Thursday, September 10, 2015


Even though we haven't paid much attention to U.S. or international news in the past four months, we've been aware of the refugee crisis in Europe. First we saw refugee camps near the entrance to the Eurostar tunnel, and heard the woes of Fabrice in Trélon that they might close the tunnel and he wouldn't be able to get home to Brighton. When we stayed with our Esperanto friend in Bern, his housemate was a refugee from Libya, and told us how difficult it had been for him to find asylum in Europe. Then, both times we've been in Leipzig, we've seen the protests against immigration (and the counterprotests). But Wednesday we got to see the situation close-up and personal.

We had reserved a train from Lübeck to Copenhagen, which was supposed to take four hours. The first hint that something was unusual was that train was 20 minutes late. Considering that it had originated in Hamburg, only 45 minutes away, and knowing how punctual German trains are, this seemed unusual. Les remarked that there were more police officers at the train platform than passengers.

When we got on the train, we were surprised that it was overloaded, with people in the aisles. Two people were in our assigned seats, but moved when we asked them. We noticed the car smelled of people who hadn't bathed in a while. As we looked around, it became apparent that most of the passengers were foreigners. The father of a family with several children looked exhausted. When Les asked, he said that they had come from Afghanistan, and were on their way to Sweden. In the seat across the aisle, three men were crammed into the two spaces. The one who spoke the best English said that he'd started in Syria a month ago, been through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, and was on his way through Denmark and Sweden to Finland. The fellow next to him said that he had swum 13 kilometers to reach Turkey. They told us the police in Budapest demanded 1,000 euros or they'd be arrested.

Exhausted travelers

Only the children had energy

We had wondered ahead of time how the train would cross the long stretch of water from Germany to Denmark. Was there a tunnel under the sea? A bridge? Would the passengers switch to a boat, then onto another train? The answer turned out to be that the train drove right onto the boat! They told us that we had to leave the train during the 30-minute crossing. It was a very comfortable boat, with lots of shopping opportunities.

The train is parked on the boat

Seemed like all the men took a smoke on the deck

Upon nearing Denmark, we went back down to the train and got on. We sat there for about 15 minutes, before an announcement came that the train wasn't able to leave the ship. After another 15 minutes, they told us that again we should all get off the train and there would be an indefinite delay. As we sat upstairs on the boat, a ship official handed out bottles of cold water to everyone. Again, they said we could get on the train.

Free bottles of cold water

We sat for another hour, then noticed police surrounding the train. They boarded, and went down the aisles asking to see passports. Very few people could produce one. One man was hysterically shrieking, but we couldn't understand the words. The police told those of us with passports to take our luggage and leave the train and proceed by foot off the boat. We felt badly to leave all the refugees behind. Our group (only about a tenth of the total from the train) waited for half an hour, until a train came that was heading to Copenhagen. Our four-hour trip from Lübeck turned out to take eight hours.

The lucky few who got to leave the boat and wait for another train

We found out that our train was the last one to get through from Germany, before the Danish authorities suspended all rail service to and from Germany. We heard that the refugees were taken to a camp someplace. We don't fully understand the situation, but we think that the issue is that refugees have to register in the first country in the EU that they land in. Instead, they travel together in large groups and try to get to Sweden, where, if they register, they have a better chance of gaining asylum. The Danish government appears to be strict about enforcing immigration policies, but the police seem very humane. This was definitely the most memorable of our many train rides in Europe.