BERLIN (Reuters) - When Hesham fled Syria in early August with his pregnant wife and baby, he was sure all would be well once he got to Germany. Instead the hope has turned to despair after weeks of waiting to be registered at an overcrowded reception center in Berlin.
The 26-year-old former chef is one of the hundreds of migrants who crowd around a small screen at the registration office every day, desperately waiting for their number to come up so they can go inside and get a certificate that is the first step in the asylum process.
Some climb on top of barricades to get a better view while others lie out on the grass surrounded by suitcases and plastic bags which hold their few possessions. When volunteers hand out apples and bananas, scuffles break out.
“I wish I’d stayed in Syria and not come here,” Hesham said through an interpreter. “I dreamed Germany would be better but it’s so bad. We’ve been sleeping in the cold. Now my baby is sick.”
What was once a relatively smooth process for new arrivals has turned into a confusing nightmare for many as cities and towns across the country struggle to cope with a surge of refugees from the Middle East.
A record 800,000 migrants are expected this year. More than 200,000 arrived in September alone.
As the numbers have risen, registering the newcomers in a timely fashion has become virtually impossible.
At the center in Berlin, asylum seekers, some of whom are sleeping outside, say they have been waiting as long as 25 days to register. With winter looming, the same frustrating delays are occurring in other cities across Germany.
“The biggest problem at the moment is the initial registration of people and providing them with the basics – that’s not working well in an awful lot of places,” said Rebecca Kilian-Mason, who runs a project in Munich that informs migrants about the asylum process in Germany.
The long waits to register are at the top of a list of problems that German authorities are wrestling with.
They must find winter-proof accommodation, provide asylum seekers with funds to survive, treat health problems, identify migrants with no documents and weed out those who falsely claim to be Syrian because the German government has made clear that those fleeing the civil war there will be allowed to stay.
Then there is the challenge of sending back the tens of thousands of migrants who are not granted asylum and tracking down those who have not applied in the first place.
Frank-Juergen Weise, head of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), estimates there are around 290,000 people in Germany who have not been registered.
In a country known for its order and efficiency, the influx is turning into a logistical nightmare — for police and politicians as well as the refugees.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her popularity ratings slump to a four-year low. Her normally reserved Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere lashed out last week amid warnings from police that violent clashes at asylum centers risked spiraling out of control.
“They go on strike because they don’t like the accommodation and they cause trouble because they don’t like the food. They beat each other,” de Maiziere told public broadcaster ZDF.
In Berlin, asylum seekers whose numbers appear on the screen are sometimes applauded by their peers as they make their way through the crowds to a meeting where they give authorities their name, date of birth and country of origin.
They have their photo taken and give fingerprints in return for a temporary identification document.
Around 5 percent of new arrivals in Germany are allocated to Berlin and some of those waiting at the capital’s registration center will be distributed to one of the other 15 states via a computer system called EASY, which spreads asylum seekers across the country based on each state’s population and tax revenues.
This whole process, along with the organization of train tickets, now often takes two days or longer compared with a matter of hours last year, said Silvia Kostner, a spokeswoman for Berlin’s office for health and social affairs.
Georg Classen from the Berlin Refugee Council said authorities were struggling to deliver on a long list of promises, from accommodation and monetary stipends to health certificates.
“It’s not a problem of a lack of money but rather an organizational problem - they’ve got plenty of people working for them,” Classen said.
Merkel told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk in an interview aired on Sunday that Germany needed to streamline its asylum process, make it clearer and come to decisions on whether people can stay or not more quickly.
Asylum seekers are supposed to stay in the reception centers for up to three months. But Gauhar Besmil, who runs one such center in western Berlin, says some end up staying as long as eight months due to a lack of other accommodation in Berlin.
Some, especially the younger ones, get depressed because they spend all day sleeping, eating and waiting, Classen said.
“The authorities tell me to sleep and eat. I say ‘give me a job’!” said Afghan-born Mohammad, 24, who grew up in Iran and later moved to Greece. “Everyday I sleep and eat and I don’t like it. I didn’t come here for the food - I have better food in my own country.”
Once asylum seekers are registered, another waiting game begins. The BAMF says it is taking an average of 5.3 months process asylum applications this year - down from 7.1 months in 2014.
At their initial appointment at a BAMF office, asylum seekers have their photo taken and give fingerprints, which are then compared with records in a European system to check the applicant has not applied for asylum elsewhere in the EU.
At a later interview appointment, which can last anywhere from an hour to two days in exceptional cases, applicants are asked via an interpreter how they got here, where they came from, where they lived and if their family is still there.
They have to tell their story of persecution and explain why they want asylum.
BAMF head Weise has said around a third of new arrivals came without a passport and some could not explain where they were from while others did not want to.
For those who claim to be Syrian, there may be extra tests such as accent checks and questions about local customs or the geography of the part of Syria they claim to be from.
The interior ministry reckons almost a third of migrants who say they are Syrian are not actually from the country.
Applicants are eventually sent a letter notifying them of the BAMF’s decision. Almost 39 percent of all applicants were granted some form of protection in the first eight months of 2015 but the prospects for applicants from the Balkan states are bleak, with less than 1 percent being offered help.
But for those crowding outside the registration center in Berlin, receiving any kind of answer seems a long way off.
“If you come back tomorrow, you’ll see us. And the next day, And the day after that,” said Yumna, 50, from Syria.
Editing by Noah Barkin/David Stamp