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Robbing Refugees? Denmark’s “Jewelry Bill” and Refugees’ Dignity

February 17, 2016

On January 26th, the Danish Parliament passed a controversial bill that, in addition to lengthening the required time of residence before refugees can apply for separated family members to relocate, empowers Danish authorities to seize cash and valuables from asylum-seeking refugees. The law allows the seizure of assets worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner (approximately $1,400), excluding items that are “necessary to maintain a modest standard of living” or “have a certain personal, sentimental value,” according to the Danish Integration Ministry. This newly enacted law serves a dual purpose: to deter future migrants and to fund the Danish welfare state by treating refugees as Danish citizens. However, in their haste to ease the local situation, supporters of the bill have failed to recognize its significant shortcomings.

             European countries with strong state welfare systems such as Denmark’s have been disproportionately affected by the migrant crisis as refugees have sought resettlement where they will be most supported. While the bill’s topical purpose is to seize valuables and fund the welfare state, the underlying motive is to prevent further strain on government systems. By diminishing refugees’ interest in Denmark as a destination, for fear that the government will seize their valuables, the Danish government hopes to stem the influx of migrants and move to address their domestic problems.

             Supporters of the bill argue that this law is misunderstood and simply attempts to treat refugees as Danes are treated under the law. Denmark’s citizens and refugees receive state benefits such as universal health care, preschool through university education, and elderly care. Foreigners also receive free language and integration training to aid their transition into the new country. Backers of the bill argue that the seizure of valuables helps fund the state benefits that refugees receive, and they note that similar rules exist for unemployed Danish citizens.

However, the bill fails to recognize the not-so-nuanced differences between unemployed Danes and incoming refugees. For instance, natural-born Danish citizens have had the benefits of a strong state welfare system for their entire lives, including optional unemployment insurance that prevents the seizure of their valuables by the state. Refugees have no such protections as they exist in international limbo, hoping to be allowed settlement in countries that will support their economic and cultural integration. The searches that the bill allows for refugees are also much more extensive than those searches done on unemployed Danes.

Moreover, the law goes beyond economic persecution and infringes upon the human dignity of refugees who live in stateless international limbo. These refugees have liquidated all of their assets and fled their country at costs often upwards of  $5,000, according to CNN. Each item retained during their journey was salvaged from a metaphorically or literally burning house, and is of great sentimental or practical value to its owners – a value which far outweighs its market price with the Danish government. 

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