Denmark's parliament has passed new laws aimed at deterring people from seeking asylum there, in a move that has sparked widespread condemnation.
After more than three hours of debate Tuesday, lawmakers overwhelming passed the so-called "jewelry bill" that allows authorities to seize asylum-seekers' property valued at more than $1,450. Items of special emotional value such as wedding rings will be exempt. Some critics likened the decision to the Nazis' confiscation of valuables from Jews during the Holocaust. Another provision calls for the asylum seekers to wait three years, instead of one, before they can apply to be reunited with their families.
The bill is the latest attempt by Denmark's seven-month-old, minority center-right government to discourage the migration of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The Scandinavian country took in a record 20,000 asylum-seekers last year.
In reacting to the Danish parliament's decision, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric issued a statement that read, in part, "Our reaction would be that people who have suffered tremendously - who have escaped war and conflict, who have literally walked hundreds, if not thousands, hundreds of kilometers if not more, who put their lives at risk crossing the Mediterranean - should be treated with compassion and respect and within their full rights as refugees as called [for] by the 1951 [refugee] convention."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, also described the bill as inconsistent with European Union policies.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said the bill comes at a time “when the need for solidarity and responsibility-sharing at the EU level really is the first priority."
"The decision to give Danish police the authority to search and confiscate valuables from asylum seekers sends damaging messages in our view; it runs the risk of fueling sentiments of fear and discrimination rather than promoting solidarity with people in need of protection. On the limited access to family reunification, we just remind people of the point that family unity is a fundamental principle in international law," said Edwards.
Last week, human rights group Amnesty International urged the Danish parliament to reject what Amnesty called "cruel and regressive changes to refugee law." Amnesty's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, Gauri van Gulik, said, "It’s simply cruel to force people who are running from conflicts to make an impossible choice: either bring children and other loved ones on dangerous, even lethal journeys, or leave them behind and face a prolonged separation while family members continue to suffer the horrors of war."
Denmark is not the only place targeting refugee possessions. Switzerland has started taking valuables worth more than $985, while the German state of Baden-Württemberg secures valuables above $380. Other areas in southern Europe have been reported to follow a similar practice.