Denmark was once a champion of the Refugee Convention, but it has since joined the rank of European Union nations that are restricting entry to refugees and would-be asylum seekers who show up at their borders. On Tuesday, Danish lawmakers overwhelmingly voted through a series of controversial measures to confiscate valuables from asylum seekers to help cover the cost of their stay.
Under the so-called jewelry bill, authorities can seize assets worth upwards of $1,453 that have little sentimental value to the owners. CNN reported that wedding rings, engagement rings, family portraits, decorations and medals are exempted, but watches, mobile phones, and computers can be confiscated. The bill would also raise the waiting period for refugees to apply for their family members to join them from one year to three years, and shorten temporary residential permits to two years.
The country’s ruling Liberal Party justified the confiscation by saying that it was up to refugees to ensure that they could pay for their stay and be able to contribute to society.
“All Danish citizens and refugees coming here receive universal health care; you receive education from preschool to university, and you receive elderly care; you receive language training and integration training free of charge, paid for by the government,” Liberal Party spokesman Jakob Ellemann-Jensen told CNN earlier this month.
“The only demand that we set to measure this is if you have the means to pay for your housing and for your food — regardless of whether you are a Dane or whether you are a refugee — then you should,” Ellemann-Jensen added.
The move mirrors what the country already does with Danish welfare beneficiaries who have to sell assets worth more than $1,453 before they can receive state benefits.
Still, the series of measures drew sharp criticism from some lawmakers as well as human rights organizations. Pernille Skipper, an MP and legal affairs spokesperson for Enhedslisten, a left-wing Danish party, told the Irish Times, “Morally it is a horrible way to treat people fleeing mass crimes, war, rapes. They are fleeing from war and how do we treat them? We take their jewellery.“
The UN’s refugee agency also warned that the bill could incite “fear, xenophobia and similar restrictions that would reduce – rather than expand – the asylum space globally and put refugees in need at life-threatening risks.”
Similar legislation has already gone into effect in parts of southern Germany and Switzerland. The Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said that authories would seize cash and valuables worth up to $810 from refugees if they have an outstanding bill or are expected to have one.
And the legislation has drawn some extreme comparisons to the confiscation of Jewish property by Nazis, in which “the most valuable objects were sent to Berlin, items of lesser value supported the local administration and rewarded collaborators,” according to a historical account provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The legislation could harm refugees in other ways too. Refugees pay anywhere between 1,500 and 2,500 euros to leave their homelands, a debt that they may not be able to pay off without those valuables.
Europe is currently deep in the second biggest migration wave since World War II, with 45,000 migrants already making it to Greece by sea since the beginning of 2016.
Denmark received 21,000 asylum applications in 2015, making it one of the top five destinations for refugees last year. But the country has also been veering towards a restrictionist stance, with the government taking out ads in Lebanon telling would-be asylum seekers that refugee benefits would be cut in half, considering revising the 1951 Refugee Convention treaty, and putting up temporary border controls along Germany, the New York Times reported.