BERLIN — Bracing for at least 800,000 asylum seekers this year — more than any other nation in Europe — Germany is rolling out one of the region’s largest emergency responses since World War II. Yet as it scrambles to shelter the refugees in tent cities, at sports centers and even on the grounds of a former Nazi labor camp, a nation known for its efficiency is struggling to absorb them.
Outside the main refugee processing center in Berlin, for instance, asylum seekers are caught in a bureaucratic hell. Dozens are camping out on cold sidewalks — some for weeks — as they wait for their numbers to flash on a screen inside to secure temporary housing. But each day, it’s a crapshoot. At closing time on a recent afternoon, hundreds of asylum seekers were left empty-handed, including Ahmed Hamadich, 27, who walked toward his blanket for another night outdoors.
Said Hamadich, a Syrian who said he has spent 22 days at the imposing brick center, waiting for his number — U64 — to be called: “We sleep on the street, waiting and waiting, and it’s cold. We wake up in the morning and start the same punishment again.”
Already, 527,000 asylum seekers have made it to Germany this year, almost a quarter of them in the past month, sparking a massive emergency effort to house and aid them. The price tag could ultimately top $11 billion. And officials here say Germany is rising to the challenge, in part with the aid of a national army of volunteers.
But like the U.S. government after Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, Germany also is finding that the scope of the crisis is sometimes overwhelming its capacity to respond. Often, it’s the little things — or the lack of them — that matter.
A 10-minute bus ride away from the processing center here, a pop-up shelter on the grounds of a city sports center is providing asylum seekers with beds and warm food — even Zumba classes and soothing piano concerts. But there is no bus available to take the refugees back to the processing center each morning. So many are instead sheltering from the cold in blankets and sleeping bags outside the center at night.
“I read about how industrious and successful the Germans are,” said Hamadich, who worked as a lab technician in Damascus. “But this,” he said, using both hands to indicate the refugees bundling up for another night on the sidewalk, “is not working.”
Germany is trying to distribute refugees to its states, cities and towns based largely on population and tax revenue. The city of Berlin, for instance, is set to receive more than 5 percent of all those coming and is attempting to manage the arrival of more than 9,000 asylum seekers in just the past three weeks. Shelters are so full that some of the refugees are receiving vouchers for private hostels.
But volunteer aid workers say the city is so behind on payments that many hostels are no longer accepting the vouchers. A city spokeswoman said that she could neither confirm nor deny the problem but that the city is trying to make good on its payments as soon as possible.
The national and local governments are racing to hire thousands of new police officers and bureaucrats to manage refugees. Schools, meanwhile, are desperately looking for new teachers to help with an estimated 300,000 new students. Irina Wissmann, principal at Berlin’s An der Bäke Elementary School, said none of the 300 qualified instructors provided to her in a list by city officials were available to work. She said that with 20 new refugee students already and double that number expected by year’s end, she is afraid of surging class sizes as well as issues with traumatized children.
“This is going to be very difficult,” she said.
Manfred Schmidt, head of the national Office for Migration and Refugees, resigned this month. He has been criticized for not accurately assessing the scope of the unfolding crisis and not ramping up the effort to deal with it.
Outside the capital, meanwhile, allegations of rape at refugee centers are emerging. In the central city of Giessen, officials are investigating four cases of sexual assault at one temporary shelter. Civic groups say there was a lack of proper separation between men and women at the facility.
Coming at a time when the Volkswagen emissions scandal is tainting the reputation of Germany as a country of law-abiding winners, the strains of the refugee crisis are challenging perceptions of national competence.
“The state has clearly nothing under control here,” said Leila El-Abcah, a volunteer with Moabit Helps, a refugee aid group in central Berlin. In the evenings, she is trying to guide some refugees on the streets to the private homes of people willing to offer them shelter for the night. “If it weren’t for the many volunteers,” she said, “nothing would work, everything would collapse.”
German officials said that they are trying their best to deal with an extraordinary situation and that it’s a miracle that they have managed to aid and house hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers so quickly. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said Germany is managing, “but with difficulties.” He noted that the country had to roll out a huge operation to shelter asylum seekers “within weeks.”
He blamed the problems in Berlin on refugees who come to the capital even though many should instead be registering in smaller cities and towns.
“In a way, they cannot complain that they are queuing here when they don’t want to go other places,” he said.
To cope, cities such as Berlin are trying to think creatively, with private citizens and volunteers often coming to the rescue. To shelter newcomers temporarily, for instance, Berlin’s 19th-century Deutsches Theater began housing refugees in its actors’ dressing rooms this week.
But a bigger problem is how to shelter refugees long term. One Berlin district is considering a proposal to install refugees in empty stores. The liberal district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, home to some of the city’s hottest nightclubs, is contemplating the seizure of empty apartments from real estate speculators to accommodate asylum seekers.
In the short term, officials here are using four sports centers and a tent city to provide temporary shelter. A “bubble” city in central Berlin has been created to briefly house those refugees waiting for longer-term emergency housing.
Inside the silvery white dome, asylum seekers release their stress by playing foosball and ping-pong. Children squeal with delight in an impromptu kindergarten. Although the center is designed to shelter people for just a night or two as they wait for the city to process them for housing and aid, some have been there as long as two months.
Hussein Khadir, a 23-year-old Iraqi mechanic who escorted his blind brother into the shelter this week, says what they really want is fast processing so his brother can receive medical treatment.
“I don’t know if we should be optimistic or not,” Khadir said. “Nobody is telling us anything.”
At dusk on a recent evening, hundreds of dejected refugees left the processing center in Berlin after waiting in vain for another day. Hamadich, the lab technician, grumbled, “They are treating us like animals.”
A chorus of other refugees chimed in.
“Twenty-four days for me,” said one.
“I’ve been here 13 days,” said another.
After a few moments, they produced the unlucky record holder — a short, balding Syrian man who raised his fist and said, “I’ve been here 30 days — one month!”
Monika Hebbinghaus, a city spokeswoman, acknowledged that some refugees were sleeping on the streets and blamed the chaos on the surging numbers. At one point, she said, frustrated refugees attempted to storm the processing center.
She also said asylum seekers were not following instructions. They are supposed to wait at shelters for word that it is their turn to come back in for processing. But instead, she said, they are simply showing up every day and waiting. Because refugees are constantly moving around, she said, it has become difficult to locate them in shelters when it is time for their appointment.
“We are talking about numbers for the past two weeks that we are normally seeing in one year,” she said. “It is almost beyond human power to deal with this.”