18 Dec 2015

Yes, Denmark really wants to strip refugees of jewellery

It’s not a hoax: the Danish government really is legislating to search refugees and confiscate jewellery and other valuables.

Migrants rest by the roadside in Denmark (Reuters)

Reports first emerged last week that Denmark was planning to search refugees trying to claim asylum in the country and confiscate valuable items to pay for their living expenses.

The story began to circulate on news websites, with some readers dismissing it as a hoax, before it was picked up by international media.

Some commentators have defended Denmark for taking a tough line on asylum seekers, while critics – including politicians from the ruling party – have said the idea recalls the Nazi policy of stealing valuables from Jewish refugees and prisoners.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR told Channel 4 News the idea “beggars belief”.

Nevertheless, the Danish government has confirmed it published draft legislation on a range of new asylum initiatives, including “seizing valuable assets”, on 10 December.

More details will be thrashed out in parliamentary debate in January, but a new law is expected to come into force from February.

A Danish government spokesman said: “The Danish Immigration Service shall ensure that asylum seekers receive the necessary support while their asylum applications are being considered. The support includes basic maintenance, health care and accommodation.

“The bill presented on 10 December 2015 provides the Danish authorities with the power to search clothes and luggage of asylum seekers – and other migrants without a permit to stay in Denmark – with a view to finding assets which may cover the expenses mentioned above.

“It is explicitly mentioned in the bill before Parliament that the new rule on seizure will only apply to assets of a considerable value. Thus, foreigners will always be able to keep assets which are necessary to maintain a modest standard of living, eg watches and mobile phones.

“In other words, the general principle of a minimum amount exempt from execution also applies in this context.

Assets which have a certain personal, sentimental value to a foreigner will not, as a main rule, be seized unless they have considerable value. Danish government

“Furthermore, assets which have a certain personal, sentimental value to a foreigner will not, as a main rule, be seized unless they have considerable value. The proposed rule aplies also to refugees already in the country.”

She said the new policy “follows from current rules that an asylum seeker, who brings sufficient means to take care of him- or herself, should not also receive support from the Immigration Service”.

Refugee pressure?

The spokesman added: “Europe currently receives a very high number of refugees. This put a pressure on all countries, including Denmark.

“Denmark does take a share. However, a too high number of refugees put pressure on the Danish society and make it more difficult to ensure a successful integration of those who come to Denmark.

“The Government has therefore decided to tighten Danish refugees policies.”

The latest official figures from Eurostat show that Denmark had 5,520 asylum applications in the third quarter of this year, 22 per cent fewer than in the same quarter a year ago.

There were 108,000 applications in neighbouring Germany from July to September 2015, but Denmark has a much smaller population.

The country experienced 975 applications per million residents in the latest quarter, more than the average of 815 seen across the 28 EU member states.

Political wrangling

The policy of confiscating valuables was first mooted by Denmark’s Justice Minister Soren Pind on a popular TV chat show, provoking laughter from some members of the studio audience.

Mr Pind denied that it would mean stripping people of wedding rings and other personal items, saying: “I’m talking about a situation in which there are personal items of significant value but no sentimental worth.

Soren Pind (Reuters)

“I’m talking about a situation in which a man comes along with a case full of diamonds and asks for protection in Denmark. That’s only fair.”

But another MP, Martin Henriksen, was quoted as saying that even wedding rings should be confiscated if necessary.

“Soren Pind is telling stories. He says that the police should only confiscate diamonds from refugees, but in our negotiations we have also discussed cash and smaller valuables.

“At no point have we said that we should only confiscate large amounts of cash or diamonds, and it worries me that the minister of justice says such things.”

Dr Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, a researcher researcher at the centre for advanced migration studies at the University of Copenhagen, said the plans had to be seen in the context of Danish politics.

Since elections in June, Mr Pind’s ruling centre-right party Venstre has been forced to rely on Mr Henriksen’s anti-immigration Danish People’s Party (DPP) to prop up its weak minority government.

“The Danish People’s Party are quite nationalistic,” said Dr Lemberg-Pedersen. “They will go along with a lot of policies as long as they get something on immigration.”

Timeline: how Denmark has toughened its stance on refugees
26 August
- Parliament approves a 45 per cent cut to benefits offered to asylum seekers
07 September
- Danish government advertisements designed to deter migrants appear in newspapers in Lebanon, announcing the welfare cuts and emphasising other restrictions
11 September - Denmark exercises its opt-out on asylum policy and refuses to take part in an EU plan to resettle 160,000 people in various countries
17 September - Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen says the country will voluntarily take in 1,000 people
24 November - Mr Rasmussen backtracks on the promise to take in 1,000 refugees

Some commentators are assuming that the policy could be largely symbolic – an attempt to send a message to would-be refugees to avoid Denmark – which could explain why there is little detail on how it will work in practice.

The Danish government told us asylum seekers will be obliged to inform the authorities about “any means the asylum seeker brings with him or her”. But it’s not clear what happens if migrants try to hide items on themselves.

Dr Martin Lemberg-Pedersen said: “A very crucial question remains: how is this going to be enforced?

“Are police going to frisk people at the border? Are they going to use force? Are valuables going to be kept in storage facilities. Are they going to sold? To whom? All these questions are still unanswered by the government.”

Danish policeman plays with migrant girl by the roadside (Reuters)

The news has created a strong reaction in Denmark, he added. Some commentators, including Vestre politicians, have said the policy recalls the Nazi policies of stealing valuables from Jewish refugees and prisoners.

“I think that comparison was bound to happen. But of course you have to distinguish between the times and contexts.

“But it is not actually surprising – this is actually what the Nazis were doing to people back then.

“Of course you can’t make a one-on-one comparison.

“But you can make a comparison between the European failure to respond adequately to Jewish refugees then and the similar European failure to respond now to the current Syrian refugees.”

A spokesman for the UNHCR refugee agency told Channel 4 News: “Refugees have lost their homes and almost everything they possess.

“It beggars belief that somebody would want to strip them away from the little they have managed to salvage from their lives.

“Refugees need and deserve compassion, understanding, respect and solidarity.”