The city of Heidelberg, Germany.
Credit: Cultura RM Exclusive/Perry Mastrovito/Getty Images

Carrying little more than a cellphone, a family heirloom, or a small amount of cash, more than 1 million people have fled their home countries to seek asylum in Europe since the refugee crisis began in the summer of 2015. Their journeys have captivated readers and viewers throughout the world who have followed their stories in the news and on social media, struggling to imagine what it would be like to attempt the dangerous path from the Middle East or Africa to the European continent.

One Chinese tourist accidentally got an up-close look at the life of an asylum-seeker after a miscommunication landed him in a German refugee center for nearly two weeks.

The 31-year-old visitor to the southern German tourist town of Heidelberg attempted to submit a police report after his wallet was stolen. Speaking only Mandarin, he mistakenly filed an application for asylum at a local town hall and was sent to a holding center for refugees more than 200 miles outside the city limits, a red cross official told Reuters Monday.

After being fingerprinted and given a medical exam, the man, who was identified only as Mr. L, was given a place to sleep and a small amount of spending money. He continued to attempt to explain his situation to volunteers, and the mistake was discovered only when German authorities turned to a local Chinese restaurant to help translate.

Germany found itself as one of the epicenters of the refugee crisis in Europe, given Chancellor Angela Merkel’s outspoken welcome of asylum-seekers, coupled with the European nation’s strong economy. More than 1 million people filed for asylum in Germany in 2015 alone, and German infrastructure has struggled to cope with the influx in migration.

“He spent 12 days trapped in our bureaucratic jungle because we couldn’t communicate,” Christoph Schluetermann, head of the Red Cross refugee center in the northern town of Duelmen where Mr. L was housed, said.

“It was an extraordinary moment for us all,” Schluetermann said. “He said Europe was not what he had expected.”