Fears over German plan for centralised database of migrants

Register would include details of people's asylum applications

22 April 2021, Lower Saxony, Hanover: Refugees from Greece arrive at Hanover airport. A good year after the start of the action to take in people in need of protection from Greek refugee camps, a plane carrying migrants has landed in Germany for the last time for the time being. A total of almost 3,000 people were taken from deplorable conditions in the camps on the Greek islands. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa (Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)
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Activists in Germany are raising the alarm over plans for a centralised register of migrants which they say will “open the door to abuse”.

Critics say the database backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel would allow officials to snoop on people’s political views and religious beliefs, thanks to information gathered during asylum applications.

It is also feared that sensitive details could find their way back to a migrant’s home country and put them or their relatives in danger.

The government says the database is meant to help migrants by reducing bureaucracy and combining local and regional data into one handy register.

But PRO ASYL, a pro-immigration advocacy organisation, warned that it would hugely increase the amount of personal data available to government officials.

“This is a highly dangerous development, which opens the door to abuse,” said Andrea Kothen, a spokeswoman for PRO ASYL.

“If too many people have uncontrolled access to data, the danger arises that people’s countries of origin will get hold of this information.”

Privacy and data protection are highly sensitive matters in Germany because of the surveillance carried out under the Nazis and the Communist dictatorship in East Germany.

“In view of Germany’s history, maintaining a database like this about non-German citizens is a worrying prospect,” PRO ASYL said.

The so-called Central Register of Foreigners already exists in a limited format, but most information on migrants is held by local authorities.

Under the new proposal, much of this data would be sent straight to the central database, which would also include details of asylum applications.

Fears of persecution in a migrant's home country

The German Caritas Association warned that asylum documents often contain sensitive information about a people’s political views and the persecution that led them to flee their home country.

“There is the danger that information will be sent or obtained abroad without the person’s knowledge,” Caritas said.

“Depending on the country of origin, the exchange of information could put the affected person and their relatives still living there in danger.”

Activists say the database can already be accessed by about 150,000 government officials, including in job centres and police departments.

In one case highlighted by data protection experts, an Egyptian asylum seeker was allegedly sent a menacing message by a government worker who had called up his details on the database.

It led the Egyptian man to move out of his flat, fearing that his persecutors in Egypt were on to him.

"According to the government, data protection doesn't seem to exist for people without a German passport," said a refugee council in the state of Saxony-Anhalt.

The government rejects these fears and says the current system needs to be overhauled because it drags migrants through a labyrinth of local, regional and national authorities.

“The lack of alignment between these various data systems leads to delays in the handling of their affairs, and the requirement to submit the same data multiple times,” the government’s proposal says.

Heinrich Ringkamp of the Federal Office of Administration, which oversees the register, said the digital system would prevent migrants from having to send their files and documents through the post.

The register would become a trailblazer in the world of digital public administration, he said.