The well-dressed 31-year-old, known as Mr L, spoke only Mandarin. German authorities only discovered their mistake after turning in desperation to a local Chinese restaurant to interpret for them, a Red Cross official said on Monday.
“He didn’t speak any German or English — only Mandarin,” Christoph Schluetermann, head of a Red Cross refugee centre in the northern town of Duelmen, told Reuters after the man from Beijing was released to resume his tour of Europe.
“He spent 12 days trapped in our bureaucratic jungle because we couldn’t communicate,” he said. “Germany is unfortunately an extremely bureaucratic country. Especially during the refugee crisis I’ve seen how much red tape we have.”
After being robbed in the tourist town of Heidelberg, the man went to city hall, which he thought was a police station, where he signed an asylum application. He was then taken 360 km (220 miles) to a refugee shelter in Duelmen and given food and spending money like other refugees.
More than one million refugees have arrived in Germany in the last year, fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. There has been only a tiny number of Chinese asylum seekers over the years, Schluetermann said.
The man was fingerprinted and given a medical exam, but drew the attention of staff partly because he was well-dressed.
“But he (also) acted so differently to other refugees,” said Schluetermann. “He kept trying to talk to people to tell his story but no one could understand him. He kept asking to get his passport back, which is the opposite of what most refugees do.”
Red Cross staff tried to get translation help from on-line apps but only learned the truth when they finally turned to a local Chinese restaurant.
“It was an extraordinary moment for us all. He said Europe was not what he had expected,” said Schluetermann, adding that the man was happy to leave but not upset.
“What would you expect if you had come to Europe as a tourist and spent 12 days sleeping on a camping bed in a refugee centre?”