Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Parliament has granted police the right to take possessions from asylum-seekers crossing the border.
The Danish state is allowed to confiscate the valuables of newly arrived refugees, Denmark’s parliament ruled today. Following a heated debate and vote Tuesday, Danish police will be empowered to strip refugees of any belongings worth over 10,000 Danish crowns ($1,450) on their arrival in the country. Luggage and strip searches will be used to enforce the new rules, to make sure that valuables are surrendered.
The law change is being ushered through despite harsh condemnation from the UN Human Right Council and widespread comparisons between the plan and the treatment of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. The plan to legally purloin refugee belongings is nonetheless just one part of a much larger set of new measures designed to make Denmark a harsher, tougher place to seek asylum. The new rules, as outlined by newspaper Politiken, will arguably make Denmark the least asylum-friendly country in Europe.
Previously, refugees had been allowed to apply for family reunions after a year in the country. Now they will have to wait a minimum of three years. Welfare benefits for refugees will be cut by 10 percent, while periods of residence will also be limited, with many arrivals being granted only a year’s sanctuary.
Despite the reduction in welfare payments, the confiscation of valuables, and the extension of the compulsory waiting period, asylum seekers will now also have to pay a fee when applying for family reunion or permanent residence, for which regulations have also been tightened. Refugees will no longer be permitted to seek accommodation outside official centers, while the upper limit to which refugees can be required to pay their own expenses has been extended.
The international backlash against these long-planned laws has put Denmark’s government on the defensive, with Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen saying it was the most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history. It faced fierce criticism from within the country as well. As Pernille Skipper, an MP for left party Enhedslisten, put it:
“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 jewelry.”
Defenders of the law suggest this view is sensationalism, noting that unemployed Danish citizens can also be asked to surrender valuables to pay for health insurance. Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, an MP for center-right party Venstre, strongly rejected comparisons between the new policy and World War II, insisting that possessions with strong personal associations would be protected:
“No. We will not take the jewelry from people, for jewelry naturally has sentimental value. Sure, we could come up with long, probably dull and very theoretical situations, in which we could enumerate grotesque examples where the law would still allow that. Yes, if it is a piece of jewelry that is a commodity, not a piece of personal property. It is [nonetheless] a grotesque discussion, and I think it is obscene.”
The move comes at an especially tense time for Denmark, and for Europe in general. As war continues in Syria, the Continent has faced wave after wave of refugees attempting to escape the violence. Denmark has seen a share of these refugees, though it has accepted considerably less than its neighbors. While (far larger) Germany accepted 1.1 million refugees in 2015, Denmark gave shelter to just 20,000—only 2 percent of Europe’s new arrivals that year and approximately the same amount that Sweden found space for every two weeks this autumn.
Denmark has nonetheless seen very large numbers passing through its territories—so many that Sweden reintroduced passport checks at its borders, with Denmark doing the same thing at its border with Germany earlier this month. With an extreme-right party now the second largest in parliament, Denmark’s politicians are under pressure to make concessions to populist nationalism. It seems that the country’s relatively small number of asylum applicants are the outlet they’ve chosen.
Denmark isn’t alone in its plans to confiscate valuables. Switzerland is also seizing refugee possessions, as is the south German state of Bavaria. The sight of Europe’s wealthiest states and regions stripping the vulnerable of their last belongings isn’t uplifting, but the current refugee crisis is revealing cracks in the European project that runs across the Continent. Austria has accused crisis-hit Greece, which saw 821,00 refugee arrivals last year, of not doing enough to patrol its coastline, and has threatened to withdraw from the Schengen Agreement that safeguards open borders through most of the E.U.
Even states far from the front line may become alarmed by the threat of the refugee crisis to get yet more unmanageable. Judging by Denmark’s new ruling, plans for self-protection may sadly result in a continent that is harsher, crueler, and less open.