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IMMIGRATION

Denmark passes controversial bill to take migrants’ valuables

Despite widespread condemnation, Denmark's parliament on Tuesday approved drastic reforms curbing asylum seekers' rights, including delaying family reunifications and confiscating migrants' valuables.

Denmark passes controversial bill to take migrants' valuables
Asylum seekers in the Red Cross's centre in Auderød. Photo: Jens Nørgaard Larsen/Scanpix
The bill presented by the right-wing minority government of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen was approved by a huge majority of 81 of the 109 lawmakers present, as members of the opposition Social Democrats backed the measures.
 
The bill was watered down significantly since it was originally proposed, with wedding rings and low-value items explicitly excluded from threat of confiscation in the final draft.
 
Approval had been widely expected, as the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, backed the measures as did government support parties the Danish People's Party, the Conservatives and Liberal Alliance.
 
“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 Danish government has insisted the new 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.
 
While international outrage has focused on a proposal allowing police to seize cash and valuables from refugees to help pay for their stay in asylum centres, rights activists have blasted a proposed three-year delay for family reunifications which they say breaches international conventions.
 
 
'What is the alternative?'
Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen of the right-wing Venstre party has shrugged off criticism by calling it “the most misunderstood bill in Denmark's history”, seemingly more concerned with opinion polls that show 70 percent of Danes rank immigration as their top political concern.
 
Social Democrat Dan Jørgensen 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 wider backing.
 
Asylum-seekers will now have to hand over cash exceeding 10,000 kroner (€1,340, $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 Støjberg agreed to exempt wedding rings and other items of sentimental value.
 
The government points out that Danes seeking to qualify for social benefits sometimes also have to sell their valuables. However, they are not subjected to the kind of searches proposed in the new asylum law.
 
Some have likened the Danish proposals to the confiscation of gold and other valuables from Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
 
The plan has “a particularly bitter connotation in Europe, where the Nazis confiscated large amounts of gold and other valuables from Jews and others,” The Washington Post wrote.
 
 
'Just plain wrong'
Once a champion of refugee rights, the Scandinavian country's goal is now to become “significantly less attractive for asylum-seekers”, Støjberg said.
 
“The tone in the public debate about refugees and immigrants has undoubtedly become tougher,” Kashif Ahmad, the leader of the National Party (Nationalpartiet), which hopes to enter parliament by targeting the immigrant vote, told AFP.
 
John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International, said the law was “plain wrong” and “a sad reflection of how far Denmark has strayed” from its historic support of international norms in the Refugee Convention.
 
“European states must stop this dismal race to the bottom and begin to meet their international obligations, by upholding refugees' human rights and dignity,” said Dalhuisen. “Anything less is a betrayal of our common humanity.”
 
But Marcus Knuth, Venstre's spokesman on integration issues, said such 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.”
 
International criticism
Home to 5.6 million people, Denmark registered 21,000 asylum applications in 2015, making it one of the top EU destinations per capita for migrants but putting it far behind the 163,000 registered in neighbouring Sweden.
 
International criticism had mounted in the run-up to Tuesday's vote, with refugee agency UNHCR claiming it violates the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Refugee Convention.
 
But Rasmussen, whose Venstre party won a June 2015 election after promising an “immediate slowdown” of Denmark's refugee influx, has been unfazed, arguing that the UN Refugee Convention may need to be changed if refugees keep pouring into Europe.
 
Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen defended the new law last week as he appeared before the United Nations for a review of Denmark's human rights policies.
 
“The Danish welfare state is based upon the very simple principle that the state will provide and pay for those unable to take care of themselves, not for those who are able,” he told the Human Rights Council.
 
He and Støjberg reiterated the same line as they faced questioning from European MPs in the civil liberties committee on Monday.
 
Twenty-seven MPs voted against the bill in the one-chamber parliament, including three dissenting Social Democrats. A legislator for Greenland, a Danish territory, abstained and 70 MPs did not take part.
 
The bill is scheduled to be signed into law by Queen Margrethe within a few days.
 
Danish lawmakers last week also passed a resolution pushing the government to look into the consequences of building temporary housing complexes outside cities for refugees, like the country did during the Balkans war in the 1990s.
 
The move is backed by the anti-immigration Danish People's Party, which sees it as a first step towards building state-run camps where refugees would stay without integrating into Danish society.

POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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