The radical and illegal refugee convoy

Despite the risk of being charged with human smuggling, many Danes yesterday transported refugees in the final leg of their journey to family and friends, and the hope of a new life

“Delete the videos, now.” I’ve just filmed three cars pull away from Maribo station, filled with recent arrivals from Germany. The man making the request explains that he doesn’t want any number plates to be recorded, and he peers over my shoulder as I delete one video after another.

It’s a reasonable concern. The passengers have not been registered by the authorities, so transporting them could result in a charge of human smuggling that can be punishable with up to two years in jail. But tonight the people assembled in the station’s parking lot think it’s a risk worth taking. And they are far from alone.

The night before news broke that a large number of refugees* had arrived in the port Rødbyhavn, aproximately 20 kilometres south of Maribo. Individuals and civil society groups across Denmark decided to act, and soon collections for food and supplies appeared on social media. New political party Nationalpartiet was among the groups, and I was allowed to join them on their journey. Later that afternoon, several dozen people assembled at a petrol station in Hvidovre, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, and drove south with cars packed with food and other supplies.

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Transit land
Ninety minutes later and a few kilometres outside Sakskøbing, tens of cars are parked on the verge. Refugees are leaving the motorway where it crosses over the road ahead, and are heading down the hill toward us. These are presumably the same people we have seen, weeks earlier, arriving on rubber dinghies in Greece and pushing through the barbed wire fence into Hungary. Now they are here with us.

“Sweden, we want to go to Sweden,” one man shouts to the many spectators and volunteers lining the road. It was a line we’d hear often that evening. The group slows as it passes the volunteers and they accept some food and water, though cigarettes and SIM cards are in most short supply.

“We’ve been traveling for a month,” explains Ahmad (below, right), who had set off from Syria with with his brother and his nine-year-old nephew Abed. They hope to make it to Malmo in Sweden, where his mother and sister are waiting for them.

“I am very, very tired.”

Almost without warning, the group is on the move again, leaving behind the volunteers and their cars packed with baby food, juice, biscuits, wet wipes, diapers, sandwiches and blankets. The volunteers are from all walks of life – young and old, Danish and Arabic-speaking. Many are here because they had seen updates on Facebook and wanted to help, including Peter, Jens and Gustav from Nørrebro in Copenhagen.

“Nobody flees for fun,” says Peter. “We need to have solidarity with them, and show them a compassionate system after they have fled from war.”

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Peter says they plan on heading down toward the harbour with more supplies, where rumours suggest a large number of refugees remain stranded. He wants to bring them warm clothes, as the evening chill was starting to set in. The three didn’t mention any plans for transporting the refugees on their journey, but others did, including Martin Stahl (below) from Copenhagen, who allowed me to join him in his car that evening.

“This is about morality, it’s not about the law,” he later tells me. He argues that Europe’s current strategy for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers is outdated, in part because our political systems are not agile enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

“It’s basic human instinct to help them. We have seen it throughout Europe, in Spain, Greece and Italy, where refugees have been helped further on their journey – even when the system prohibited it. The system needs fixing and it will take time but we can’t wait. What we are doing now – on our own – will help to change the system. The system is here for the sake of the people, not for the sake of the system. We have to show the change that we want.

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Cat and mouse
By the roadside, the volunteers are unsure what to do. Finding the refugees is complicated by the dark and that they have split into many small groups. Rumours circulate that some refugees are hiding in the forest, afraid that they would be rounded up and sent to Danish asylum centres, which would prevent them from finishing their journey to Sweden.

Word then arrives that the police are escorting a group down the now-closed motorway and we drive to an overpass as around 30 men, women and children pass by. At first, some volunteers want to throw down supplies, but Stahl discourages them and instead urges them to clamber down and talk to the refugees in Arabic. Several men follow the advice and, after a few minutes of negotiations, the refugees start to ascend the slope to the road above and are quickly bundled into cars. The police make chase, but appear to fail at stopping the cars from driving away.

Some people object to the police’s behaviour. They had heard that the police had opened an amnesty on transporting refugees through Denmark. The police on the scene denied this was the case and, when I call the National Police, a spokesperson says they had indeed not issued an amnesty.

Illegal it might have still been, but it was only the start of the civil disobedience. The success of a few had emboldened others, and soon their goal appeared to change from a humanitarian supply mission, to a rescue operation. The sun had set and the race was on to find as many refugees as possible and help them toward their final destination, which in most cases appeared to be Sweden.

Local concerns
After the scene on the overpass dies down, Stahl decides to drive to Maribo station to see if any refugees had arrived there. Instead we meet two young men on their scooters.

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“They could take our stuff,” says Simon Petersen (above, left), 17, when he’s asked about what he thinks of the refugees. He admits he doesn’t know much about the current situation and he seems genuinely shocked to learn that some refugees had travelled over a month to get here.

Petersen works in a nearby container terminal while his friend Oliver Pedersen (above, right), 16, works in McDonald and is training to be a mechanic. Neither are interested leaving their island, Lolland.

“It’s nice and quiet down here. Copenhagen is too violent,” Petersen adds. “My mother has lived in Copenhagen, but I’m born and bred here. The one bad thing with being down here is that there aren’t any hills like Jutland.”

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We drive away for a coffee and, when we return 20 minutes later, Maribo station is suddenly alive with activity. Half a dozen cars are parked and about twenty people are discussing the logistics of transporting the refugees who had gathered at the station. As the cars drive away I start to film, which is when I am promptly told to delete the footage.

With the station now empty of refugees, we check some of the Facebook groups that have been set up to coordinate the action. The groups are buzzing as more and more people offer to drive down to participate in the action, while people on the ground maintain running updates of the refugees’ movements. After seeing several reports suggest there are a large number of refugees in the harbour in Rødbyhavn, we head south. Here we find many volunteers in their cars, but no refugees. After 20 minutes we return to Maribo and run into Annette Jensen**, whom we drove down with from Hvidovre.

She beams as she tells us that 80 people have successfully arrived in Sweden and only four were stopped and detained on the way. Now past one in the morning, and with few people left to help, Stahl tells Annette that it’s time to go home. She grasps the car door and wishes us well on our way.

“Keep up the fight.”

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People power
We drive off into the night, and there is some time for reflection. There was a poignant irony that the refugees that have been moving through Europe should arrive on the same day that the Danish government published adverts in newspapers around the world, warning refugees not to settle in Denmark.

But despite their arrival, integration minister Inger Støjberg – who can claim responsibility for the adverts – might still have succeeded. The vast majority of the refugees appeared to want settle in Sweden, not Denmark. Why is that? Is it because Sweden has placed few limitations on the numbers of refugees it is prepared to accept? Or has the new Liberal (Venstre) government tarnished Denmark’s standing so badly, they would rather move on to our Scandinavian neighbour?

In the car, Stahl expresses his anger at what he thinks Støjberg has done to Denmark’s reputation.

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“Perhaps we can find out how much investment Denmark has lost because of her government’s policy to make Denmark look bad, and just sue her for it?” he posits tiredly after we stop to photograph around 40 refugees who are sleeping by the roadside and under police supervision.

But perhaps there’s a silver lining. Støjberg’s anti-refugee strategy – including halving benefits for refugees – has outraged everyone from the far left to members of her own centre-right Liberal Party. Collectively, they have argued that Denmark and the EU needs a better strategy to deal with the unprecedented level of conflict and displacement.

The overwhelming support on show for the new arrivals tonight makes me wonder whether anger at Støjberg has sparked a revival of civil society and a new wave of humanistic activism. Because if it has, it’s exactly what will be needed for the long journey of integrating the thousands of individuals who – after lodging their asylum application in Denmark and earning the right to stay – will probably end up making Denmark their home forever. M

*In this article we refer to the individuals moving through Europe as refugees. While the UNHCR suggests calling the current arrival of individuals in Europe by foot, boat and rail – and without proper documentation – “refugees and migrants”, for the sake of clarity in the article, we have chosen to term them solely “refugees”.

**Annette Jensen’s name may have been changed as she may not have known she was speaking to a journalist at the time.


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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