Mayhem for Cologne asylum-seekers: John Eisenhammer, in Bonn, reports on the struggle to deal with an influx of displaced people in search of sanctuary

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The Independent Online
PETER grabs the megaphone on the desk. 'Ordnung, bitte] (Order, please]),' he yells, but the words bounce off the Babylonian babble filling the entrance hall of Cologne's refugee reception centre. Whole families of Romanian gypsies, Croats and Bosnians, Bulgarians and the occasional African mill around trying to out-shout one another in their demands for an interpreter. But the one word they all know is asyl (asylum).

Peter, ensconced behind the hall porter's desk, has been through it so many thousands of times his voice is quite toneless. 'Have you any papers?' Answer: 'Asyl.' 'How did you get here?' Answer: 'Asyl.' 'What do you want?' Answer: 'Asyl.' 'Join the others over there,' he says, finally.

And so it goes on, in Cologne as in countless other cities across the country, as more than 40,000 such asylum-seekers continue to flood in each month.

Most of those arriving in Cologne are smuggled over the Czech and Polish borders by paid guides. An average day brings nearly 200 new arrivals, half of them Romanians. 'Smuggling people is a booming business,' snorts Peter as he dispatches another family into the heaving crowd.

'There is no way we can process people at this rate. With every day we are falling further behind,' says Ulrich Kortmann, head of the Cologne refugee centre. If all goes well his 20 staff can deal with 70 applications a day. The rest get sent on down to the national headquarters in Nuremberg. There the backlog of unprocessed asylum requests has nearly reached 400,000 and is growing ever longer.

Once the details have been noted down, the asylum-seekers are sent to a group of boats moored on the Rhine, with beds for 500 people. There they stay for three days, before being distributed throughout the greater Cologne area to hostels, hotels, and other emergency accommodation in the towns and villages. 'About 90 per cent of the applications are refused, but that means nothing,' says Mr Kortmann. 'They immediately appeal, and become part of the process.'

While the state is obliged to house and maintain these rejected applicants - the total cost of asylum-seekers amounted last year to 15bn German marks (pounds 5.5bn) - the appeal usually takes well over a year to be concluded. 'By then it is often too late, they have been here too long,' says Mr Kortmann. As for explusion, he says, 'it barely happens'.

The government's new law on accelerating the processing of asylum applications has had 'little effect' he says. It is only due to become fully operational next April. Even then, Mr Kortmann remains sceptical. 'The fact is that this sort of influx cannot be contained by administrative means. Even changing the constitution will not solve matters. Just look at the state of Eastern Europe. People will keep flooding in, but nobody has the courage to admit this.'

Two floors below, in the entrance hall, Peter reaches yet again for his megaphone, to rise above what he calls 'our Levantine conditions'. Outside, two coaches wait to ferry the latest batch to the boats on the Rhine. Germany's asylum madness continues.