Denmark approves controversial migrant assets bill

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Refugees arrive in Padborg, Denmark. 6 January 2016Image source, Getty Images
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Denmark expects to receive around 20,000 asylum seekers in 2016

The Danish parliament has backed a controversial proposal to confiscate asylum seekers' valuables to pay for their upkeep.

Police will be able to seize valuables worth more than 10,000 kroner (1,340 euros; £1,000) from refugees to cover housing and food costs.

MPs also approved plans to delay family reunions for asylum seekers.

A spokesman for UN chief Ban Ki-moon criticised the decision, saying refugees deserved compassion.

"People who have suffered tremendously, who have escaped war and conflict, who've literally walked hundreds of kilometres if not more and put their lives at risk by crossing the Mediterranean should be treated with compassion and respect, and within their full rights as refugees," said Stephane Dujarric.

The bill has been widely criticised by human rights groups.

The prospect of refugees having possessions seized has drawn comparisons to the confiscation of valuables from Jews during World War Two.

The government has said that items of sentimental value, such as wedding rings, will be exempt. It also raised the amount refugees will be allowed to keep from 3,000 kroner to 10,000 following objections.

The government has said that the policy brings refugees in line with unemployed Danes, who also face having to sell assets above a certain level to claim benefits.

However, critics have said that many Danes have unemployment insurance that saves them having to sell assets, and anyway would not face the kind of searches proposed under the new law.

Image source, Reuters
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Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen of the Red-Green Alliance spoke against the bill
Image source, AP
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Integration Minister Inger Stoejberg has said refugees who can manage should not receive state help
Image source, AP
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MPs of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party supported the bill

The new measures also mean the period migrants will have to wait before applying for relatives to join them will be extended from one year to three - a move aimed at discouraging new arrivals.

Temporary residence permits will be shortened and the conditions for obtaining a permanent permit will be restricted.

Denmark received more than 21,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

MPs approved the measures by 81 votes to 27 following a lengthy, and at times angry, debate. One MP abstained and 70 others were absent. The centre-left opposition Social Democrats and the anti-immigration Danish People's Party both voted in favour.

Martin Henriksen, immigration spokesman for the Danish People's Party, described the numbers of migrants entering Europe as an "exodus".

"More needs to be done. We need more border controls, we need tighter immigration rules," he said.

But Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, of the opposition left Red-Green Alliance that opposed the bill, said it was "a symbolic move to scare people away".

Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of the centre-right Venstre party had previously shrugged off criticism of the proposals calling them "the most misunderstood bill in Denmark's history".

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"I left with nothing ... if I had jewellery, I wouldn't be here"

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the European Commission and other groups have criticised the proposals.

Amnesty International regional director John Dalhuisen described the vote as "mean spirited".

"This is a sad reflection of how far Denmark has strayed from its historic support of international norms enshrined in the Refugee Convention," he said.

Andreas Kamm, of the Danish Refugee Council, said they were concerned about the new limitations on family reunification.

"It hampers the integration process for those who already arrived and it leaves alone those who are back in the region, as vulnerable groups," he said.

"It's very worrying and it's very inhumane."

Denmark is not the first European country to demand the assets of asylum seekers.

Earlier this month, Switzerland was criticised by a refugee group for seizing assets from some 100 people in 2015. Under Swiss rules, asylum seekers have to hand over assets above $1,000 (£700; €900).

Where Europe is failing on migrants

  • The 28 member states have not agreed on an EU-wide mechanism for relocating migrants, meant to ease the burden on Greece and Italy. Only small groups have been relocated so far - and several states in Central and Eastern Europe refuse to accept migrants
  • The Schengen agreement on freedom of movement is in jeopardy - Hungary fenced off its borders with Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia; meanwhile Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and France also reimposed border controls
  • The Dublin regulation, under which refugees are required to claim asylum in the member state in which they first arrive, is not working effectively. Countries are no longer sending back migrants to their first point of entry to the EU
  • Thousands of migrants - many of them Syrian war refugees - still arrive daily from Turkey
  • Processing of asylum applications is slow and there is a big backlog - so reception centres are overcrowded
  • Germany - the main destination for migrants - is rethinking its open-door policy, partly because of outrage over assaults on women in Cologne at New Year