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Denmark: No entry

Peter Dahl, DenmarkSeptember 14, 2015

Thousands of refugees have passed through the small Scandinavian country of Denmark in the past week. The message from the government is clear: You're not welcome. And that's made many Danes furious.

Dänemark Padborg Autobahn Flüchtlinge
Image: Reuters/Scanpix/C. Fisker

A plate of half-finished grapes sits on the cold tiled floor; off to the side, a scrunched up blanket and a nylon jacket. A few feet further, an abandoned toy car is parked next to knocked-over water bottles scattered across a sleeping mat. They left in a hurry.

The two busses parked outside Flensburg train station fill up quickly. "Go!," yells a young woman in a neon vest, as she rushes a heavyset father in his late-forties up the three steps leading into one of the crowded vehicles. He freezes mid-way at the sound of his daughter crying out behind him. They had been separated in the turmoil. He pulls her close, and disappears behind the tainted windows.

No idle hands

Like so many other German transit zones, Flensburg - a picturesque city of 84,000 people, nestled in the country's northernmost Fjord - has been upended by the steady stream of refugees spilling across the nation's borders. Few of them stay here for more than a fleeting moment - just enough time for one of the dozens of volunteers, who have toiled tirelessly here since Wednesday, to help silence their growling stomachs.

The local "Moin - Refugees Welcome" aid group has turned the train station into a pit-stop shelter. Here, refugees can get a warm meal, a fresh change of clothes, and recharge their phones before continuing on their arduous journey. There's no room for idle hands. Many of the volunteers are juggling several tasks at a time, from translating Arabic, Farsi or Pashtu, to making sandwiches, babysitting or sorting the towering piles of clothes people are donating.

Dänemark Padborg Bahnhof Flüchtlinge
Refugees at Padborg Station hope for a train to CopenhagenImage: Reuters/Scanpix/A. Ladime

Some of the passengers have been wearing the same clothes for weeks, their bodies itching from days without a clean drop of water touching their skin. Others arrive with shoes like sieves, their soles hanging on to dear life after walking hundreds, in some cases thousands, of kilometers.

The Danish dilemma

The station's red brick lobby is teeming with tension. It's the refugee's last stop before Denmark. A frantic scramble to get a seat on the northbound train across the platform. Ahead, an 11-minute ride to uncertainty. Sabine Damm, a chain-smoking, 47-year-old accountant-turned-activist, is trying to keep a cool head. But reports that Danish police have ramped up controls along the 320-kilometer stretch to Copenhagen have everyone on edge.

For thousands, passing through the tiny Scandinavian country is their best hope of reaching Sweden, only a brief train ride from the Danish capital, where the people are said to be more welcoming, and the immigration laws more liberal.

Dänemark Flüchtlinge auf der Straße
Police guarded the trains with migrantsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Norgaard Larsen

Anti-immigrant sentiment has long pervaded Denmark's political discourse. Human rights and strong social-democratic values are widely seen as part of the national DNA. But the Nordic country's small size also makes it a natural underdog on the European stage, which, time and again, has led it to bare its teeth at anyone perceived as posing a threat to its close-knit culture. In some corners - mainly the more culturally homogenous, rural areas - this has given rise to Gaulish opposition to any outsider challenging their idolized idiosyncrasies.

For decades, this has landed Brussels on the receiving end. Voters reluctantly agreed to sign the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, and only after securing significant concessions on several issues, including immigration and asylum policies. The kingdom does not like to be lectured.

But in recent years, much of this antagonism has been directed at Denmark's Muslim population, which make up less than 5 percent of the country's of 5.6 million people. Integration has long been a political buzzword, though many really mean assimilation. In just a little over a decade, the right-wing Danish People's Party has gone from a fringe movement to second-most popular. As a result, the historically dominant parties - mainly, the center-left Social Democrats and center-right Liberal Party - have moved ever further to the right on immigration issues to prevent an electoral exodus.

Turning point

But tides may be turning. An ad warning would-be asylum seekers about applying in Denmark, and which ran in four Lebanese newspapers last week, unleashed a nationwide wave of equal parts shame and outrage. On Saturday, some 50,000 people attended pro-refugee rallies across the country, drowning out much smaller anti-immigration protests. According to a just-released poll, 56 percent now say they support taking in more refugees - a complete 180 degree turn from a year ago. Inger Støjberg, the country's immigration minister responsible for the controversial letter, has almost become a national cuss word.

Dänemark Lbanon schreckt Flüchtlinge mit Zeitungsanzeigen ab Englisch
Denmark published English ads in Lebanon warning about tight refugee restrictionsImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Eid

The spillover effect appears to be a huge outpouring of sympathy for refugees and new levels of activism. One of these new evangelists is Helle Filbert, a stout, radiant woman in her mid-forties. She's part of the North European network of volunteers "Refugee Aid - Germany/Denmark/Sweden," and runs a local chapter in southern Jutland overseeing Denmark's border with Germany.

Her mission, she said: To help the refugees on their last leg northward, and prove that Danes have a heart. Every other hour, when the train from Flensburg passes the Danish border and pulls up at Padborg station, she and two handfuls of volunteers rush through the cars. They hand out "welcome bags" containing food, beverages, blankets and toys to scores of refugees who look on in amazement. Similar scenes play out at every stop until they reach Copenhagen.

National backlash

Helle was moved to act after images showing throngs of refugees marching up Jutland's main northward highway in protest after police attempted to take their fingerprintswent viral. Under the EU's Dublin Regulation, this would have forced them to seek asylum in Denmark. And that's the last thing many refugees want.

On Friday, Jens Rohde, member of the European Parliament for Løkke Rasmussen and Støjberg's Liberal Party, took to social media to express his disbelief: "Denmark has now become a country refugees flee from. I have to admit, I didn't see that one coming."

Dänemark Flüchtlinge auf der Straße
Many refugees chose to walk after not getting on a train, hoping to reach SwedenImage: Reuters/J. Noergaard Larsen

Then he added on Twitter: "Mission accomplished, minister. But does it really make you proud?"

And over the weekend, the chorus of critics continued to grow, with several industry leaders blasting the move for scaring off much-needed talent.

Going it alone

"For the first time in my life, I feel ashamed about being Danish," 63-year-old Susanne Møller-Hansen told me, after donating money to an aid group straddling the expansive lobby of Copenhagen's central station. She's clearly not alone. The group says it's collected well over 100,000 kroner (13,400 euros, $15,200) since it began operating Wednesday night.

For many Danes, like Helle and Susanne, the motorway march was the scene that really brought home just how desperate Europe's refugee crisis has become. Even the police quickly replaced their riot gear with a more peaceful approach. For much of last week, they effectively suspended controls, and instead opted to board the trains with translators, asking refugees if they would like to apply for asylum. But, of the more than 5,000 that entered the country since September 6, only 843 chose do to so.