Heat, desperation at crowded German refugee office
Tired, desperate and a long way from home, hundreds of refugees have crowded outside a Berlin welfare office for days, braving stifling summer heat, boredom and fear about the future.
Having fled war and poverty, often on long and dangerous journeys, they have been told to take a number by overwhelmed civil servants, struggling to cope with a record wave of asylum seekers to Germany.
A few kilometres east of Berlin's central government district, the city-state's Agency for Health and Social Welfare in Moabit district is at the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis.
The building houses the capital's central reception centre for asylum seekers, where newcomers can launch their applications and ask for a bed in a hostel, flat or even tent city.
While they wait, families of asylum seekers have made do with a single water tap, several broken toilets and two hastily-erected tents to give them shade as temperatures soared to 36 degrees Celsius (97 Fahrenheit) on Friday.
Thirsty and exhausted, many have crowded behind metal barricades or rested on blankets nearby, grateful for drinking water, fruit and wet-wipes delivered by citizen volunteers.
- Days of waiting -
One of them is Mohamad Wessam Kanchao, 40, who said he fled Damascus, the capital of war-torn Syria, on July 15 with his nephew.
Speaking on Friday he said he had arrived in the northern German port city of Hamburg on August 3 after a long journey, was then transferred to a northeastern state before being sent on again to a Berlin shelter.
On Wednesday he had asked for a waiting-list number at the hopelessly overcrowded office in Moabit.
"On the first day I got my ticket and I went directly back to the camp," he said, referring to the shelter where he says he receives three meals a day.
"Yesterday we waited from 8 am to 7 pm, when it closed."
"It's very crowded here and there is a lot of pressure inside," he told AFP, describing a tense atmosphere in the office's crowded corridors.
Despite the frustrating wait, he praised the commitment of the staff, saying "they are great people".
Germany, Europe's top destination for refugees, this year expects a record number of at least 500,000 asylum seekers.
Last year, amid several flaring conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa, the country received over 202,000 asylum applications, already 60 percent more than in 2013.
- Civil society -
Amid the record influx, Germany has seen a spate of xenophobic hate crimes, including arson attacks on refugee shelters -- but the newcomers have also sparked an unprecedented volunteer movement.
Helping alleviate the chaos outside the Berlin office, citizens have delivered water, food and clothes in shopping trolleys that have often been swarmed by children who quickly snapped up the donations.
The Facebook group "Moabit hilft" (Moabit helps) quickly grew to more than 1,700 members who have collected and distributed goods from toothpaste to baby clothes.
"We need, for the often completely exhausted people, water, preferably in small refillable bottles, ice, wipes, and snacks like banana, melon etc.," it says on its Facebook page, one of several such spontaneous aid efforts in Berlin.
Catholic charities Caritas and Malteser have also been active on site, with dozens of volunteers providing medical treatment and helping distribute donations.
"We came spontaneously because we wanted to help," said Ulrike Kostka of Caritas.
"We try to make sure that everyone has a place to sleep this weekend, when the offices are closed."
© 2015 AFP