BERLIN — It was October 2015. With winter approaching and no end in sight to the flow of migrants seeking refuge from the Syrian civil war, Germany needed a solution — fast.
Processing centers for refugees had exceeded capacity. Asylum claims were backlogged. Temporary tent cities would not survive the punishing winter months.
So Germany did what governments increasingly do when facing apparently unmanageable problems. It called in multinational management consulting firms, including New York-based giant McKinsey & Co., to streamline its asylum procedures.
Germany has paid McKinsey 29.3 million euros, the equivalent of nearly $34 million, for work with the federal migration office that began in October 2015 and continues to this day. The office also brought in two Europe-based firms, Roland Berger and Ernst & Young.
Among McKinsey’s projects has been the development of fast-track arrival centers with the capacity to process claims within days. The company’s work on migration issues also has taken its consultants to Greece and Sweden. This year, McKinsey submitted a bid for a project with the United Nations.
Experts in international law said the German case illustrates risks associated with McKinsey’s input. Today, asylum decisions handed down by the federal migration office come faster but are leaving an increasing number of migrants with fewer rights, above all the right to family reunification, triggering hundreds of thousands of appeals that have created a new backlog — not in asylum centers, but in German courts.
“We’re not used to seeing business consultants brought into the process,” said Minos Mouzourakis of the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “McKinsey and others developed a system for more efficient management of asylum cases to make sure that the backlog of cases could be cleared. This led to a substantial number of decisions being taken, but with a significant drop in quality.”
Legal experts said the shift to limited protection, which accompanied the introduction of fast-track asylum centers and expedited denial for certain classes of migrants, is inseparable from the overall drive toward administrative efficiency and control of the movement of migrants — goals championed by the firm.
“This is a very sensitive area of law where you can’t just streamline things, and I’m not sure that McKinsey’s approach is one that systematically takes human rights concerns into account,” said Nora Markard, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Hamburg and director of its refugee law clinic.
Markard observed that more efficient procedures were introduced at the same time that the federal migration office began granting only subsidiary protection — a status that recognizes an asylum seeker may suffer serious harm in his or her country of origin but doesn’t qualify as a refugee — to an increasing number of migrants from Syria, thereby allowing them only a one-year residence permit instead of the three allowed refugees, and denying them the right to family reunification.
“It’s not coincidental that these changes happened at the same time,” Markard said. “The government had to deal with a very large number of arrivals very quickly, which meant that part of increasing efficiency was limiting entry in any way they could.”
Government officials interviewed were adamant that McKinsey’s work has not involved specifying what sort of sanctuary should be granted. “Absolutely not,” said Andrea Brinkmann, a spokeswoman for the German migration office, when asked whether McKinsey weighed in on the use of subsidiary protection.
With 14,000 employees and offices around the world, McKinsey has advised corporations on everything from aerospace to paper products, and public-sector institutions ranging from schools to the CIA.
A 2016 report, “People on the move: Global migration’s impact and opportunity,” outlines how more efficient integration procedures might boost national economies as well as benefit migrants. Produced by the McKinsey Global Institute, the report applies “the analytical tools of economics with the insights of business leaders” to the international refugee crisis.
One of its authors, Khaled Rifai, a partner in New York, said the company sees the use of “temporary status,” a common shorthand for subsidiary protection, as effective in quickly integrating new arrivals into jobs and housing, but he did not address the denial of the right to family reunification.
“In general, we can say that issuing temporary status that allows people to have access to labor markets, to housing, to health is actually beneficial from an economic perspective in the short term in most cases, and is also beneficial from a social outcome perspective in the long term,” he said.
An economist by training, Rifai said he was “not a humanitarian law specialist steeped in the Geneva Conventions.” He said his interest was personal; he is half-German, half-Syrian.
McKinsey spokesman Kai Peter Rath said he couldn’t confirm the specifics of refugee-related projects.
“I don’t want to call it secret,” he said. “Our policy is if the client wants to talk about it, it’s the decision of the client.”
Public records and interviews with government officials, however, show that McKinsey’s influence on refugee policy spans Europe — a role not widely publicized and surprising to some legal experts.
“It’s the first I’ve heard that McKinsey was involved,” said James C. Hathaway, a professor of refugee law at the University of Michigan.
Some of McKinsey’s earliest work on this issue was with the Swedish Migration Agency in 2008 and 2009, to install “lean management” practices, said Veronika Lindstrand Kant, the agency’s deputy director of operations. Slashing processing times worked until 2015, when the new wave of asylum seekers expanded the caseload. Migrants are again waiting about 500 days for a decision, Lindstrand Kant said. McKinsey was paid more than $2 million.
In late 2016 and early 2017, the company worked to reduce the backlog of asylum claims in Greece, first with the European Commission, spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said, and then through a project funded by the European Asylum Support Office. It was paid about $1 million for the final project, said Jean-Pierre Schembri, a spokesman for the Malta-based organization.
The company is seeking to expand its reach. This spring, it submitted a bid to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for a project on refugee resettlement. In an email, a project manager in McKinsey’s Germany office asked an American legal expert to sign on to its proposal. The McKinsey bid was ultimately not accepted, a UNHCR spokeswoman said.
The expert, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to circulate the request, declined to join the project. She said she was not convinced the company had assembled a team of sufficiently high caliber to tackle resettlement.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.