Lise Ramslog was out for a barefoot amble on the warm day last September that Europe’s refugee crisis came to her remote village in southern Denmark.

The 70-year-old grandmother had planned a simple stroll. What she found in her quiet, coastal community were hundreds of exhausted asylum seekers who had arrived on the ferry from Germany only to be stranded without access to public transportation. Some had begun to walk along the highway in desperation.

Ramslog decided on the spot that she would help: She ended up giving two young couples, a small child and a newborn baby a 120-mile ride in her cramped sedan to their destination in Sweden. “When we crossed the border, they rejoiced and cried,” she recalled.

In another context, Ramslog might be known as a good Samaritan.

But the Danish government has a different term for her: convicted human smuggler.

When an influx of refugees arrived in Denmark from Germany in September, Danish authorities prohibited them from taking public transit. Danish citizens who drove refugees to the Swedish border are now being convicted of human smuggling. (Griff Witte,Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The decision by authorities to prosecute Ramslog — and to charge hundreds of other Danish citizens with a similar crime — is to many here just the latest evidence of a society that, when faced with an unparalleled influx of migrants and refugees, has taken a nasty turn.

In that respect, Denmark has company: Across Europe, a once-tender embrace of those fleeing conflicts on the continent’s doorstep has evolved into an uncompromising rejection.

Last week, authorities in Greece began sending new arrivals back across the sea to Turkey, as part of a policy intended to permanently close the path via which more than 1 million people sought sanctuary last year.

But as Europe walls itself off, the continent is left to reckon with what’s become of its long-
cherished humanitarian beliefs. And to many in Denmark, the chasm between reputation and reality looks particularly gaping.

“We’re losing respect for the values upon which we built our country and our European Union,” said Andreas Kamm, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council. “It’s becoming very hard to defend human rights.”

This Scandinavian nation of compulsively friendly people is celebrated by U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as a ­social-welfare utopia, one that was recently judged the world’s happiest place. Ranking high in the country’s pantheon of heroes are those who protected Jews during the Holocaust or who helped the oppressed escape from behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

How Europe is punishing migrants

But when it has come to those fleeing 21st-century conflicts on Europe’s doorstep, Denmark has gone into overdrive to broadcast its hostility. While Germany continues to welcome asylum seekers, and other European countries such as Sweden held their doors open for as long as they could, Denmark has taken a hard line almost from the beginning.

The government slashed refugees’ benefits, then advertised the cuts in Lebanese newspapers. It has enabled police to confiscate refugees’ valuables, including cash and jewelry. And authorities have made it far more difficult for those already here to reunite with their families, upping the wait time from one year to three.

Now ordinary Danes are getting caught up in the crackdown, punished for what many saw as a quintessentially good deed. “I’m proud of what I did and will never regret having done it,” said Ramslog, her gray hair highlighted by plastic pink heart barrettes and her clear blue eyes welling with tears. “But I don’t want to be known as a criminal.”

‘Huge pressure’

Yet that’s exactly what she is, following a March conviction. And according to the far-right party that holds the balance of power in the Danish Parliament, it’s what she deserves, even though the police ordered the state-run railway to begin transporting asylum seekers only days after Ramslog opened her car door and invited them in.

“These people broke the law,” said Peter Kofod Poulsen, a recently elected member of Parliament from the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. “Human smuggling is not all right — not if it’s done by the train company and not if it’s done by private individuals.”

Poulsen, who at 26 is Parliament’s third-youngest member, has helped push the country’s weak center-right government to take a less-forgiving line on asylum seekers since the once-fringe DPP surged to second place in elections in June.

The number of refugees taken in by Denmark, he said, should be “as close to zero as possible.” The alternative, in Poulsen’s view, is the end of everything Danes hold dear — including low crime rates and high-quality government services. Welcoming Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others fleeing war, he said, is just too burdensome.

“This country is falling apart,” said Poulsen, who is slim, blond and self-assured. “We used to have a safe, monocultural society. Now our welfare state is under huge pressure.”

The notion that Denmark can’t adequately look out for its own if it is also giving sanctuary to asylum seekers has found wide appeal here. Anti-refugee positions once considered extreme are now embraced by a broad cross section of the country’s politicians.

The hardening of public attitudes has been underway for at least a decade. But a key turning point in popular opinion may have been that day last September when asylum seekers took to the highways to walk.

Many had been blocked a week earlier from leaving Hungary, leading to a bulge in numbers on the migrant trail.

When they arrived in Denmark, on Sept. 7, they were initially barred from using public transportation unless they agreed to be registered — something few were willing to do because they wanted to travel onward to more hospitable destinations, especially Sweden.

When Danes turned on their televisions that day, they saw highways clogged with people in need.

“That was an eye-opener for many Danes,” said Kasper Moller Hansen, a University of Copenhagen political scientist. “They thought, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of people. We can’t help all of them.’ ”

Instinctual response

Other Danes took a different lesson, jumping in their cars and driving to the small ferry terminal in Rodby to offer asylum seekers a lift.

Lisbeth Zornig, a well-known child-rights activist and author, was in the area and decided she couldn’t imagine driving back to Copenhagen with an empty car.

“I’d never seen people in need that way in Denmark before,” she said. “They were hungry. They were thirsty. They didn’t have anything but the clothes they were wearing.”

She opened her minivan’s doors to a small group of Syrians, and four adults and twin 5-year-old girls hopped in. “Two minutes later, they were sleeping in the back seat,” she said.

In Copenhagen, her husband, former journalist Mikael Lindholm, served them coffee and cookies, and offered to let them spend the night. But they were eager to get to Sweden, where anxious relatives awaited. He drove them to the train station.

Both Zornig and Lindholm were convicted last month of human smuggling — a crime usually associated with greedy profiteers, not humanitarian do-gooders. Each was ordered to pay a fine amounting to about $3,350.

Ramslog had her fine cut in half because she’s retired and lives on a small pension. It’s still far more than she can afford. Until now, her most serious run-in with the law was a speeding ticket.

She said she responded that September day from instinct, not from any plan. At most, she thought she would drive the refugees, who desperately wanted passage to Sweden, a few miles up the road. “But then I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just go a little further,’ ” she recalled.

The baby slept the whole way, pressed tight to her mother’s breast. The young boy nibbled on biscuits and sipped apple juice.

Ramslog was still barefoot when, as night fell, she steered her car across the bridge linking Denmark to Sweden. She had no phone and barely enough money to cover the toll.

“Thank you! Thank you!” her passengers exclaimed when she pulled over to drop them off.

Before they parted, Ramslog dug from her pocket a small charm — a four-leaf clover encased in glass that she had been given to remember her daughter, who died last year.

She pressed it into the boy’s palm.

“May you have better luck,” she said.

Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

Read more:

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Europe’s new border fences are derailing migrants but not stopping them

Spring could bring a fresh surge of refugees. But Europe isn’t ready for them.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world