The Bridge of Love, Hope and Despair
How the Öresund Bridge has transformed lives and given birth to ‘Öresund Citizens’
If men had not gathered courage to overcome barriers, bridges wouldn’t exist. Bridges initiate a kind of metamorphosis; these steel, concrete, wood, and glass structures are instrument to evolution. That’s why, even in the current age when most experiences fail to stir us, crossing a bridge still seems to cast an effect of tentative exhilaration. Bridges are meant to connect, to defeat the chasms. But what happens when a bridge, meant to bring together peoples, becomes an agency to separate them?
“I live in Öresund”, Christian told me with a smile when I asked where he lived. We were crossing the Öresund Bridge when the long wait at the passport control in Hyllie, a municipality in South Sweden, got us into a conversation. Christian’s was a smart but deceptive answer, for the Öresund region comprises the eastern part of Denmark (Zealand mostly) and the southern part of Sweden (Skåne), and is signified by the Copenhagen-Malmö axis. Until 1658, the Skåne region of Sweden was under Danish rule, when following a heavy defeat in the second Northern War, Denmark had to concede it to Sweden. Living in Öresund, could technically be living either in Denmark or in Sweden. But the absoluteness of borderlines between the two countries has faded since the opening of the Öresund Bridge in July 2000. The bridge replaced what had previously been a slow ferry route.
The 7.8 kilometres long Öresund Bridge connects the southern tip of Sweden to east Denmark. The decision to build this bridge took a lifetime, and building it took another eight years. From the first inception of the idea in the 1900s to build it, the determination to construct the bridge diluted often. It was constantly debated whether such a construction, which is half under water and half over it, would impact the marine life. Eventually in the 1990s, the governments decided to lay the foundation, and so far, environmentally, it has turned out well. Recently conducted studies showed that marine life has actually improved in the shallow waters between Sweden and Denmark. The concrete base pillars over which the bridge stands has turned into artificial reefs, thus merging with the natural habitat.
The bridge is partially under water on the Danish side - the inflexion taking place at the artificial island of Pebeholm. In an untypical sense of good humour, the Danes named this island as the “pepper island” to complement the natural island of Saltholm (Salt Island) to its North. The bridge was constructed to economically marry the complimentary slivers of two nations: Sweden’s workforce with Denmark’s jobs. The bridge has expanded the job market considerably. The Öresund region now contributes 25-27% of Denmark’s and Sweden’s GDP. Economics shaped this concrete and steel form factor, which has now given a new identity of ‘Öresund citizens’ to the peoples of the two nations.
“Though I am a Dane, I actually live in Sweden and work in Denmark”, Christian went on to elaborate as Swedish Customs officers sieved through the train with sniffer dogs in tow, “it’s much cheaper and easier to get housing in Sweden. Travel time was a non-issue thanks to this bridge, but for these recently-implemented passport checks”. Christian left the sentence midway with an irate sigh. Passport control at country borders is a requisite elsewhere, but between Sweden and Denmark it has been a new experience. In January 2016, for the first time in half a century, Sweden started demanding photo identification for all travellers from Denmark. For many a believers in deeper unification in EU, this insistence dealt a blow to the idea of passport-free Schengen system. Scandinavian countries were the first to have open borders; it began only a decade after the Second World War, preceding the Schengen Agreement by nearly four decades. This recent demand for passport checks is aimed at keeping out undocumented refugees from coming to Sweden, a country which has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation. However, Sweden can no longer cope with the unregulated flow of new arrivals.
At the height of the refugee crisis, Sweden, a country of less than 10 million in population, was receiving 40,000 refugees every day. According to Sweden’s official Migration Agency statistics, the influx of refugees puts a strain on the economy of the country, and Sweden is expected to spend as much as one per cent of its GDP on asylum seekers in 2016. Over the years, a far right party, the Swedish Democrats, has gained strength. Given a growing shift in the popular opinion, Sweden introduced tougher rules at the start of 2016 designed to deter and keep out the asylum seekers. Putting border controls was one key step in this direction. And this measure has transformed the Öresund Bridge, once touted as the ‘bridge of reconciliation’ into a mute spectator, watching the refugees attempting to cross it and the police seeking them on the trains.
I cross Öresund Bridge every day to work. Just like Christian, I am an Öresund citizen, living in Sweden and working in Denmark. One day in May this year, when the air still carried enough bite that one needed at least two layers of warm protective clothing, a group of five young refugees walked from Denmark to Sweden across the Öresund Bridge in the high wind wearing thin jackets. That day I was in the train, which was halted indefinitely from entering the bridge. We waited several hours while the Swedish Police scrambled to locate the desperate mavericks. The Öresund bridge is fitted with a number of alarms that go off if people try to walk through the tunnel leading to the bridge, and refugees walking over it triggered the alarms. Walking on the Öresund Bridge is risking your life to fast moving traffic. But the refugees who have lived through considerable much more violence in their short lives, risking coming under a train is a minor inconvenience in return of the promise of a better life.
After this incident, I decided to learn more about how Öresund Bridge has transformed or impacted the lives of people around me. My “research” involved striking conversations with strangers in the train. One such conversation was with Sayid. Sayid ran away from Syria to come to Sweden. Why Sweden, I asked. “For refugees, there are only two real options, Germany or Sweden”, he answered, “I wanted to come to Sweden as people are more accepting here.” I asked Sayid about the day when he entered Sweden. Sweden was the ninth border that he crossed after a ferry had brought him to Greece from Syria. When he reached Denmark, there were no passport control, and if one made it to Denmark, it was remarkably easy to board the train to Sweden.
“The Öresund Bridge was literally the bridge of transformation for me” Sayid said, “It was a clear day. The buildings on the Swedish side gleamed in the sun, I remember. I wanted to see the train cross the entire length of the bridge with eyes open despite the exhaustion. Not just see, I wanted to feel the crossing with whole of myself”. Sayid’s was a mutation from the trauma of war into typicality that comes with the surety of everyday life. He had risked his life first to cross a sea and then a continent, finally reaching safety by crossing a bridge. What would be normal for him after all this, I could only imagine.
The Öresund Bridge is much more than a sea link, as I found out during my quest to understand the social mutation that it caused. “They call us love refugees in Denmark”, answered Lars when I asked him what it means for him to cross the bridge daily to work in Denmark. Lars is also a Dane but lives in south Malmö with his wife – a Pakistani lady. “Love Refugee” was an interesting word to come across; was it inspired by a Bob Marley’s song, I wondered. It turned out that when Lars decided to take his wife from outside Denmark, she was not given a residence permit in Denmark. Stumped on the treatment and refusing to leave either his country or his wife, Lars shifted to the other side of the bridge with his family though he continued work in his motherland, Denmark. He thus became a “love refugee”. The Danish government has peculiar rules around immigration – one being that if a Dane marries a woman from outside EU, especially from some developing country, then it is extremely difficult for the newlywed to get the residence permit. It is therefore no surprise that Malmö has become a nest for thousands of such Danish “love refugees”. Invariably, the Öresund Bridge has been a consequential character in all their love stories.
I thought about my own life and how has the Öresund Bridge impacted it. I have no stories of despair but only of hope. I have been living in Nordics for more than eight years now, and have crossed the bridge more than 2500 times. After being on this bridge so many times, I miss the days when I don’t look out of the train window and see the spread-out wind farm in the middle of the Öresund Strait. These wind turbines source energy from the natural wind tunnel between the land masses. They seem to move perpetually, in sync with nature, as if creating, and not harnessing, clean energy. Amidst all this, the Öresund Bridge rises like a mythical structure.
The stories I came across while researching about the Öresund Bridge has given me a different perspective on the time I spend in the train while crossing it. When I cross the bridge now, I look around in the compartment as much as I look outside – attempting to read the sleepy, engrossed or lost faces around me. I often marvel at the chance setting, for without the Öresund Bridge none of us would have come together, and nor would I have penned down this unique tale of a people birthed by a bridge.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu