had never denied he was Senegalese. "They were speaking Wolof [one of Senegal’s languages]. A woman said to me that there were a lot of projects and businesses and work in Senegal. I replied that I didn’t think it was true and asked her why so many Senegalese couldn’t find work."
At the end of the interview, Adama Dieng didn’t feel too worried. He had already been in Germany for seven years without papers and without the possibility of travel. "I didn’t take it seriously. If I had, I would have left for Spain, Italy or France. Instead, I stayed in Munich and continued to play my music. I went on tour in Germany with my band," he explains.
One year later, the axe fell. "Three policemen came to where I was living. They told me I had to return to Senegal. They gave me a travel document which had been issued by the Senegalese embassy in Berlin. They told me to pack my things. I stuffed a few things in a rucksack, a pair of trousers and a t-shirt. That’s when they explained to me I needed to pack up everything, because they were taking me to the airport."
A few hours later, Adama Dieng landed at the airport in the Senegalese capital Dakar.
Today, the 35-year-old lives in Niodor, a coastal village in the south of Senegal, where he was born. He works as a painter to support himself. He would love to return to Germany, but only by legal means. "I’m exhausted," says Dieng, "I don’t want to try that journey again on foot."
A sensitive subject
This year, during the interviews at the beginning of March in Munich, 98 people were identified as Senegalese nationals, according to a statement from the Bavarian authorities.
This first step in the identification process will now be confirmed in Senegal. As soon as the Senegalese delegation returned to Senegal, they filed all the information they had gathered explained an official at the Senegalese embassy in Berlin, who didn’t wish to be drawn further on the subject.
"It is a very sensitive subject," said a source at the embassy. "This has created a lot of noise in Senegal. The local press has been writing about us sending a delegation to Germany to help expel Senegalese people. We received a lot of appeals." According to the same source, the operation is creating a negative image back home where it is being interpreted as an affront to the Senegalese diaspora.
In Germany, the Senegalese diaspora is represented by Ibrahima Tambedou, the President of FONSA (Solidarity Fund for the Senegalse Diaspora in Germany –Le Fonds de Solidarité de la Diaspora Sénégalaise de l’Allemagne.) Tambedou thinks that "the Senegalese state is trying to protect its 'children' in a diplomatic way."
"It is a desperate attempt to get rid of people."
He understands though, that the procedure might worry some people. "The police came to round people up in their homes when they didn’t turn up to an interview," explains Ibrahima Tambedou.
"But you have to understand they didn’t just receive a simple invitation, they were called to an official appointment, with documents of 12-13 pages. You have to understand that the majority of them don’t understand German, which is a very difficult language. They are often lacking important information. I think it is important that people should understand they shouldn’t fear these interviews. One young man in Munich was so scared that he tried to jump from the first floor of his accommodation. Luckily he just suffered a simple sprain."
Out of the 274 people called to attend in Munich, only 171 actually turned up. Astrid Schreiber, a pro-migrant activist in Bavaria and the co-founder of an organization called Sama Chance, which helps undocumented Senegalese migrants in Germany, says she has received many messages from migrants asking her for advice after they have received a call to attend an interview. Schreiber confirms that the invitations are made up of about 15 pages of very administrative German, which can be difficult to understand at the best of times, let alone if you have little or no command of the language.
Since these kinds of interviews have been going on for a number of years, most migrants who receive a call to interview know they won’t be directly expelled, explains Schreiber. "But they are often threatened with prison, with fines of €3,000, or with a reduction of their welfare payments and other financial aid, if they don’t turn up. That is when some decide it is better to pack up and go, in order to avoid prison, instead of trying to stay and claim their welfare each month."
Schreiber says that many then leave for France, Belgium, Italy or Portugal, or elsewhere in Europe. Some of them then hope to return to Germany later, without declaring their presence to the authorities.
Several sources, including a representative at the Bavarian Refugee Council confirm that many migrants faced with these interviews end up departing in a hurry.
"It is a pointless game of ping pong between European states," believes Astrid Schreiber. She calls the identification interviews, "a way to pressure people," and a "desperate attempt at getting rid of people.2
Translated by Emma Wallis from the French original by Marco Wolter