Sunday

19th Nov 2017

Danes to appeal conviction for helping refugees

  • In September the road was lined with Syrian refugees - trails of people walking with their children to seek safety in Sweden. (Photo: Daniel Belenyi)

On 7 September last year, Lisbeth Zornig Andersen was on her way home from a public lecture in Stubbekoebing in southern Denmark.

It was a normal summer's day for the best-selling writer, who is also known for her involvement in children's issues and for speaking openly about her violent childhood.

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  • Lisbeth Zornig Andersen is one of 279 people who have been charged because they helped refugees. (Photo: Lisbeth Zornig Andersen)

She is married, has five children, and often takes part in TV debates in support of socially marginalised people.

That day last September the road was lined with Syrian refugees - trails of people walking with their children to seek safety in Sweden.

"I didn't do much,” Zornig Andersen told EUobserver.

“It had been in the news the day before that refugees were arriving in large numbers on the ferry from Germany. So I went to the harbour on my way back from the lecture and talked with some of them.

“My car is a family car and I had six empty seats. I phoned my husband to discuss with him if it would be OK for me to offer some of the refugees a lift towards Copenhagen. He phoned the national police as well as the local police, but neither of them could say what would be the correct thing to do.”

'They were exhausted'

Her thinking was that since the people had come from Germany, which is also in the EU's passport-free Schengen area, they had already been admitted to the European Union.

The ferries crossing from Puttgarden in Germany to Roedby in Denmark were full of refugees and Zornig Andersen made contact with one Syrian family of Palestinian origin who had fled Damascus. There were six of them, including twin girls aged around five.

She took them into her car in front of a local hotel where they had spent their first night in Denmark.

The place was packed with police and press, but nobody told her that she was not allowed to offer them a lift.

“They had no luggage and they were exhausted. The small girls fell asleep within a few minutes on the back seat of my car,” she recalled.

At home near Copenhagen, she and her husband Mikael Rauno Lindholm offered the family a short break. They rested for less than an hour, used the bathroom, had a coffee or a soda each and some cinnamon buns. Then Rauno Lindholm drove them to Kastrup and helped them to buy tickets for Sweden.

Silent government

On Friday (11 March) Zornig Andersen and her husband were, to their surprise and anger, found guilty of smuggling and fined €3,000 each by the court in Nykoebing Falster for offering the refugees the lift and shelter.

She says that what they did was an act of simple decency.

On top of this, there was next to no information from Danish authorities at the time.

The government had kept silent on the refugee crisis. It had given no instructions to police, public transport, or to Danish people.

Police officers also complained that they had to decide for themselves how to handle the situation.

A photo showing one young police officer sitting in the middle of the road and playing peek-a-boo with a Syrian girl was later awarded best news photo of the year. Many Danish people spontaneously helped the migrants.

However, a total of 279 people have now been charged with committing a crime because they helped refugees.

"We will appeal the court ruling, of course. It should not be allowed to set a precedent for the many other cases where citizens have helped refugees for humanitarian reasons," Rauno Lindholm said.

“Let's just get it tested thoroughly what we mean by decency in Denmark today.”

'Civil courage'

Local prosecutor Charlotte Larsen has told Danish TV2 that no matter how good their intentions, the couple must follow the law, which says it is illegal to transport people who do not have a right to be in the country.

"They knew that it was possibly illegal," she said.

But Zornig Andersen told EUobserver: “I think police and citizens acted as they should in the situation and solved a problem that could otherwise have ended much worse. I'd call it civil courage.”

She also said she would do the same again.

"When refugees change transportation or cross borders they are exposed to huge risks. Traffickers are waiting to exploit the weakest - women and children,” she said.

“Thousands of minors have gone missing. It is horrifying. They risk much more than I do.”

Gifts and death threats

The couple said they would appeal against the district court's judgment at the higher court.

“For me and my husband, it may be possible to pay the fines, but for many others who helped the consequences are much worse,” Zornig Andersen said.

“Many of them are second-generation immigrants, young people and students who risk not being able to get a job if convicted or worse - that they won't be given Danish citizenship or even expelled.”

She has kept in contact with the family she helped. They are now living in Sweden and have learned to speak the language.

They learned the basics via online courses while waiting for a place in the public education system.

One member of the family is soon to begin work in the pharmaceutical industry in Sweden. He is a trained pharmacist.

“The case highlights the Danish establishment's current problems in finding the right balance in the humanitarian field,” said Bjoern Elmquist, the lawyer representing Zornig Andersen and her husband.

“The two have been found guilty of smuggling completely without financial gain or the like, but from a human desire to help a family with children in need through Denmark in the days of early September 2015, when refugee chaos reigned in Denmark and Germany and many other European countries.

“Both the UN supplementary protocol of 2002 on international organised crime and the EU directive from 2002 on violation of Schengen [rules] envisages that assistance from humanitarian motives should not be punished.”

As soon as the district court's judgment became known, support for the couple took off on social media and within 24 hours they received more donations, marked as “gifts of honour”, than they needed to pay the fines.

However, they have also received death threats.

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