What Denmark’s Jewellery Bill Says About Us.
Last week, the Danish government passed a highly controversial bill with 81 votes to 27, requiring asylum seekers to hand over any cash or valuables worth an excess of 10,000 kroner (£1000) before crossing the Danish border. Although it does specify that watches, mobile phones, and similar items necessary for maintaining a decent standard of living as well as items of highly sentimental value such as wedding rings are excluded, the law has already earned itself a reputation as the ‘Jewellery bill’. The Danish government simultaneously passed a piece of legislation extending the length of time that it could take for those granted asylum in Denmark to be reunited with their families from one year to three years. The Gryphon explores the ethics of such a ruling, as well as the broadly hostile response to refugees in general.
In defence of these new regulations, the Danish Immigration Minister, Inger Stojberg, has claimed that it is “only fair” for refugees to give up their valuable assets in order to contribute financially to the support that they will receive. Comparisons have been drawn with the kontanthjælp system, through which Danish citizens can only claim the highest level of financial support if they own no more than 10,000 kroner’s worth of valuable assets. In comparison to the UK, where asylum seekers receive £36.95 a week and are not allowed to work whilst their asylum application is being processed (a procedure which can take anything between a couple of months to several years), the initial treatment of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark is relatively similar. However, the Scandinavian welfare model that Denmark follows is well known for its generosity and comprehensiveness; it includes benefits such as universal healthcare, free education, and high salaries and, as such, is often considered an incentive for migrants heading to Denmark. Consequently, it appears that the new laws might have been put in place as deterrents, sending a message to those aiming to head to Denmark for a better life.
According to the BBC, Denmark has received over 21,000 asylum applications in 2015, a figure which many attribute to the so-called open-door policy that Germany adopted late last year, allowing the Dublin convention (which states that asylum seekers must claim asylum in the first country through which they entered the EU) to be side-stepped. In a trend that echoes the sentiments of many Western countries, fears about the ‘burden’ of refugees are on the rise and are being exploited by right-wing parties such as the Danish People’s Party in Denmark and UKIP here in the UK. According to the UNHCR, the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons living in the UK by the end of 2014 made up a mere 0.24% of the population, suggesting that the fear of an unmanageable influx of migrants is unfounded. In fact, developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees. However, the consequences of such negative attitudes towards foreigners were demonstrated only last Saturday when Dover saw protests turn violent between far-right groups such as the EDL (English Defence League) and anti-fascist groups.
Needless to say, the actions of certain groups of people are not representative of public opinion as a whole and the ‘Jewellery bill’ has received a backlash of criticism from across the world and in Denmark itself. It was reported that Danish author Christian Mørk sent the government a ring belonging to his grandmother, whose parents migrated to Denmark in the 1800s. His action demonstrated solidarity with those who “will now suffer this humiliation” of having to hand over their valuables and highlighted the significant changes which Denmark seems to have recently undergone. As the first state to sign the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, Denmark has a history of supporting refugees and yet things seem to be turning sour. If a nation famed for its inclusivity and the happiness of its citizens is seizing of valuables from people who have had to flee for their lives, then what does this mean for the rest of us?
Last September, it took the heart-wrenching photo of 3-year-old, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach to drive home the reality of the refugee crisis in which Europe is engulfed. Frustrated with the government’s inept response, which, according to the BBC, has granted only 4,980 Syrians asylum since 2011, British citizens took matters into their own hands, collecting van loads of supplies to be delivered to asylum seekers in Calais. Of course, these efforts are to be applauded; yet what many people do not know is that the Calais ‘Jungle’ is no new phenomenon – it has existed in some form or another since the early 2000s. What that tragic photo managed to do was to restore a degree of humanity to a group of people who have suffered labels as degrading as “cockroaches” in certain UK tabloids. The ability of the media to incite fear amongst populations worldwide – be it in Denmark, across the pond at Donald Trump’s rallies, or here in the UK – is a serious cause for concern. The majority of migrants are only making the journey to Europe because they have found themselves in a truly desperate situation through no fault of their own. However, the dehumanisation they face seems to have given a sense of entitlement to many of those lucky enough to have been born in a European country that is not poverty-stricken or war-torn.
The former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, reacted to the Danish refugee law saying:
While European states have to address the legitimate concerns of their citizens regarding the historic influx of migrants since last year, they cannot do so at the expense of their values, ideals and international law.
Although the passing of a bill in Denmark may seem relatively insignificant to us in the UK, it is the context in which the law has been conceived – the fact that it betrays Denmark’s history of humanitarian values by punishing vulnerable people – which gives it such significance. It signals a hardening of attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers that has swept across Europe and the USA. The real challenge is not in finding ways to deter migrants from trying to come to our countries; is it finding the courage to face this crisis with humanity.
Image: Jens Dresling