Berlin under fire for chaotic handling of refugee influx

BERLIN (AFP) - As Germany faces a record influx of one million asylum-seekers this year, its capital Berlin has come under attack for allowing chaos to reign in overwhelmed refugee offices and shelters.

Families sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures and brawls in overcrowded dormitories have cast a harsh spotlight on Berlin, which likes to bill itself as a hip European city that is "poor but sexy".

"Capital of failure" was the withering assessment by news site Spiegel Online of how the chronically broke city-state of 3.5 million has dealt with some 70,000 refugee arrivals this year.

The head of Berlin's main asylum seeker registration centre, Franz Allert, was forced to resign late on Wednesday over the chaos plaguing the office, which is struggling to process a record number of newcomers.

Since June, hundreds have queued and jostled almost daily in its unsheltered dirt courtyard, some of them for weeks, waiting for a number and an initial interview with a frazzled bureaucrat inside.

Security guards have contained the crowds, sometimes backed by police when scuffles have broken out, while neighbourhood volunteers have averted disaster by handing out warm drinks, food and clothes.

Despite the citizens' best efforts, the situation is "shocking and unworthy of a democratic society," charged the Green Party's parliamentary vice president Claudia Roth.

In an open letter to Berlin mayor Martin Mueller, she said she saw people "endure the queues, sometimes in the mud, rain and storm, often tightly packed into closed-off ares, tents or buildings, with no guarantee that their suffering will be worth it".

Many of the refugees, Roth wrote, "feel powerless, helpless and as if trapped in a nightmare".

Roth said that in her southern German home state of Bavaria - where conservative politicians have railed the loudest against the influx - the on-the-ground aid efforts had nonetheless been far more professional.

This was despite the fact Bavaria is taking in 15 per cent of refugees coming to Germany, against 5 per cent for Berlin.

Highlighting the chaos has been the tragic case of a four-year-old Bosnian boy who was kidnapped from the crowd and killed by a serial offender.

Mueller defended his city's efforts, pointing to the "special situation" and ongoing efforts to expand staffing and services, adding that "the topic of housing refugees should not be used for political games".

Meanwhile, over 40 lawyers have filed a criminal complaint against the city's health senator Mario Czaja, alleging the institutional neglect was "causing bodily harm".

"In no other state are politicians and administrators failing as systematically as here," charged lawyer Christina Clemm, claiming the result was injuries, illnesses, hunger and homelessness.

Another Berlin flashpoint has been a vast refuge shelter set up, months after the idea was first floated, in the massive Nazi-era Tempelhof airport, which during the Cold War served as a crucial western military air hub.

The mood inside has been described as tense, in part because 2,200 inhabitants in bunk beds have to use outside portable toilets and a bus shuttle service to take showers in nearby public swimming pools.

"These are inhumane housing conditions," a volunteer told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There are children who have scabies but receive no medical treatment and continue to play with others."

In late November, tensions escalated at Tempelhof and groups attacked each other, some armed with metal rods and knives.

Berlin, faced with a chronic housing shortage, plans to expand the Tempelhof site and accommodate up to 8,000 people in tents inside its hangars.

The Berliner Zeitung daily said the challenge was to build a functioning refugee facility "akin to a small town".

"The experiment at the airport, which once stood for the defence of freedom, must succeed," it said.

"Otherwise there is a danger that Tempelhof will be mentioned in the same breath as the infamous Lageso. It would be proof yet again of the government's failure," added the daily, referring to the registration centre.