My Bogus Marriage To A Refugee Friend

Germany is tracking the growing number of so-called "protective" marriages, arranged among friends to avoid an immigrant being sent back to poverty and peril in their home country.

The shoes are real
The shoes are real
Simon Hurtz

MUNICH — "When was the first time you had sexual intercourse?"

When the functionary at the immigration office noticed Tom's hesitation, he followed up with, "Was it protected sex?" Acting as if he was trying to remember, Tom was actually trying to figure out what Sina, who was being asked the same questions in another room, would say. He knew that the longer the silence, the more mistrustful the functionary would become. "At my place," Tom replied. "And we used a condom."

It was the right answer. Or at any rate, it was the same one Sina gave. That was lucky, since it was utter fiction that they had ever had sex. But they got married anyway.

"We didn't marry for love," Sina explains. And Tom adds, "But I think our motive was just as important and honorable."

In her home country, Sina is socially ostracized and had to prostitute herself to survive. But to obtain asylum in Germany, immigrants must prove that they were persecuted for political reasons, so without this marriage she would have been deported.

The two thirty-somethings are sitting at the kitchen table in their apartment. At least, it's the apartment they are both registered as living in, but in fact Tom occupies it alone. Sina's toothbrush in the bathroom, her bed linens are in the bedroom, her shoes are by the front door, but those are just a few of many stage props.

The whole marriage is a sham. Registrars and employees of the immigration office often speak of "bogus marriages," which makes Tom angry. "Many supposedly genuine marriages are more bogus than ours," he says. "In Germany people marry for a lot of reasons, love being just one of them."

Tom prefers to characterize his union with Sina a "protective marriage" that "prevented Sina from being deported and saved her from an uncertain fate in her home country."

The risks

Germans who marry immigrants just to give them the right to stay in Germany can be sent to prison for up to three years, although fines are more typical. But the consequences for the foreign partner are heavier. If a judge decides that the couple isn't in a "marital life partnership," then the protection offered by the German constitution becomes invalid and deportation proceedings are started.

"But at the end of the day, the risk wasn't that big," Sina says as she sets three cups on the table. "Even if we'd been found out, with a good lawyer Tom wouldn't have been convicted. And I didn't have much to lose. My family had cast me out, so on my own I don't stand much of a chance."

Although Sina doesn't live with Tom, she moves around his apartment as if she were at home. She knows how the coffee maker works and where the sugar is. "After our marriage, we lived in permanent fear that people from the immigration office would drop by to check on us," she says. "If I'd had to ask Tom how to use the espresso machine in front of them, it would have been as good as turning ourselves in."

But the worry is a legitimate one. The authorities often mistrust binational marriages. "I would call it a general suspicion," says Hiltrud Stöcker-Zafari, federal managing director of the Association of Binational Families and Partnerships. Registrars can't issue a marriage certificate if there are any indications that the marriage is bogus.

"The authorities have certain criteria that determine when they will be particularly vigilant," Stöcker-Zafari says. "When there's a big difference in age, or the couple appears to be in a hurry to marry, case handlers are required to include the possibility of a protective marriage." To do that, registrars can question the couple separately themselves or involve the immigration office.

How many?

Just how many so-called bogus marriages there are in Germany is obviously unclear. The federal police and federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) say they're not responsible for the issue, and local immigration officials don't have national figures. According to police crime statistics, 322 people obtained visas because of sham marriages in 2013, and 329 obtained residence permits or the right to settle in Germany. But for these 650 or so cases known to the police, there is an impossible-to-estimate number of unknown ones.

Some binational couples have problems when they show up at the registrar's office. "That wasn't our case," Sina says. "The registrar was very cordial, and there wasn't a trace of suspicion in her manner. But I think she herself came from an immigrant background, and she clearly had no desire to poke around in our private life."

But perhaps Sina and Tom were just exceptionally well-prepared, and their confidence squelched any possible doubts. Everything went very smoothly at the wedding. "We just had a small group to celebrate," Tom says. "All the guests were in the know, my parents too. But we still had to put on a performance for the registrar, which is why we bought rings together and picked out a dress. The kiss and saying "yes' felt a little strange, but I think we did a pretty good acting job."

Watching the two of them leave Tom's apartment together or wandering through a Christmas market hand in hand, they don't look newly in love, but they do look intimate.

Keeping up appearances

The joint appearances in public are still necessary. Employees from the immigration office have come to their door several times since the wedding, Tom says. "The first time they showed up, I was home alone and I got rid of them. I didn't have to open my door to them. They didn't have a search warrant. Later, friends told me that they tend to leave you alone if you take a sort of "Come in, come in and look around!" attitude. The next time they showed up, Sina was here and we gave them a tour of the place."

Photo: Neate photos

Although Sina's makeup is in the bathroom, a book on her bedside table — "I've never even opened it. It's been there for months" — and although she has her own clothes closet, the authorities remained skeptical. To banish any remaining doubts, they wanted to conduct separate interviews with the couple. "That made us nervous," Tom admits. "We'd staged everything perfectly, and had a lot of practice playing a married couple, but we nevertheless were going to be questioned. What did we do wrong?"

Presumably nothing. It wasn't their behavior that made Sina and Tom a source of suspicion. It was the circumstances surrounding their marriage. As a student, Tom had been involved in anti-racism activism and had often demonstrated for the rights of refugees. "When I moved to another state, I wanted to do more than participate in sit-ins a couple of times a year to postpone somebody's deportation," he says. "I can't change German asylum law on my own, but I can change the life of a refugee."

Tom met Sina, whose asylum application was in the process of being examined, through friends. The chances of its being accepted looked bleak, and without Tom's help she presumably only had a few more weeks left in Germany. The quick marriage prevented deportation, and quick marriages make the authorities fundamentally suspicious.

Because there are no hard criteria defining a sham marriage, the authorities investigated the couple's environment, which may have lead to the separate interviews. "We had managed to get hold of the lists the authorities use to prepare themselves for these interviews," Tom says. "You can get these questionnaires from people in the leftist scene or via the Internet. We worked through them together, the way you would drill for your driving license test."

After that, Sina knew that Tom liked wet shaves, and they agreed on who supposedly slept on which side of the bed. The only question that took them by surprise was about the first time they had sex, but Sina and Tom are apparently good actors. "It was a vile situation," Sina says. "If I'd said something different from Tom, I would have been on the plane within a couple of weeks. But somebody or something apparently wanted me to stay in Germany."

Since then, Sina and Tom haven't heard from the authorities. They still make sure that Tom's apartment looks like it's occupied by a couple, but the permanent tension they were under has let up. Sina lives in an apartment-sharing community, and visits Tom only occasionally. If a "normal" married couple lived that way, people would be predicting imminent divorce. But the opposite is true in their case. "I am so happy I met Sina," Tom says. "We've become really good friends."

Will this protective marriage turn out to be a love match? "Oh God, no!" Sina says. "That would make everything much too complicated. We know of one couple that happened to — and it didn't end well. They fell in love, then separated after a year and realized how uneven the power balance is in such relationships."

The foreign partner is only granted a permanent residence permit in Germany after three years of marriage. If the German partner asks for a divorce, the foreign partner is deported.

"In this case, the two of them stuck together and only started divorce proceedings after they got the permanent permit," noted Sina. "But their case frightened us, and we promised each other ‘friendship yes, love no.‘“

Even more effective than the promise is the fact that Tom has since found himself a German girlfriend. “That makes things easier,“ he says. For despite their harmonious relationship, Sina and Tom still intend to get divorced. “That of course means more annoying paperwork,“ Tom says. “But one of us might want to get married for real at a later date. Before I was actually pretty sure I didn’t want marriage but I saw when Sina and I married how great it can be to have all your friends gathered for a festive occasion. I think I might like to experience getting married again — and Sina will be a witness.”

Names, ages and origins were changed in this story.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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