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Denmark’s Asylum Seeker Assets Grab – is it Morally Just?

The Danish parliament is set to vote on a controversial law seeking to grab the assets of asylum seekers in an attempt to slow down the flow of potential immigrants pouring into the nation. The legislation will require all asylum seekers in Denmark to hand over assets of more than €1,300 to cover government expenses for housing. It is a controversial bill, having received criticism from the European Union. However, within Denmark the legislation has received a parliamentary majority.

Asylum seekers who have cash worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner “will have to [use] the surplus above 10,000 kroner to pay for their stay” said Danish government spokesman Marcus Knuth.

Earlier drafts of the law allowed for items of sentimental value to be taken away, although this has since been revised. In this case, exceptions were made for wedding rings and watches. Although Danish legislators have announced that items of sentimental value will not be grabbed by the government, questions remain about what constitutes an item of sentimental value. European MP Sophia Intveld stated, “How do you actually define sentimental value? If somebody travels thousands of miles risking their lives with probably just a small bag with them, is it not that every object that they are carrying IS of great personal value, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered.”

For many asylum seekers, their aim is to reach a country where they can live and work safely. The journey from Northern Africa or Turkey to Greece and beyond is perilous and asylum seekers are often only allowed to take small bags in order to fit as many people as possible on the boats. Knowing that they are only allowed to take a small package means that it is likely that asylum seekers pick the items most precious and sentimental to them.

Given that the legislation has received large amounts of backlash in the EU and in the international press, Denmark’s central-right government is quickly back peddling. Member of Denmark’s Liberale Parti Birthe Rønn Hornbæk said: “When you seize a refugee’s jewellery, it has a huge symbolic impact…the prime minister says there has been a misunderstanding, but there has not because it’s all there in the bill.” In December, the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen called for the end of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The United Nations stated that the suggestion was unfeasible. In response to the remarks made by the Danish Prime Minister, Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency stated: “The refugee convention has saved millions of lives and is one of the greatest human rights instruments that has ever been put into effect. It is a milestone of humanity developed in the wake of massive population movements that exceeded even the magnitude of what we see today. At its core the convention embodies fundamental humanitarian values.”

Furthermore, the Danish government, like many European countries, appears to be trying to stem the tide of asylum seekers on the grounds that it is economically unsustainable. Denmark has introduced border checks, signalling an end to the open borders of the Schengen Agreement. It remains to be seen whether this will affect the numbers – last year Denmark accepted 23,000 refugees and the numbers keep on growing. Statistics in Greece show that the arrivals of asylum seekers in January 2016 are 11 times higher than 12 months ago.

It is clear that something must be done. Europe as a continent must work together to ensure that asylum seekers are offered safe passage and a place to live – it is their human right as enshrined in the Geneva Convention. However, it is unsustainable for European nations to take everyone, which is why Europe must work together to divide the number of asylum seekers instead of perpetuating a system where those seeking asylum continue to head to the next best country.

Zoe Meers is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image: Syrian refugees waiting for train in Vienna

Image credit: Josh Zakary (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)


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