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Civil Society

Asylum seekers as informants?

For decades, a small government office questioned asylum seekers for foreign intelligence information. The bureau will be closed in June, but that doesn't mean the questioning of asylum seekers will end.

This summer a chapter of German intelligence history will close. It involves the "Office for Questioning" (HBW), which has existed with very little public knowledge for more than 50 years as a part of Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND. After the public learned last year that the agency had been secretly and systematically tapping asylum seekers for information, the German government announced that it would close the HBW down.

'New signs on the doors'

For the moment, 40 people work at the HBW, according to figures provided by the federal government during a parliamentary inquiry convened by the opposition Left Party in April. The government told DW the HBW will be shut on 30 June, but some politicians are not convinced that closing the office will mean asylum seekers are no longer questioned by Germany's spy agency.

A white sign reads: Hauptstelle für Befragungswesen
Photo: imago/Stefan Zeitz

The innocuous-looking sign of the HBW

"Instead of scrutinizing and changing the practices at the bureau, there are crude diversion tactics taking place," said the deputy leader of the Left Party, Jan Korte, in response to a DW inquiry. "The BND will just put new signs on the doors, and people in distress will continue to be exploited."

That's because the questioning sessions will not end when the HBW office is phased out. The BND will still be able to siphon information from asylum seekers in the future, a fact provided by the German government to the Left Party, which the opposition party then passed it along to the dpa news agency.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) will continue to transmit information on asylum procedures to both the BND as well as its domestic intelligence counterpart, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Fast-track for information

Victor Pfaff, an expert in immigration law and the founder of the asylum rights group PRO ASYL, said he doesn't have a problem with the questioning as long as it is done transparently. What is problematic, he said, is "if the asylum applicant is left with the belief that it's exclusively a question of whether he or she should be recognized as a refugee, and is therefore prompted to give open and truthful statements."

If the asylum interview is used to glean foreign intelligence information, however, it would represent an abuse of the process, he added.

"The asylum applicant must be able to rely on the fact that what he's saying will not be shared, and will be used exclusively for verification of his asylum application," Pfaff said.

Controversial sharing mechanism

Information provided by asylum seekers has also been shared with intelligence allies in other countries. In November 2013, the BND foreign intelligence agency confirmed to DW that it had made the data collected from the "Office for Questioning" available to its international partners.

That policy is to be continued even after the closure of the HBW. "The general exchanges of knowledge with foreign intelligence services" will not be prohibited, according to the government's reply to questions posed by the Left Party.

A predator drone in the sky
Photo:JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Germany is also grappling with attack drones being controlled from US bases in Germany

The disclosure of such specific applicant information is controversial, since it could involve Germany in the US' targeted killings in foreign countries if information provided by the BND were used in American targeting decisions.

There is also disagreement as to which data may be transmitted. In the federal government's view, for example, mobile phone data is too inexact to lead to "concrete targeting." IT security experts disagree: It's technically feasible, they say, to locate the position of a cell phone from anywhere in the world at any time.

According to reports in the daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" and the domestic public broadcaster NDR, the United States has used information from asylum seekers in Germany for drone attacks. Data such as phone numbers, for example, can help track down suspected terrorists to be arrested or killed.

Transfer ban

The federal government refers to the so-called "transfer ban" in such cases. This internal HBW office regulation deals with the dissemination of findings to international partners: "The information exchanged may not be utilized as a basis or justification for … a condemnation of death," it states.

While the federal government said it assumes that "information has flowed from the interrogations into the general, situational overviews of foreign intelligence services," there is no way to know exactly how the data is being used by allied intelligence services.

"The questionable siphoning of information from people seeking help must be stopped immediately," said Jan Korte of the Left Party, "Especially considering that the German government cannot rule out that the information obtained wasn't used for drone operations that infringe upon international law."

In the near term, the interrogation of asylum seekers will not come to an end, but how it will be done is unclear. Citing security concerns, the BND would not comment on whether or how its intelligence operatives might question asylum seekers in the future.

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