A New Low: Stealing Family Heirlooms in Exchange for Protection
This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
The refugee crisis in Europe has shown the very real limits to the social coherence and solidarity that seemed to form the basis for the European Union until now. But even within the climate of hostility against asylum seekers in Europe, Denmark stands apart as one of the worst aggressors.
First, the Danish government took out advertisements in Lebanese newspapers stating that it had cut social benefits to refugees by almost 50 percent, and that family reunification would be out of the question for now.
Then, the government announced it would go back on its (measly) promise to resettle 1,000 refugees, and declared plans to further cut funding for refugee integration, criminally charge asylum seekers for asserting their protection needs, and increase criminal charges for begging.
Included in these proposals--many of which have been adopted--is a provision allowing authorities to confiscate asylum seekers' jewelry (exempting engagement and wedding rings and watches) to offset the cost of providing them shelter. This proposal appears to still be under discussion.
From the international legal perspective, these measures place Denmark in breach of its obligations to shelter and provide for those in need. The 1951 Refugee Convention gives anyone who manifestly fears for his or her safety at home the right to seek protection elsewhere. It also prohibits safe countries, such as Denmark, from returning refugees to a place where they might be tortured, targeted for killing, or put through something even worse. Physicians for Human Rights has an intimate understanding of the situations the majority of refugees in Europe are fleeing in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Without belaboring the point, let's just say these countries are far less than safe.
Denmark's new provisions also appear to violate the rights to integrity, dignity, and personal property, all enshrined in the Danish Constitution -- though in a country where political leaders have protested the obligation to provide shelter even for the stateless, the existence of legal imperatives may not be much of a deterrent to this kind of callous policy-making.
In fact, the public debate in Denmark is more focused on how the country is being invaded by undeserving "migrants" looking for an easy life than about the security crises that are causing people to flee in the first place. Despite the fact that news media report daily on the conflicts and collapse of the rule of law in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria -- just to mention a few -- the thousands who flee are somehow still seen as resource-poor individuals trying to move their families to a place with better social benefits.
This conflation of migration and refugee flows is common. Most mainstream media, in Europe and around the world, continue to refer to the people flooding into Europe as "migrants," despite ample evidence to the contrary. In an October New York Times article about a four-year-old boy who had been abducted from a refugee camp, and subsequently found dead, the problem was summarized as one related to "migrant children." Yet, a child abducted from a refugee camp might reasonably be assumed to be, well, a refugee.
And then there is the puzzling notion, propagated in online commentary and punditry, that refugees in Europe already have money and should not be entitled to social assistance in Europe. It is certainly true that compared to the millions who can't afford to leave, the hundreds of thousands of people who make it to Europe probably were the wealthier ones in their country of origin. But rather than proving refugees in Europe to be mercenary, this information does just the opposite: when the need to leave is shared by everyone, not just the poor, you know a country is unsafe.
Of course, Denmark is not alone in its active discouragement of asylum seekers. This summer, Hungary constructed a razor wire fence on its border with Serbia to deter refugees from passing through the country. Slovenia threatened to do the same, but settled on daily quotas for entry instead. However, in early November, Slovenian television reported that the government had purchased a border fence. And in November, the European Union agreed to pay Turkey €3 billion for assistance in returning refugees to Syria at the Turkey-Syrian border.
To be sure, some European governments -- notably Germany and Sweden - have declared a willingness to welcome a larger number of refugees. This is laudable and should serve as inspiration for better policies everywhere. Instead, however, the initiatives and openness of these governments are being undermined by the institutionalized inhumanity displayed by their neighbors. Indeed, the toxicity with which many European governments are treating asylum seekers challenges the very idea the European Union was set up to protect: that everyone is better off when inequalities are less pronounced.
This latest Danish bill which would to strip asylum seekers of the last thing that reminds them of the home they would prefer not to have left in the first place -- their grandmother's necklace, a friendship ring reminding them of happier times -- is not only illegal, it is inhumane. I have never been more ashamed to be Danish.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the status of the proposed provision regarding confiscation of valuables.