The Danish parliament just passed a raft of measures that are designed to deter would-be refugees from seeking asylum, including a new law that will empower the Danish police to seize valuables from migrants as they pass into the country.
Danish lawmakers said the measure would, in the words of parliamentarian Marcus Knuth, make the country a "little less attractive" to migrants. The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, has called the new law "an affront to human dignity."
The bill flew through the legislature on Tuesday, approved with 81 votes in favor, and just 27 against. Both the ruling centre right-wing Venstre and center-left Social Democratic parties rallied their base to support the new measures. Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of the Venstre party personally championed the law, and called it "the most misunderstood bill in Denmark's history."
Pernille Skipper, an MP and legal affairs spokesperson for the leftist party Enhedslisten, voted against the measure, and excoriated her colleagues after the bill passed.
"Morally it is a horrible way to treat people fleeing mass crimes, war, rapes," she said. "They are fleeing from war and how do we treat them? We take their jewellery."
Migrant advocates were also not pleased. "Denmark has traditionally been an inspiration to others for setting human rights standards," a spokesperson from the UN refugee agency, Zoran Stevanovi, said after the vote on Tuesday. "However, rather than showing and providing solidarity and sanctuary, Denmark is focusing on developing and implementing individual and restrictive responses."
Amnesty International also condemned the new law.
"To prolong the suffering of vulnerable people who have been ripped apart from their families by conflict or persecution is plain wrong, " John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International, said. "Today's mean-spirited vote in the Danish Parliament seeks not only to pilfer the possessions refugees cling to, but also to needlessly lengthen their separation from their loved ones."
The bill has been dubbed the "jewelry bill," because it would allow Denmark to seize possessions over $1400 in value, including jewelry, gold, and silver — though the law makes an exception for keepsakes with sentimental value. Those valuables would then be sold at auction, and the money used to help pay for the upkeep of asylum-seekers.
Danish politicians have been at pains to point out they they are not the only country targeting refugee possessions. Switzerland has started taking valuables worth over $985, the German state of Baden-Württemberg also seizes valuables above $380. This trend, however, has come under fierce criticism from rights organizations.
"Most (refugees) have lost everything and yet this legislation appears to say that the few fortunate enough to have survived the trip to Denmark with their few remaining possessions haven't lost enough," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on Tuesday.
Another provision of the law delays family reunification for three years. That would mean that even those granted refugees status in Denmark wouldn't be able to bring their families to Denmark anytime soon — even if those family members were stuck in a war zone in Syria or Iraq.
The law also restricts the time refugees can be provided "temporary protection" — a provisional status countries rely on when they face a massive influx of migrants — to one year. In practice, that would it make it nearly impossible for those refugees to unite with stranded family members until they receive permanent status.
"We are… concerned that refugees with temporary protection are only allowed to reside in Denmark for one year and yet are only able to apply for family reunification after three years," the UN's Stevanovi explained.
Todays' vote is part of a larger trend in resurgent anti-refugee sentiment in Denmark. Earlier this month, authorities stepped up controls on its border with Germany, performing random checks and denying passage to more than 200 people. "The government doesn't wish for Denmark to become a new major destination for refugees," Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen explained at the time.
The anti-migrant turn came after right-wing parties scored a major victory in last year's election. With support from the left-of-center Social Democrats, the center-right coalition government has staked out a broadly popular anti-refugee position.
Government ministers and ruling-party leaders routinely make it clear that the country has no interest in becoming a haven for asylum-seekers. Last month, Rasmussen said that the UN's 1951 refugee convention, a law created in the aftermath of the Holocaust, should be reconsidered and the international community should re-think the "rules of the game."
The Danish border with Germany has become a flash-point in recent months, as police have broken up protests staged by anti-immigration groups, who call for a complete closure of the frontier.
On the other hand, critics of the government have condemned its immigration policies in the harshest possible terms.
"It is very odiously reminiscent of the German past — leave the valuables and go to the showers," said Derek Beach, an associate professor in political science at Aarhus University.
Over 1 million asylum-seekers crossed into Europe in 2015, many fleeing war zones in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. Denmark only accepted 20,000 — around 2 percent of all would-be-refugees in Europe. It's next-door neighbor Germany accepted more than 800,000.
Migrant advocates give Denmark poor marks for its asylum policies. In a full review of Denmark's asylum and immigration procedures published last week, the UNHCR warned that new restrictions "could fuel fear" and incubate "xenophobia." The UN also noted that confiscating property without due cause violated migrants' basic rights. "It is an affront to their dignity and an arbitrary interference with their right to privacy."
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