No one knows who they are

published in the Danish Newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.

A long-limbed figure steps out into the drizzle. The lighter catches fire on a cigarette and the glow flares under the tired eyes hiding behind the hoodie. Aleksandr Gromov, as he calls himself, looks around the sleepy station town in Jutland. Even though he is standing right here in front of us - even though you might bump into him in the supermarket, at the swimming pool or in the local sports hall - his identity doesn't actually exist. For almost 12 years, a married couple without residence permits have been living in Denmark. They claim to be from Russia, but the Danish authorities believe they are lying about who they are. The couple have submitted one application for residence after another and have been rejected each time. Therefore, they are obliged to leave the country. There's just one problem: they don't have any documents that can identify them. So where to send them? Who are they anyway?

The Russian authorities refuse to recognize them. As a result, the couple are stuck in limbo here in Denmark. They can neither work nor get an education. Meanwhile, their three children are growing up without citizenship. Through thousands of documents and interviews with the couple, I have gained insight into a convoluted process that reveals the powerlessness of the system and how a police officer tried for years to uncover the couple's true identity.

In the end, he went too far. In 2016, Aleksandr Gromov was deported to Russia with the identity of another man (read the full text below)

No one knows who they are (full text)

In the late afternoon of May 21, 2011, a tall man and a slender woman were walking along a country road somewhere in North Zealand. They turned down a side road and passed through a heavy gate into a cluster of yellow barracks. A sign indicated that they had reached the right place: Center Sandholm. The center is the first place you register as an asylum seeker in Denmark. The couple approached the reception and introduced themselves as the married couple Aleksandr Gromov and Oksana Gromova. They were given a meal and then questioned by the police with the help of an interpreter. The couple had arrived in Denmark two days earlier, they explained. They had entered on fake Lithuanian passports and had thought they had come to Norway. After spending two bewildered days at Copenhagen Central Station, they had decided to take the train to Center Sandholm. The interrogation report states that upon arrival at the center, they were not in possession of any form of identification. The only thing they had with them was a punch card and a bag full of clothes. They explained that they were Russian and that they had "fled from the authorities". After the interrogation, they were detained and spent three nights in the prison-like Ellebæk Immigration Center. Later, they were questioned again separately in order to establish their identity. It was during these interrogations that the seeds were sown for the mistrust that would characterize the relationship between the couple and the Danish authorities for more than 10 years.

The first interrogation

Aleksandr Gromov's interrogation went something like this:

He claimed that in 2007, at the age of 21, he had been hired as a driver by the local police in Tver - a medium-sized town near Moscow. Both he and his wife were born and raised in Tver and married in 2008. Since then, they had lived together in an apartment belonging to Aleksandr Gromov's father.

Aleksandr Gromov was proud to work for the police, he explains today. "I love my country and wanted to help people." But at one point, his boss had tried to get him to extort money from business owners. Aleksandr Gromov had refused, but his police colleagues hadn't taken no for an answer. They locked him in a cell and beat him, according to the interrogation report. Aleksandr Gromov had tried to complain to a higher authority, but the complaint had been stopped by the police. Together with his wife, he had fled to Moscow in 2011. One day, when his wife had been home alone, she had been approached and assaulted by plainclothes officers who had stolen Aleksandr Gromov's domestic passport. Now fearing for their lives, Aleksandr Gromov had paid a human smuggler 6,000 euros for two fake Lithuanian passports and a trip to Norway. The smuggler had picked them up in a minibus in Moscow. They had traveled for about 24 hours, crossed a land border, presented the fake passports, spent the night on a ferry and drove on for another 24 hours, Aleksandr Gromov explained.

Unreliable explanations

They had arrived at Copenhagen Central Station early in the morning. The human smuggler had confiscated the fake passports and asked them to wait while he drove to a lawyer to help them. He would call them in a couple of hours. The couple had taken a single bag of clothes out of the minivan, but left the rest behind.

They never heard from him again.

The next day, a random Russian-speaking man at the Central Station had told them that they should drive to Center Sandholm.

The police officer who took down Aleksandr Gromov's statement found it unbelievable. For example, he could not remember his own phone number or the address of the apartment in Moscow where the couple had lived until a few days ago. Aleksandr Gromov's identity documents were in his father's apartment in Tver, but he had no contact with him. His mother was dead. Aleksandr Gromov also said that he had done two years of military service in Russia, but that he could not remember the name of the barracks or any of his commanders.

Rejection of asylum 

Oksana Gromova was questioned by the same police officer later that day. Her testimony was largely consistent with what her husband had told her. But there were also discrepancies. For example, she only remembered that her husband had been detained by his colleagues once, not three times as he had explained. Like her husband, she claimed that she had no contact with her parents or other acquaintances in Russia that she could contact to obtain ID papers. While the authorities processed their application, the couple was moved to an asylum center in Jelling. They were called in for new interviews with the Danish Immigration Service and the Danish Refugee Council, where they repeated their story. Like the police, the Immigration Service found the explanations unreliable. There were too many inconsistencies.

The Danish Refugee Council saw the case differently and believed that the couple's explanations were "credible and consistent" and argued that the couple could not get the necessary protection in Russia. In September 2011, the Immigration Service responded: the couple had been refused asylum. There were too many inconsistencies in their explanations. Even if their story was true, it would not be enough to be granted asylum in Denmark, the Immigration Service added. The rejection stated that the couple should be able to get protection from the federal authorities in Russia. In 2012, the Refugee Appeals Board reached the same decision. The case was now finally closed. If they did not leave the country within seven days, the police would be put on the case. This is how the couple became acquainted with the unusual methods of a special police assistant.

2012: Police assistant turns up the heat

The case ended up with a male police officer at the National Immigration Center of the Danish National Police.

He began making regular trips to Center Sandholm to remind the couple that they had a duty to leave the country and to encourage them to provide identification. One day in July 2012, he met Aleksandr Gromov for the first time. The rejected asylum seeker told him that his wife had just given birth to their first child - a daughter. Therefore, they wanted to stay in Denmark. Moreover, he was still afraid of returning to Russia. After several conversations with the couple, it became clear to the police officer that they were either unable or unwilling to provide any form of identification. Instead, he asked the Russian migration authorities to accept the couple and their newborn daughter. Attached to the request were photos of the couple, their fingerprints, full names and dates of birth.

A month later, the reply arrived via the Danish embassy in Moscow: The Russians could not identify the couple. The couple had never been issued Russian passports and they had never been registered at any address in Russia.

The police assistant turned up the heat.

Corruption in Russia

To understand the context of this case, you need to think back to a different time. Ten years ago, Denmark's relationship with Russia was very different than it is today. Diplomatic relations were warm, cheap gas flowed freely, and then-Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (V) wanted to "strengthen relations" with Russia.

The countries had signed a visa agreement in 2008, which also covered the return of citizens. So it should not be a problem to deport two Russian citizens. In fact, just over 100 Russian citizens were refused asylum in Denmark every year. Those who were allowed to stay were primarily Chechens who had been accused of supporting a rebel movement. Cases like that of Aleksandr Gromov, who had allegedly fled from his police colleagues, were rare. Corruption and extortion did indeed permeate the Russian police. This is according to a report published by the Canadian Immigration Service in 2011. The Russian media often reported on police officers who themselves made money from organized crime or extortion. Conversely, Russia tried to curb corruption in those years. A new police law was passed and complaints poured in. However, the handling of complaints left much to be desired. This is also evident in the Canadian report. Often only low-ranking police officers were prosecuted. And often they received a light sentence, or no sentence at all. It was also not without cost for police officers to report their colleagues for corruption, as Aleksandr Gromov claimed to have done. The complainant risked being fired or even prosecuted on a fabricated basis, the report says. In addition, many witnesses in court cases experienced threats and the police were only able to protect a few of them. If Aleksandr Gromov's story is true, he had good reason to doubt the authorities' ability to protect him.

2016: A possible lead?

In 2016, the police officer and Aleksandr Gromov met for another of their conversations. For almost four years, the police officer had been trying to identify Gromov and his wife so that they could be deported.

He had presented the couple at the Russian embassy, contacted Interpol in Kyiv, Minsk and Moscow and had the Danish Immigration Service withdraw the couple's cash benefits to put pressure on them. But nothing helped. Nor was it possible to confirm that Aleksandr Gromov had ever worked for the police in Tver.

The police assistant had even conducted a search of the couple's apartment at the asylum center, which also turned up nothing. At the meeting in 2016, Aleksandr Gromov now said that he had tried to send a letter to his old school teacher. Maybe she could help identify him. Aleksandr Gromov showed a picture of the letter to the police officer, who noticed that he had forgotten to write "Russia" on the envelope, which is why the letter had probably never arrived. The police officer suggested that they go together to Aleksandr Gromov's profile on VKontakte - a Russian social media. There was an interesting piece of information there. Namely, the name of the school Aleksandr Gromov allegedly attended.

Later that day, the police officer called the school with the help of an interpreter. As agreed, he sent them an email with Aleksandr Gromov's full name, date of birth and a picture of him.

A week later, the reply came:

The school had once had a student named Aleksandr Gromov.

But there was a problem.

The man in Tver

The primary school in Tver had replied to the police officer that a man named Aleksandr Gromov had indeed graduated from the school in 2000. But this man also had a middle name, Sergeevich. However, the man the Danish police were trying to deport had stated that his middle name was Olegovich.

And that wasn't the only discrepancy. The man who had attended the school also had a different date of birth than the one given by the man in Denmark. The staff at the Russian primary school had also failed to recognize the picture of the man that the police officer had sent them. Nevertheless, the police officer was convinced that he had found the right man.

He had therefore contacted the Russian migration authorities again and asked them to accept the return of Aleksandr Sergeevich Gromov.

He had also, once again, asked Interpol Moscow for help in identifying the man. This time he had added the middle name Sergeevich and changed the date of birth. The attached photograph and fingerprints were still the same. The inquiry to Interpol had prompted Russian police to drive to the address in the town of Tver where the man with the middle name Sergeevich was registered. Here they had been able to establish that he was at home. The man had confirmed that it was him and that he had graduated from the school in question in 2000. But he had never met the man in the photo sent by the Danish police. All this was stated in the reply from Interpol Moscow, which landed in the police officer's inbox at the end of June 2016.

In other words, it was a different person. At first, it looked like the police officer had to go back to the drawing board. But the very next day, he received another message.

A temporary passport

The Russian migration authorities had finalized his request to return Aleksandr Sergeevich Gromov. Apparently, they had simply established that the name did indeed belong to a Russian citizen. Therefore, the authorities "had the honor to announce" that he could be returned to Russia without any problems.

This was a breakthrough in the case.

Aleksandr Gromov tried to argue with the police officer that it was not him. But the officer replied, according to the police report, that when the Russian authorities "had identified him, we took it at face value". The police officer had then persuaded Aleksandr Gromov to sign a declaration to leave the country. As Oksana Gromova had still not been identified, they had agreed that Aleksandr Gromov would travel to Moscow alone and arrange documents for the rest of the family. After the interrogations, the police assistant had contacted the Russian embassy in Copenhagen and asked for travel documents. The embassy had then issued a temporary passport with a photo of Aleksandr Gromov, but with the middle name Sergeevich and the birth date of his namesake.

I have asked the embassy myself how this could happen, but have not received an answer.

The police officer has since explained himself to a legal consultant at the police. Here he has claimed that the embassy was aware of the information from Interpol, where it appeared that there was a name mix-up, but that the embassy still chose to issue the temporary passport based on the acceptance from the Russian migration authorities.

However, there is no trace of this communication in the documents Jyllands-Posten have been given access to.

A desperate message

On the evening of October 12, 2016, Aleksandr Gromov arrived by train from Jutland to Copenhagen Airport. He had been told to leave the airport that evening. At the terminal, he met the police assistant and the two sat down in the departure hall and had a cup of coffee. According to Aleksandr Gromov, he told both the police officer and airport staff that the temporary passport was not correct. But the answer was allegedly that they would find out when he landed in Russia. Over coffee, the police assistant repeated that he would try to get passports for the rest of his family as soon as he arrived in Moscow. He also gave him some money for the journey. Just before midnight, Aleksandr Gromov boarded the flight. The police officer stood at the gate and watched as the plane took off and disappeared into the night, heading for Moscow. A week later, the real Aleksandr Sergeevich Gromov received a long message in Russia from a woman he had never met before.

The woman introduced herself as Oksana Gromova. She had found him on the social media site VKontakte and asked for his help in solving a problem. From the desperate message, he understood that the woman's husband had traveled to Moscow on a passport issued in his name. At the airport, the man had been detained by the police. She hadn't been able to reach him for days and was worried that something had happened to him. "I'm not a scammer," she wrote, urging him to help her clear up the misunderstanding. Aleksandr Sergeevich Gromov remembered well that the police had shown up at his home a few months before, asking questions about his passport. And now this. "How can I help you?", he asked the woman.

Thrown in a cell

Upon arrival at Moscow airport, Aleksandr Gromov had, by his own account, panicked.

He had landed late at night and had been stopped by border police. They had accused him of having forged the passport issued by the embassy and he was stuck at the airport. The next day, he had called the police assistant in Denmark. "He stated that he was detained by the Russian authorities and that he would like my help," the police officer subsequently wrote in a report. "He was informed that the Danish Police could not help him, as he was accepted by the Russian authorities and was deported on a travel document issued by the Russian Embassy in Copenhagen."

With that, the police assistant had ended the conversation. Aleksandr Gromov was left to fend for himself.

Gromov claims today that the Russian border guards threatened to charge him with forgery. "They said they would check if I was from Russia and then throw me straight into prison. So I panicked," says Aleksandr Gromov. He had the impulse to claim that he was actually from Belarus and not a Russian citizen at all. In this way, he hoped to avoid being charged. The police threw him in a cell at the airport while they tried to find out who he was. He stayed there for several weeks. He claims he was repeatedly taken into an office where he was interrogated under pressure, beaten and knocked off a chair. "They wanted me to be stressed and scared," he says. In Jelling, Oksana Gromova had become increasingly worried. Aleksandr Gromov's phone had gone dead and she could no longer reach him. In desperation, she contacted not only the real Aleksandr Sergeevich Gromov, but also the couple's lawyer and the Danish Red Cross for help. A Red Cross employee subsequently wrote an email to the police in which she unraveled the story, including the information that Aleksandr Gromov believed he was being sent under another man's identity. "We are very concerned about the progress of this case and would therefore like to hear about what has happened as soon as possible," the employee wrote.

The inquiry was sent around the police and eventually ended up with a legal consultant at North Zealand Police with the message: "Please take care of this. It sounds strange."

Returning to Denmark

Three weeks after the deployment, the police assistant was contacted by an employee from the Danish embassy in Moscow; Aleksandr Gromov was on his way back. The Russian authorities "could not accept" the request to return Aleksandr Gromov, they wrote in a letter to the Danish embassy. Moreover, the real Aleksandr Sergeevich Gromov had approached the authorities at the request of Oksana Gromova and thus contributed to solving the case.

The Danish police assistant wrote in his report that the reason was that "the travel document was issued due to false information from him".

But Aleksandr Gromov had always maintained that it was not his name. The police assistant had also been warned by Interpol that the identity belonged to another man.

Now the Russian authorities had also realized this. From that moment on, the police assistant disappeared from the files. The case was handed over to another employee. I have contacted the police officer in question. He has not wished to comment.

Back to square one

As soon as Aleksandr Gromov landed on Danish soil again, he took the train back to the asylum center in Jelling. Here his family was waiting for him. In the following days, he shut himself away and Oksana Gromova had difficulty communicating with him. Meanwhile, the National Immigration Center at the North Zealand Police had taken over the task of deporting rejected asylum seekers. Here, the couple's case initially landed in the hands of an experienced detective. He called the Russian migration authorities to see if they had any leads. The Russian caseworker remembered the case.

He told him that, like the Danish police, they had contacted several primary schools in Tver and taken Aleksandr Gromov's fingerprints. None of this had yielded any results. They had also contacted the authorities in Belarus, who had denied that he was a Belarusian citizen.

The Danish police were once again at a loss. The detective re-interviewed Aleksandr Gromov and got him to send a list of names and addresses of 11 friends in Russia that he claimed to have tried to contact.

He forwarded the list to the Russian caseworker with whom he had spoken on the phone. "Based on this information about friends/contacts in Russia, will you check whether they can confirm the foreigner's identity?" he wrote. But there was no reply. After a few months of silence, the Danish detective called again. "Has your investigation revealed anything new about Aleksandr Gromov?" he asked in an email. When he didn't hear anything, he tried to call the Russian caseworker. He received an automated reply stating that the phone number had been discontinued. "Therefore, no contact was made", he wrote in his report. After six years, the police were still no closer to finding out who the couple were or where in the world they came from.

2022: 12 years as unknown in Denmark 

One day in the fall of 2022, the editorial team takes a trip to Jelling.

Aleksandr Gromov and Oksana Gromova have now lived in Denmark for almost 12 years. The couple hopes that it will help their case if journalists take a closer look.

With their permission, I have gained access to their files and reviewed the thousands of documents. The case pile contains numerous interrogation reports, years of email correspondence between authorities, intimate details about the couple's health, praise from school teachers, educators and friends in Denmark and much, much more. But just like the caseworkers in the police, the editorial team has reached a dead end. After months of research, we don't know if the couple is telling the truth or if they have fabricated a story to illegally gain residence in Denmark. But if the latter is the case, a new question arises: Why hold on to a lie that offers no future?

An ordinary life

We park the car at a small two-story house near Jelling Station.

The couple has been allowed to live in an apartment outside the asylum center with their now three children.

Aleksandr Gromov is standing at the back entrance. He is a clean-cut man with tousled hair and a solid jaw. A good-natured smile spreads across his tired face as he greets and welcomes you. The apartment on the first floor is nicely furnished with the means at hand. On the dining table is a bouquet of flowers that Aleksandr Gromov has bought for his wife. At one end of a spacious living room is the couple's double bed. At the other end is a crib surrounded by colorful toys and stuffed animals for the couple's son. On the walls are framed photographs of the family's time in Denmark: The children sledding in the snow. A happy day at the swimming pool. A Christmas Eve with a decorated Christmas tree and colored lights. We sit down at the family dining table. In the kitchen, Oksana Gromova rumbles. She is shy and stays out of the conversation. Aleksandr Gromov pours a cup of coffee and begins to tell us how it all began. "We had an ordinary life," he says in Danish, which he has learned to speak almost fluently.

»It's strange«

Over the following hours, he repeats the story he has told over and over again to the Danish authorities. Much of the time, he recounts with great conviction and detail. He tells anecdotes from his life in the town of Tver, clicks around on Google Maps and points out specific locations.

At other times, he becomes more vague and uncertain. For example, he can't immediately pinpoint the village where he claims to have done his two-year military service. However, he sends the name of the town in an email a few days later. His memory also fails when we ask him to explain more about his trip to Denmark in 2011. At first, he doesn't remember the couple spending a night on a ferry. But when we mention that he has previously explained this in his application for asylum, it becomes clearer. Just like in his conversations with the Danish authorities, he can't put us in touch with anyone in Russia who can confirm his or Oksana Gromova's identity. They have lost contact with everyone back home, he claims.

When we ask why Aleksandr Gromov himself believes that the Russian authorities cannot identify him, he replies that it may be due to Russian legislation on protecting the identity of police officers. He refers to a specific paragraph.

When we later contact the Danish Home Travel Agency, which is responsible for deportations today, the reply by email is: "The Danish Home Travel Agency has no knowledge that the legislation in question is an obstacle to being able to identify Russian citizens." The school you say you attended can't find you either. Why?"I don't know," Aleksandr Gromov replies with a sigh. "I think my information is a bit special. I don't quite understand it." Don't you find it strange yourself? "It is strange. It's very strange."

Unknown future

Aleksandr Gromov sticks to the story he has been telling all along. He says we can try to contact some of his old acquaintances and colleagues in Russia. But he can't help us with their contact details.

The couple's case is now with the newly established Repatriation Board. Aleksandr Gromov is afraid of being prosecuted for forgery if he ever returns to Russia after being deported with the wrong passport in 2016. I have contacted the Danish National Police, North Zealand Police and the Danish Home Travel Agency, which at various times have been responsible for the case. None have wished to comment for this article. While they wait, the family's non-existence in Jelling continues for the 12th year. The children attend school and daycare and have Danish friends. But the parents can neither work nor educate themselves. Aleksandr Gromov is doing an internship with the Red Cross, where he walks every day to keep himself going. "I don't know what will happen tomorrow. I have a lot of limitations. I don't have a social security number, I don't have a Dankort, I can't drive across the border and shop like other people I know."

Want to stay in Denmark

According to the Danish authorities, it's the couple's own fault. If only they would reveal their true identity, they would be sent back to Russia. However, the couple continue to claim that they are telling the truth about who they are. Although the couple have formally signed a document stating that they will assist in their own deportation, it is clear that they want to stay in Denmark.

"I only want the best for my family," says Aleksandr Gromov.

And it is also important to you that they can stay here in Denmark? "Yes, actually. It's very important for the children. They have grown up here. They have a Danish mentality. They have lots of Danish friends."

We go down into the drizzle for a smoke break. What can we do to identify you? "I don't know," Aleksandr Gromov replies, blowing out a small cloud of smoke.

So who are the couple?

The answer is blowing in the wind somewhere in Jelling.

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