An Open Letter to the Editors of The Atlantic

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Program Director Hannah Winnick

To the Editors of The Atlantic,

As program director at the German political foundation the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I have spent the past two years working with refugees and city officials across Germany and the US on the issue of refugee integration. Graeme Wood’s article, “The Refugee Detective” (April 2018), shows a lack of understanding of Germany and the local migration context and fails the most basic standards of ethical reporting on migration. I hope you will publish excerpts of this response to offer your readers a more balanced assessment of the situation in Germany.

There is a nuanced debate on the question of refugees and integration issues happening in Germany, which Wood’s reporting misses completely. Let me outline a few of the most troubling aspects.

  1. Wood cites, and the pull quotes highlight, the “worrisome facts” that, “Two years after the peak of the influx, more than 80 percent of refugees were jobless,” concluding that, “Successful integration is not assured.” This comment shows a striking lack of understanding of German integration policy. Unlike the US, Germany places a stronger emphasis on language learning and job training than on immediate entry into the workforce. Anyone who receives refugee status is required to take integration courses that can take anywhere between one and one-and-a-half years. Most refugees would then continue for several more months into a second phase of optional courses that offer higher-level language training or language training for specific job sectors. Asylum seekers are also not permitted to work while living in the refugee centers where they are first assigned. These stays are not supposed to extend past six months but in fact often take much longer. Because of the highly regulated nature of the German job market, the vast majority of refugees will also require several months or years to have foreign qualifications recognized or to complete additional job training. Contrary to the article’s suggestion, the fact that 80 percent of refugees are unemployed after two or even three years says more about German labor and integration policy than about the promise of integration.
  2. Wood’s writing suggests that this is the first time that small German towns like Bamberg have experienced migration. A more careful editorial review would have revealed that this is factually incorrect and demonstrates a lack of familiarity with Germany. Even before 2015, one out of five Germans had a “migration background,” meaning that they or one of their parents was not born with German citizenship. This is also true in Bamberg, which Wood portrays as the epitome of pure German culture and “comically Teutonic.” In fact, Bamberg has been home to migrants for decades. Troubled by this article, I spoke with the president of Bamberg’s Migration & Integration Advisory Council, a branch of the city council that exists in most Germany towns and that consists of elected immigrant residents. In Bamberg, the council dates back to 1994. Its president assured me that even before 2015, nearly 20% of the city’s residents were either foreign-born or had a migration background. While Wood may have been astonished to find “a Syrian shop—with a sign in Arabic and a selection of Middle Eastern foods—opened next to [his] two favorite breweries,” Bamberg’s residents are familiar with diversity. A more accurate portrayal of the highly diverse populations that have characterized even small German towns for decades might lead readers to question the sympathy with which the author describes right-wing fears of Muslim immigrants “bum-rush[ing]” Germany and accelerating the “erosion of German culture.”
  3. Wood employs the imagery of natural catastrophes to describe migration – a tired and irresponsible metaphor that has been specifically criticized in public and political debates in Germany. Portraying migration in terms of natural disasters is a time-honored tradition of anti-immigrant movements that dehumanizes the individual and inspires fear in receiving communities. Yet Wood repeatedly describes migrants coming to Europe as a “tsunami,” seemingly unaware of the political minefield he has entered. A tsunami must be stopped before it floods the homeland; the idea of building a wall closely follows. As Germany’s justice minister said in 2015: “People in need are not a natural catastrophe. We should have a thoughtful #refugeedebate and not pour oil onto the fire.” These are important ethical consideration to which the editorial team at The Atlantic should be attuned.
  4. The article fails to offer the American reader any insight into the incompetency that has plagued the BAMF for the past three years, and which would make any educated German reader highly skeptical of the quality of the “detective” efforts he describes. German newspapers have reported in depth on the lack of training for BAMF employees when the organization ballooned from 2,000 to 8,000 employees. In fact, the agency was so inept at responding to the influx of new asylum applications, that it hired McKinsey to take over internal management and improve processes. As a result of sloppy processes and faulty decision-making, thousands of asylum seekers have successfully challenged BAMF’s decisions.
  5. Most of all, 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. Wood’s own troubling bias on this issue is evident from his opening anecdote, in which he assumes that the CVs of the refugees he would like to hire to clean his house are “shot through with lies.” Oddly, Wood does not describe conducting any research to prove this claim. I myself have spoken to dozens of refugees, and their stories are indeed messy and complex. Nuance and accuracy are often lost in the multiple translations between countries and agencies. This is not necessarily the fault of the refugees, nor does it prove intentional deception. However, Wood blithely ascribes any presumed inaccuracies in the refugees’ CVs to their dishonesty. He places himself in the position of judge, not reporter, and this leads him to frame the entire article in terms of snooping out “the good” refugee amid the “liars.”

It is one thing to publish an article critical of Germany’s asylum policies. It is another to publish an article that simply accepts the right-wing framing of the immigration debate, shows deep gaps in local knowledge and fails to provide context where context is needed. At a time when political parties are shoring up anti-immigrant sentiment among voters across Europe and the US, Wood’s piece is irresponsible journalism and should not have been published by The Atlantic.


Hannah Winnick
Director, Transatlantic Dialogue on Democracy & Social Policy
Heinrich Böll Foundation North America