NEU-ISENBURG, Germany – Refugees from Syria and Eritrea lounge on hundreds of cots spread across the concrete floor of a former newspaper printing plant. A few green screens provide basic privacy, and a place to hang washing.
The refugee screening center in this town just south of Germany's business hub of Frankfurt is hosting almost 700 people — the overflow from a reception system under the strain of thousands of new arrivals every day. Germany has a plan for coping: a computerized system established in 1949 that is being revived to distribute refugees among the among the country's regions.
The Koenigstein Key, named after the town where it was created, was originally intended for divvying up research funding. Today it assigns each of the nation's 16 federal states a fixed percentage of refugees according to population and tax receipts. That means the biggest, richest states get the most refugees to shelter, as the newcomers await a decision on their asylum application, and the smallest and poorest the fewest.
The federal state of Hesse, where Neu-Isenburg is located, knows it will get 7.3 percent of the 450,000 refugees who have already arrived this year, a number that is expected to reach 1 million by year end. North Rhine Westphalia, in northeast Germany, will get the most — 21 percent. The federal city of Bremen will be allocated the least, 0.9 percent.
The system is anchored in Germany's 1992 asylum law, passed to deal with an influx of 260,000 refugees that year. The key is run through a computer system called EASY, developed by the federal migration ministry — a thankfully simple acronym of its German name, which translates as "Initial Distribution System for Asylum Applicants." When the applicant's name and data are entered, the program spits out a new German home. That means many of the people in the Neu-Isenburg camp will be moving on in the coming days to different parts of Germany.
The prospect makes some of them anxious, particularly asylum seekers who headed for Frankfurt knowing they had family there.
"I have relations here in Frankfurt," said Samuel, a 46-year old Eritrean, who came seeking his cousin. She has health troubles and can use his help; he can benefit from her social foothold in Germany.
"We were raised together, I consider her my sister," he said. "I don't know about this system, but I need to be near her."
Others don't care where they end up. "I'm a mathematician. But I'll clean the streets. Just let us live in peace," said Ahmad, a 43-year-old math teacher from war-torn Damascus, Syria, who arrived with his 10-year-old daughter.
He said all he wanted was a good school for his daughter and a chance for family members left behind to join them. Like other migrants at the center, he did not want to give his last name because he was afraid of possible government reprisals against his family back home.
Ahmad, like others at the camp in Neu-Isenburg, seemed a little euphoric at the end of his journey, which involved being smuggled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, part of which he and his daughter completed on foot. "I find people as angels here," he said in slightly broken English.
The euphoria may give way to the more difficult and time-consuming reality of seeking asylum. Eventually, refugees who are given refugee status win the right to work and to move, but it can take months or years of waiting, and less than uplifting housing conditions.
Rezai Abdullah, a 31-year-old food service worker from Afghanistan, wound up in Wuerzburg after he arrived in 2010, an assignment that went against the grain. To him, "Wurzburg is a very small city, because there is no Afghan culture, no parties, no festivals." As soon as he permission to stay and was allowed to leave, he headed for Frankfurt, where there's an Afghan mosque and more chance to participate in cultural events such as Nowruz, the New Year celebration common in parts of the Muslim world.
Although he quickly found a job as a restaurant cook, he hasn't found a place of his own and has been staying with a friend in cramped refugee housing, within a dingy, cramped prefabricated building on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
His Afghan friend, Zabi, worked for a foreign-backed program to build a better judicial system in Afghanistan. He fled, interrupting his law studies at university, after getting phone and mail threats from Taliban militants because the program was not Shariah law. He wound up in Frankfurt after telling officials he had a cousin there. He also didn't want his last name used for fear of the Taliban.
His case has dragged out for over a year, as he waits in a small cubicle with a dingy brown carpet and just enough space to put two mattresses on the floor. He's not sure why his application is taking so long; perhaps it's because Frankfurt has a big train station and airport. "A lot of people enter here," he said. "I think this is why it takes more time."
He was offered a job but the rules would not let him take it before his case is resolved. He's working on his German, but is distracted by the danger his wife and children face in Afghanistan; they can't come to Germany to join him until his asylum procedure is finished. He's still waiting for an interview, a key part in the process.
The refugee influx will only prolong the wait for the newcomers. Stefan Gruettner, the minister for social affairs in the Hesse regional government, told reporters at the Neu-Isenburg shelter that workers in the local processing center in Giessen were assigning 600 refugees a week, and were adding staff to try to reach 800 a week.
At that rate, the Neu-Isenburg camp will be in business for a while. Local official Brigitte Lindscheid said that the wait for an EASY decision could be "weeks."