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'The state has failed'

Richard Fuchs / dbOctober 7, 2015

1,800 people jostle for space at Berlin's refugee registration center, which has found a makeshift home in the courtyard of a government agency. Fights and quarrels erupt daily. It's a disaster, volunteers say.

male refugees, aggressive stance
Image: DW/R. Fuchs

A collective murmur, followed by shouts, a scuffle: within seconds, the throng of about 600 people separates. The mood in the wide dusty square of a Berlin courtyard is tense. The air is filled with snippets of sentences in many different languages. An angry refugee starts to beat up a fellow asylum-seeker, TV cameras are rolling - but there's not a single police officer in sight. Just a few minutes later, an ambulance takes the badly injured man to a hospital. Only then do 30 police officers show up.

"Unfortunately, this has become sadly commonplace," Michael Ruscheinsky tells a group of shocked reporters. The volunteer for the "Moabit hilft" organization is tasked with making sure there is enough space for paramedics at the city's central registration spot for refugees, set up outside of the Berlin State department for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo).

Michael Ruscheinsky
Michael Ruscheinsky urges the state to do moreImage: DW/R. Fuchs

Anything can spark a fight

Ruscheinsky is helping out a 54-strong security team that can barely keep the waiting refugees from scaling the barricades. "Just after 6 am this morning, we registered five injured already, because people are afraid not to get their turn, afraid they won't get their registration number," Ruscheinsky says. Up front, right behind the barricades, many people are especially tense, he adds.

The situation is restive, with security staff yelling, and a group of teenagers from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan shouting back at them at the top of their lungs. People push from behind; the situation is on the brink of escalating.

This is anything but a peaceful situation, Ruscheinsky says, adding that the mood changed a few days ago, and now any little incident is enough to spark a quarrel. The people are frustrated, disillusioned, and they are emotionally scarred because they've been pushed around for weeks, the volunteer explains. One of them just has to feels unjustly treated - that can be the straw that breaks the camel's back, he says.

Deutschland Registrierung von Flüchtlingen
Refugees waiting for registration in Berlin, tense and tiredImage: DW/R. Fuchs

The authorities set up barricades to help channel the registration process, the idea was organizing different lines for different procedures. Instead, about 600 refugees huddle close together, in their midst 150 volunteers who speak the refugees' various languages, and who try to keep the situation calm and under control.

But they can't change the fact that registration is a painfully slow process. The administrators can't manage more than about 100 refugees per day, while every day, hundreds of new asylum-seekers show up. There are no official figures, but on any give weekday, an estimated 1,800 people mill around the square.

Just a few weeks ago, we were full of good cheer, says an exasperated female volunteer who doesn't want to be named. "But now, many of us believe we just can't do it."

Left behind

Enayatuila Sediqi hopes for a new life in Germany. Despite the unnerving wait, the 26-year-old Afghan smiles - only to frown again as he recalls his long journey to Berlin. The Taliban slapped him with a four-year work ban because they were annoyed at the agricultural economist from the town of Lugar for collaborating with the Afghan government. Enayatuila Sediqi fled, leaving his family behind. "Afghanistan is too far, the women and children can't come because of the long walk," he says. "I walked five days in Iran, in the mountains without eating and drinking."

Enayatuila Sediqi
Enayatuila Sediqi has big hopesImage: DW/R. Fuchs

Though he arrived in Berlin four days ago, he is still waiting to be registered. But Enayatuila Sediqi worked as an English teacher, so he gets by with his language skills, he says. He confidently gives the reporter his mobile number: this way, Angela Merkel could give him a call if the Germans needed more interpreters, he grins.

Volunteers make up the bulk of helpers; doctors have set up shop at the MediPoint to guarantee basic health care. Many local residents mingle with the asylum-seekers in the square, offering their help with the German bureaucracy.

A woman in her mid-40s patiently stands in the 30-meter long line, clutching three light brown folders. Lebanese-born Ihsan Wahbi, who has lived in Germany for 32 years, makes sure people too weak to help themselves get registered, too.

The volunteer represents a lawyer who offers the refugees legal aid. Today, Ihsan Wahbi is in line on behalf of a single mother from Yemen. The woman crossed the Mediterranean with her four small children and a baby. "That's why I am here," says Ihsan Wahbi, who has no idea whether she will be able to present her case because after all, about 300 refugees are in line with her. "Inside, maybe three or four employees handle registration - it's hardly a secret that this is not enough."

State of emergency?

The situation is expected to worsen over the next few days, according to Michael Ruscheinsky: as a rainy fall season approaches, pressure on the authorities is bound to rise. The number of volunteers is dwindling, as is people's willingness to donate. "The only thing that's on the rise is the number of refugees," the volunteer says.

Ihsan Wahbi
Invaluable help: Ihsan Wahbi stands in line for a mother of fiveImage: DW/R. Fuchs

Michael Ruscheinsky urges the Berlin Senate to call a state of emergency, just like Munich did. In that case, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) and the disaster control agency could set up a comprehensive, professional aid structure - paid for by the federal government. "This is an emergency situation and it's about time it got treated like one," Ruscheinsky argues.

"Housing the refugees is not a case of emergency, so we will not call a state of emergency," the Berlin Senate department for Social Affairs and Health told DW, adding that the situation can be mastered without resorting to emergency plans.

That's a cynical point of view, says Michael Ruscheinsky, in particular in view of the fact that the next brawl among refugees is likely to await him the very next morning in the courtyard.

"The state," he says, "has failed completely."