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In Europe without papers

How I became an illegal immigrant in Europe for one week

I travel every year for a month to Europe to visit people instead of places. This year was special for many reasons, one of them was that for a week I was an ‘illegal immigrant.’

It was not a deliberate act. I took an international bus at midnight, July 9, from Vienna to a German university town of Tübingen. I was to take a halt for three hours in the morning at Munich and change to another bus that was to arrive at Tübingen late in the afternoon.

I keep my passport in a pouch with 200 Euros (which is more than Rs 16,000), in the top pocket of my smaller backpack and zip it. I keep the backpack on the floor in front of me saddled between the legs. In the wee hours when the bus was to cross the border into Germany, I went for a leak. The bus I was travelling in, despite being the cheapest mode of transportation, has a bathroom quite similar to the ones on planes. I was back in a couple of minutes, nothing seemed amiss. The fellow traveller seated next to me, a young lad with a ponytail, if memory serves me well, shifted to the vacant backseats. I dozed off.

I had a good walk in Munich after storing my luggage in a locker at the bus station. It was only when I was about to take the connecting bus to Tübingen that I realised the passport pouch was missing. I searched my luggage again and again but I knew it was gone. I took the bus to Tübingen, made an on-line complaint to Flixbus — the bus belonged to this private transport company. They promised to inform me as soon as they find my passport. Two weeks later, I got a letter of regret from them.

In Tübingen, my host was a young German scholar and a dear friend, Johannes Lundershausen. Soon after my arrival, we visited a local police station. The seniormost officer present attended to us, Johannes was the interpreter as most of the conversation was in German. The cop was polite, met us in a well-lit airy room, advised us to file a ‘lost’ complaint instead of saying the passport was ‘stolen’. Apparently, this would save them a lot of paperwork. We stood our ground that a police complaint is not a mere formality and hopefully prompt action by police may help recover my passport. I was worried it could be misused. In about half an hour, the cops handed me a copy of my police complaint.

I stayed in Tübingen for next 36 hours. In the meantime, wrote to the Netherlands Embassy in Delhi, informing them that I lost my passport and along with it the multi-entry Schengen Visa issued by them for five years in July 2016. I received a prompt reply informing me that I should contact the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, and that they should be able to help me. But before I did that, I needed a new passport.

I contacted a friend who holds a very senior position in the Ministry of External Affairs. I was advised to contact the Indian Embassy in Berlin, and my friend assured me monosyllabically, “Done”.

I reached Berlin on Thursday evening to visit embassies of India and Netherlands on Friday, that’s July 12.

I received a call from Rajiv Bajpai, consular officer in Indian Embassy in Berlin, advising me to carry a couple of passport-sized pictures, the police complaint and a copy of the lost passport. I walked across lush green Tiergarten (garden) damp with early morning drizzle to reach the Indian Embassy by 10 o’clock. My papers were processed and I was handed over the new temporary passport valid only for a year within two hours.

This was only a partial success; the real battle lay ahead. I reached the Netherlands embassy at about 1 pm. I pleaded with the security there about the urgency of the matter. I was allowed in despite it being the lunch hour. The big office behind the glass screen was empty but for a middle-aged lady who promptly attended me. She was empathetic to my cause but of little help. For a new visa, she informed, I will have to go to the Netherlands. She directed me to Luxembourg Embassy in Berlin for further details as they deal with visa-related issues of the Netherlands. That came as a bit of a surprise: Issuing visas is such a sovereign function, how can that be delegated to another country?

She informed, kindly enough, her counterparts in Luxembourg Embassy that an Indian in distress would soon be knocking their doors. I reach there by 2:30 pm and was informed on a mike at the entrance that the embassy is closed for the weekend and was advised to come on Monday. I pleaded but to no avail. I told the staffer that I will remain an illegal immigrant over the
weekend and that’s their responsibility.

I visited a friend, Ina, in Berlin. Thereafter, took a late-night train to Griefswald where my friend, Jan Peters, an environmentalist, lives. We were to leave for our annual road trip, this time we had a planned a 10-day road trip to Denmark covering some 2,000 km along the coast of the Baltic Sea. The whole trip was in a jeopardy as we might be forced to travel to the Netherlands. Jan was not too keen to travel to the Netherlands, he advised we should try Berlin first.

We drove towards Berlin on Sunday morning, stayed out soaking up the sun for a good part of the day, camped on the outskirts and presented ourselves at the Luxembourg Embassy sharp at 9 am on Monday morning. I had to wait for the consular officer to arrive while Corinne Dijoux attended to me.

I told them that I don’t intend abandoning my trip midway, so we have to find a way out. They are nice people, issued me a Luxembourg visa instead of the one from Netherlands. This whole process takes at least three days, but Corinne made sure it took only a few hours.

That evening we went out to a bohemian bar-cum-theatre, Zukunft am Ostkreuz in Friedrichshain, which has extensive graffiti on the walls, even in the toilet. A conspicuous poster with a bloody image, declared ‘The Dead Don’t Die’, in my head I added, ‘a missing paper is a good reason to be dead.’

That evening I got drunk on dark beer anticipating that next morning will bring new energy. A paper goes missing and you suddenly become an outlaw, your existence in the eyes of authorities becomes illegal and you’re deemed as a risk to the state.

After collecting my new visa duly stamped on my new passport, I set out on an experiential journey with Jan Peters on Tuesday morning after a delay of a couple of days. Two weeks later, I took a flight back to India from Helsinki. The immigration took half an hour to process my new passport, while the officer attending to me, Tomi Koivunen, offered me chips and soft drinks.

He later demonstrated how to carry a passport in a pouch hanging by the neck with a long string, hidden away under the shirt. “I did the same when was travelling in Germany,” he said.