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Danes Face Smuggling Charges for Giving Migrants a Lift

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Already under fire for ordering police to seize jewelry from asylum-seekers, Denmark is seeing its humanitarian credentials once again being questioned as it presses smuggling charges against people who gave migrants a ride to neighboring Sweden.

Denmark's public prosecutor's office says 230 people have been charged for helping people transit through the country illegally at the height of Europe's migrant crisis last fall. Prosecutors note that Danish trafficking laws don't distinguish between smuggling people for financial gain and doing it for humanitarian reasons.

But critics say it's shameful to go after Danes who were touched by images of exhausted migrants walking along Danish highways, and just wanted to lend them a hand.

"This is far away from the idea I had of our society, a humane society where we care about others,'' said Calle Vangstrup, who in September crossed the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden four times with up to 20 Syrians.

He and three sailor friends were charged with people-smuggling and are awaiting a trial date.

Under European Union border agreements, Danish authorities were supposed to stop the migrants at the southern border with Germany and ask them to seek asylum in Denmark or turn back. At first, police did try to do that. But as the migrant numbers swelled, authorities decided to let them travel to Sweden, one of the most popular European destinations for migrants. Denmark's state railroad company even let them cross the country for free.

Danish authorities haven't explained how they tracked down individual offenders. But the bulk of those fined were people who spoke publicly about how they helped migrants.

Many of the volunteers who offered migrants a ride by car or boat feel it's unfair that they are being punished when the railroad company was essentially doing the same thing.

Lisbeth Zorning Andersen and her husband drove six Syrian migrants across Denmark and served them coffee and buns on Sept. 6.

"Those days were chaotic,'' she recalled. "When I stood there with a family boarding my car, there were three police officers and they didn't stop me or tell me it was against the law.''

In March, Zorning Andersen and her husband were fined 22,500 kroner ($3,330) each. They have appealed the ruling.

"I believe it is good that these people got fined. They broke the law,'' said Peter Kofod Poulsen of the populist, anti-immigration Danish People's Party that is the country's second-largest political group in Parliament.

"It is a scandal that DSB [the state railway] didn't feel the consequences of their acts. What they did was human smuggling, no discussion. ... But there was no political will to pursue them.''

Denmark's justice and integration ministers didn't respond to requests seeking comment.

Tens of thousands of migrants showed up on Denmark's southern border with Germany in September. Most of them wanted to travel through the country to Sweden to seek asylum there, or continue to Norway or Finland. More than 160,000 people applied for asylum in Sweden last year, eight times more than in Denmark.

Michela Bendixen, head of the Refugees Welcome volunteer group, said she was stunned by Denmark's crackdown on those who gave migrants a lift.

"I find authorities have taken a very stringent and much harsher approach than I ever could have imagined,'' Bendixen said. "We are not talking about people-smugglers who do it to make money but private people who act for humanitarian reasons.''

Earlier this year, Denmark made international headlines when a law was passed requiring asylum-seekers to hand over valuables worth more than 10,000 kroner ($1,500), to help cover housing and food costs while their cases are being processed.

Although the government said it was in line with rules for unemployed Danes seeking welfare benefits, critics denounced the law as degrading and inhumane. As of mid-April, there had not been a single seizure of valuables.

Some Danes have called for changing the law to differentiate between human trafficking for profit and aiding people in need. Others, though, have no sympathy for the volunteers who are being prosecuted.

"They must take what comes when breaking the law,'' said Ingrid Holst, a 46-year-old office assistant in Copenhagen. "I don't feel any pity for them. I wouldn't have done it myself.''

Some say the crackdown stands in contrast to how Danish citizens helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazis during World War II, by shuttling them in boats from German-occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden.

Zorning Andersen, though, said "the two things cannot be compared'' because the Danes who helped Jews risked their own lives. Also, today's migrants aren't at risk of persecution in Denmark.

Leo Goldberger, a New Yorker who escaped with his family from Denmark to Sweden in a fishing boat on Oct. 2, 1943, is an outspoken critic of Denmark's approach to the migrant crisis.

In an email to The Associated Press, he said he feels strongly that it's wrong to criminalize "so many well-meaning ordinary Danes who are fined for simply offering some incidental help to an obviously needy family in despair.''