My name is Istandar. Im 26. Im from Somalia. We have civil war there. I am alone. All the people from my family are dead. Me and friends, we want to be refugee. I have no job, no money, no sleep. Last night, we sleep in Termini station. Police come. They kick us. Why you sleep here? What you do Italy?

Istandar was outside the high steel perimeter wire around Romes new immigration centre run by Italys state police. It opened in May this year in a desolate, uncharted wilderness on the eastern-most rim of the city. Istandars half-a-dozen friends were lying on cardboard on the ground. It was early on a Friday afternoon, but the huge new centre was the notice read closed until Monday. Some unhelpful policeman in the city centre had told them the gates would open at 17.00. Not a hope.

The duped Somalis formed a minute mirror of the colossal problems already threatening to swamp the massive place, despite its much vaunted amenities and comfort. But why on earth had they put it in the middle of nowhere? That was the first question for chief police commissioner Marcello Cardona, the overall boss.

Because there was not enough space in the city centre. This is the biggest immigration building in all Europe, and it needs to be because we take the brunt of the continents immigration. The numbers we deal with in Rome are exceptional and enormous. Police stations around the city forward us 700 to 1,000 dossiers a day. Most of them are applications for work permits, and all applicants have to be fingerprinted. Added to that there are protracted problems such as that of political refugees, especially those escaping wars in black Africa. Definitive identification is often difficult. The immigrants often need state financial support. Expulsions tie up a lot of personnel too, with 2,000 repatriated last year, at state expense of course.

The police chief, from Reggio Emilia, rehearsed the fact that Italy took in more immigrants than elsewhere in Europe simply because of the proximity of its coasts and borders to Africa and eastern Europe, but he reckoned that some 50 per cent landed on its soil planning to go somewhere else.

The centre, reached after a winding bus ride from Rebibbia metro station, the eastern terminus of the B line, enjoys a racy design, a long three-storey structure, all glass and ochre-tinted concrete, its central pivot a circular see-through dome; but the air of a heavily-guarded penitentiary pervades. Inside, 300 police, helped by 15 interpreters, mainly Arab and Chinese, cater to supplicants from behind 30 bullet-proof glass windows. The immigrants wait their turn to be called forward by numbers on illuminated panels, and Cardona reckoned the average waiting time had by now been cut down to some 45 minutes.

Its an enormous improvement over the old cramped Ufficio Straneri in Via Genova, exclaimed Mammoud, a long-time resident from Bangladesh. Before, I had to queue up in the street from six in the morning and only get away by noon if I was lucky. This time the whole lot there and back and the waiting took me about three hours. Other immigrants appeared to echo his approval.

Were getting a bit more efficient every day! claimed Cardona.

Are they? Can they cope even now, with all the new space? Earlier this month, three of Romes largest immigrant communities, Albanian, Bangladeshi and north African, started a hunger strike near the chattering fountain in Piazza Cinquecento, in protest at the length of time it takes to renew a permesso di soggiorno in Rome. Immigrants demand their rights screamed the banners. Immigrants with expired permits numbered 67,000 in Rome, speakers declared, with 600,000 in Italy as a whole; all the result of draconian restrictions imposed by the severe, so-called Bossi-Fini immigration law.

In a meeting with Cardona and the prefect of Rome, Achille Serra, the immigrants proposed a solution that has already been adopted by the northern city of Pavia, whereby police headquarters merely stamp expired permits to renew them for a year. But the prefect, reported the press, was unlikely to agree without express approval from high up, apparently for fear of exposing the Bossi-Fini rules as unworkable. So he told the immigrant delegation: I understand you but the law is the law. The immigrants probably concluded that they might as well have consulted the loquacious fountain.

Under one of the many clauses in the law, immigrant workers are required to live in accommodation providing at least 17 square metres living space each, so Rome police have apparently frequently denied renewal because rooms fail to qualify by one or two metres.

A total of 17,000 such cases are now demanding a re-hearing; in addition, as Cordona confirmed, 150,000 dossiers of immigrants pardoned in an amnesty two years ago are being reviewed, as are those of 90,000 people whose permits are due to expire next year.

Does the brave new immigration office face collapse already?

l Ufficio Immigrazione. Via Pasini 1, 00153 Roma (in the Tor Cervana area). Tel. 0646861 (often engaged).

l Getting there: Perhaps the quickest way is by metro to Rebibbia and then the 447 bus. By car, it is in theory a short drive to a clearly marked turn-off from the Tangenziale-Est, to A24 Rome-Aquila. In practice, the road is permanently clogged, and the best bet is Via Collatina, if you can find it..

l Opening times: Sala Profughi Mon-Fri 08.30-12.30. Thurs also 15.00-17.00.

l Sala Soggiorno: Mon-Fri 08.30-11.30. Thurs also 15.00-17.00.