Chinese tourist ends up in German refugee camp

He tries to report stolen wallet but unwittingly signs asylum application

A Chinese tourist has resumed his tour of Europe after being mistakenly identified as an asylum seeker and taken to a refugee shelter where he spent two weeks.
A general view of the refugee accommodation for the administrative district of Tuebingen on Wilhelm-Keil-Strasse in Tuebingen, Germany on August 9.
A general view of the refugee accommodation for the administrative district of Tuebingen on Wilhelm-Keil-Strasse in Tuebingen, Germany on August 9.PHOTO: EPA

BERLIN • A Chinese tourist visiting Germany ended up in the country's refugee system for weeks after his wallet was stolen at the airport.

Officials thought the 31-year-old from Beijing, who spoke neither German nor English, "needed help" after landing in Stuttgart airport in south-western Germany on July 4, Mr Christoph Schluetermann of the German Red Cross said.

Their misunderstanding set off a chain of confusion as the hapless visitor became ever more caught up in bureaucratic red tape.

The man was first taken to a reception centre at the city hall in the nearby town of Heidelberg, which he apparently thought was a police station where he could report his loss.

There, he unwittingly filled out an asylum request form, following the local authorities' instructions, Mr Schluetermann said.

Next, he was taken 360km to a reception centre in Dortmund and later to a refugee home in Duelmen, near the Dutch border - meaning he was now over four hours away from Stuttgart.

To make matters worse, the Chinese citizen's passport and visa were confiscated by the authorities, who gave him refugee documentation, along with fingerprinting him and giving him a medical exam.

"He set the wheels of a machine in motion that he could not initially escape from," Mr Schluetermann told the DPA news agency.

"He spent 12 days trapped in our bureaucratic jungle because we couldn't communicate. Germany is, unfortunately, an extremely bureaucratic country. Especially during the refugee crisis, I have seen how much red tape we have."

Unable to explain his situation, the Chinese man complied with what he was told and ended up spending a week in the refugee camp with little protest.

Eventually, the backpacker's well-dressed appearance caught the attention of employees of the German Red Cross who run the Duelmen refugee home.

"He was different from the others - very, very helpless," Mr Schluetermann told the DPA.

When their initial attempts to converse with him failed due to the language barrier, Mr Schluetermann enlisted the help of a local Chinese restaurant operator, who pointed him to a Mandarin smartphone translation app.

It was only then that the mix-up was discovered, with the tourist telling Mr Schluetermann that he did not want to claim asylum and instead wanted to "go walking in Italy", according to the Duelmener Zeitung.

The authorities told reporters this appeared to be a unique situation, driven by a series of unusual circumstances, according to the DPA.

Despite the delay, the unnamed Chinese tourist apparently had no complaints.

"He was very thankful that we took care of him," Mr Schluetermann told the Duelmener Zeitung, which noted that the refugee camp provides food and pocket money for its guests.

Twelve days into his stay in Germany, the man was able to set off for France and Italy.

"It isn't how I imagined Europe," WDR quoted the tourist as saying.

Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic surge in the number of refugees and immigrants coming to Europe, often travelling over the Mediterranean from the Middle East or Africa.

Germany alone saw more than 1.1 million migrant arrivals last year, often stretching the country's asylum system far beyond what it was designed for.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese tourist ends up in German refugee camp'. Print Edition | Subscribe