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.
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."
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.
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."
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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.