Danish parliament approves controversial migrant bill

2016-01-26 21:42
Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen. (AP)

Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen. (AP)

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Copenhagen - Denmark's parliament on Tuesday adopted reforms aimed at dissuading migrants from seeking asylum by delaying family reunifications and allowing authorities to seize their valuables, under legislation that has sparked widespread condemnation.

The government insists the law is needed to stem the flow of refugees even though Denmark and Sweden recently tightened their borders, a move that prompted Germany and Austria to turn back new arrivals heading for Scandinavia.

The bill presented by the right-wing minority government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen was approved by a huge majority of 81 of the 109 lawmakers present, as members of the opposition Social Democrats backed the measures.

"There's no simple answer for a single country, but until the world comes together on a joint solution [to the migrant crisis], Denmark needs to act," MP Jakob Ellemann-Jensen of Rasmussen's Venstre party said during the debate.

The legislation stirred great controversy, with Rasmussen defending it as "the most misunderstood bill in Denmark's history".

International outrage has focused on plans to allow police to seize cash and valuables from refugees to help pay for their stay in asylum centres, while rights activists have blasted a proposed three-year delay for family reunifications which they say breaches international conventions.

Some have likened the Danish proposals to the confiscation of gold and other valuables from Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

'What is the alternative?' 

Rasmussen has shrugged off the criticism, seemingly more concerned with opinion polls showing that 70% of Danes rank immigration as their top political concern.

Social Democrat Dan Jorgensen addressed opponents of the bill, demanding: "To those saying what we are doing is wrong, my question is: What is your alternative?

"The alternative is that we continue to be [one of] the most attractive countries in Europe to come to, and then we end up like Sweden."

Copenhagen has often referred to neighbouring Sweden as a bad example, where 163 000 asylum applications were submitted last year - five times more than in Denmark relative to their population size.

Denmark's minority government eventually backtracked on parts of the plan to confiscate migrants' valuables in order to secure backing for the bill from two small right-wing parties and the opposition Social Democrats.

Asylum seekers will now have to hand over cash exceeding 10 000 kroner ($1 450) and any individual items valued at more than that amount, up from the initial 3 000 kroner proposed.

After thorny negotiations with the other parties, Integration Minister Inger Stojberg agreed to make wedding rings and other items of sentimental value exempt.

The government has defended the move by arguing that Danes who want to qualify for social benefits may also have to sell their valuables.

However, they are not subjected to the kind of searches proposed in the new asylum law.

'Cruel' plan 

Once a champion of refugee rights, the Scandinavian country's goal is now to become "significantly less attractive for asylum-seekers", Stojberg said.

"The tone in the public debate about refugees and immigrants has undoubtedly become tougher," Kashif Ahmad, the leader of the National Party, which hopes to enter parliament by targeting the immigrant vote, told AFP.

Amnesty International has called the three-year waiting period for family reunifications "cruel", saying it could "have a devastating impact on families".

But Marcus Knuth, Venstre's spokesperson on integration issues, said the criticism was unfair.

"Denmark continues to be one of the most welcoming and caring places that you can seek asylum in. So the criticism that all of a sudden we were doing something wrong we find highly, highly unfair," he told AFP.

"We simply wish to be put more at par with other European countries so that we are not one of the countries that receive by far the most asylum seekers."

Home to 5.6 million people, Denmark registered 21 000 asylum applications in 2015, making it one of the top EU destinations per capita.

Criticism had mounted ahead of Tuesday's vote, with the UN refugee agency UNHCR claiming the bill violated several conventions on rights and refugees.

In a January 15 letter to Stojberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, said the family reunifications proposal raises "issues of compatibility" with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Rasmussen, whose party won a June election after promising an "immediate slowdown" of Denmark's refugee influx, has been unfased, arguing that the UN Refugee Convention may need to be changed if refugees keep pouring into Europe.

Stojberg and Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen have defended the new law before the United Nations and the European Parliament in the past week.

The bill is scheduled to be signed into law by Denmark's Queen Margrethe within a few days.

Read more on:    denmark  |  migrants

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