Denmark debates seizing refugees' valuables

2016-01-13 19:00
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. (AFP)

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. (AFP)

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Copenhagen - Denmark's parliament began debating on Wednesday a controversial plan to seize refugees' valuables, with the bill widely expected to pass a January 26 vote after being backed by a majority of lawmakers.

The bill has been criticised by UN refugee agency UNHCR which fears it will "fuel fear" and "xenophobia", while international media have compared the searches to Nazi Germany's seizing of gold and valuables from Jews and others during WWII.

The proposal would allow Danish authorities to seize asylum seekers' cash exceeding 10 000 kroner ($1 450), as well as any individual items valued at more than 10 000 kroner.

Wedding rings would be exempt, along with other items of sentimental value, such as engagement rings, family portraits and medals.

Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen's right-wing government has faced a wave of criticism over its proposal, which had initially put the limit for migrants at 3 000 kroner.

It has since backtracked, and finally reached agreement with other parties in parliament on Tuesday to secure a majority for the vote.

The Scandinavian country has some of Europe's strictest immigration policies, and has repeatedly tightened its regulations in recent months to deter foreigners from seeking a new life in the country.

Widespread criticism

But the bill, even in its amended form, was criticised on Wednesday by a group of 10 local and regional members of Rasmussen's ruling Venstre party.

"It is not just a matter of proper policy and humanity, but also Denmark's international reputation," they wrote in the Berlingske daily.

"When focusing on symbolic actions rather than real content, you forget that politics is about real people of flesh and blood," they said.

In a near-empty parliament on Wednesday, Social Democratic lawmaker Dan Jorgensen defended what he called a "compromise" solution hammered out "in a difficult situation".

"We should help, and we do, but we also have to limit the number [of migrants arriving] and the increase we are seeing right now cannot be managed."

Denmark, a country of 5.4 million, received 21 000 asylum applications last year, compared to 163 000 in neighbouring Sweden, home to 9.8 million people.

European Union Vice President Frans Timmerman said on Wednesday the 28-nation bloc would examine the Danish plan "once the law is adopted and... then give our official position to the Danish government".

The proposal is part of a bigger immigration bill. Wednesday's debate was the first of several to be held ahead of the January 26 vote on the proposal.

A European lawmaker for Venstre last month left the party over its ever-tighter migration policies, which have included delaying family reunification times and advertising in Lebanese newspapers to deter refugees from coming to Denmark.

But observers believe the party's leadership is unlikely to be influenced by critics of Integration Minister Inger Stojberg's hardline policies.

"It is not at the centre of the party that this debate is taking place," Bjarne Steensbeck, a political commentator at public broadcaster DR told AFP.

Migrants themselves have been sceptical about the proposal.

At the Auderod asylum centre 60km northwest of Copenhagen, Tarek Issa, a 25-year-old law student from Hama in Syria, said he thought police would find little of value during their migrant searches.

"We almost paid everything to come here. Like a house, like a restaurant we owned before," he told AFP. A police search of his bags would turn up "maybe 100 euros," he laughed.

Public support for seizing migrants' valuables was hard to gauge, but there was widespread backing for tighter asylum rules in general, according to Steensbeck.

A survey by pollster Megafon on December 20 found that 51% of Danes were in favour of delaying family reunifications by three years, while 29% said they were against it.

Bill is a 'signal'

Steensbeck said that although the government had taken note of the international criticism, it was unlikely to have an impact on its policy.

"Lars Lokke Rasmussen has to be elected in Denmark... not [by] the international media," he said.

The UNHCR said earlier this month it feared the new immigration bill "could fuel fear, xenophobia and similar restrictions that would reduce - rather than expand - the asylum space globally."

The bill also includes delaying family reunifications for some refugees by up to three years, as well as making it harder to obtain permanent residency and shortening temporary residence permits.

A spokesperson for the far-right Danish People's Party told AFP in December the bill was intended as a "signal" to dissuade migrants from coming to Denmark, and not aimed at actually raising money.

Read more on:    denmark  |  migrants

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