Senior UNICEF official calls for an end to the war in Syria as Europe remains divided on how to share refugees.
Berlin, Germany – Just before 9am, hundreds of refugees have made their way towards the Senate Department for Health and Social Affairs office, known as LaGeSo, to register upon arrival in Germany.
But the authorities are struggling to organise so many people coming into the country fleeing war and persecution in places such as Iraq and Syria.
Some new arrivals pull themselves up off the cold sidewalk after sleeping outside all night, collect their meagre belongings, and head to the office. Others come in from refugee centres by train or bus.
According to LaGeSo, nearly 30,000 people have arrived in recent months. Accurate figures, however, are difficult to determine because many are not yet registered.
A single screen displays call numbers outside the LaGeSo building. When new numbers appear, those with matching tickets hustle through the crowd to obtain their registration paperwork. The process has been slow, and many refugees have waited weeks to receive documentation.
Abdullah, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee from Latakia, has been in Germany for two months. Like other Syrians quoted in this story, he requested his surname be withheld to protect family members back home.
Having already received his registration papers, Abdullah was summoned to the office to receive a monetary stipend as he works through the asylum process. Yet he and his friend Muhammad were denied entry by private security guards.
‘Go back to Syria’
“They told us to go home, they [were] Egyptian and they were cursing at us that we should go home and fight. We’re supposed to be able to go straight in and not have to wait in line,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera, pointing out there are not separate lines for those already registered and those who are not.
Monika Hebbinghaus, a spokeswoman for LaGeSo, said German authorities are overwhelmed by the heavy workload that includes a multiple-stage registration process.
“By mid-October we are planning to open a second registration site at a former federal bank, which will only be for first-time arrivals,” she told Al Jazeera, adding the move was implemented to “help lessen the pressure on the LaGeSo office”.
Hebbinghaus explained when refugees come in on trains from neighbouring countries they are often placed in various refugee centres and each day are bussed together to smaller registration facilities.
But many of those standing outside the LaGeSo office were refugees who came into Germany through means other than government-coordinated trains, and who may be at different stages in the process.
Wasim, a 30-year-old teacher from the southern Syrian city of Deraa, recalled encountering the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group on his way out of the country. The fighters detained and interrogated him overnight – asking him questions about his family – before eventually allowing him to continue his journey to Turkey.
From Turkey, Wasim risked the perilous journey by boat to Greece. Once in Europe, he took buses and walked many parts of the journey across Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Austria before eventually arriving in Germany.
Every day for the last three weeks, he has come to LaGeSo with the hopes of his number being called. “It is almost better to go back to Syria,” he said.
Moussa, 29, has made the trek to the LaGeSo office each day for the last two weeks, despite having a broken foot from a car accident.
“If I wasn’t injured, it would be easier to wait, but people keep hitting my foot,” he said as the Iraqi refugee waited outside with crutches under his arms.
Another Syrian refugee, Samir, 47, who was a lawyer back in Deir az Zor, recalled putting his wife and children on a bus to Damascus before he took off. He hopes to bring his family to Germany once he obtains asylum, but said he’s worried it could take almost a year.
He’s grateful to Germany for opening its doors, Samir said, but frustrated it has taken so long to get settled.
The government-sponsored refugee camps are equally chaotic. In the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin, more than 800 people, including 200 children, are being hosted in an ageing, 1930s government building that had long been empty before their arrival.
Local authorities have outsourced the administration of the camp to Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, a non-profit organisation. Covering the costs of the facility itself, the services the group provides for refugees – clothing, food, sanitary provisions, childcare, and German language courses – are only made possible because of nearly 3,000 volunteers.
While some problems, such as clashes over sectarian divides, have occurred in some refugee centres, ASB’s Patricia Ehred said their facility has been calm. “We have a house where people can go out and come in [without] feeling like they are in a prison,” she told Al Jazeera.
But that does not mean meeting the daily needs of their residents has been easy. While the building is equipped with toilets and sinks, it does not have showers. Residents have to use portable shower units provided by volunteers.
Although appreciative, Dia, an 18-year-old Damascus native, said he is frustrated that he still has not received identification papers. “The police took my passport and made me sign a piece of paper that says they own my passport unless I decide to refuse asylum.”
1.5 million refugees?
Speaking to Al Jazeera, the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees explained it is filling 1,000 new jobs to help process all the new applications. In 2014, asylum seekers on average waited seven months before receiving an answer.
The German government expects an estimated one million refugees to enter the country before the end of the year, however, it could receive up to 1.5 million asylum-seekers by the end of 2015, according to a newspaper quoting a confidential document with estimates far higher than official figures.
Discouraged by having to endure a lengthy wait after their dangerous trips, many refugees said they may continue on to Scandinavian countries if they are unable to be registered soon.