Imagine a shake-down on Ellis Island: Dirt-poor immigrants, freshly arrived after a hazardous voyage across the Atlantic, thousands of miles away from the only homes they've ever known, are queuing in line when a cop or immigration officer stops them.
"What you got there, huh? That watch -- gimme that! What's that there, a gold necklace? I don't care if it's a family heirloom, hand it over. You want to be an American, don't you?"
Messed up, right?
That's essentially what's happening in Denmark now, after legislators passed a law giving authorities the legal right to seize cash and valuables from Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the Nordic country.
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Welcome to Denmark! Take the shirt off your back and place it in the collection box, please!
Denmark says the new law is necessary to help defray the cost of absorbing refugees. The truth is a little more complicated.
Denmark is not an ideal destination for people fleeing war-torn regions. That's because Danish policies and actions have made it clear refugees aren't welcome, much to the chagrin of European neighbors doing all they can to share the burden of a very real humanitarian crisis.
But just in case it wasn't clear, Danish authorities want to make sure refugees know they'll have a difficult time in their country: In September, Denmark's government took out ads in Lebanese newspapers, the Washington Post reported, essentially warning refugees to stay out. The ads warned that refugees who try to settle in Denmark won't be able to send for their families for a year, that social benefits would be cut by half, and refugees who are not granted asylum will be swiftly booted out of the country.
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Denmark also stopped all trains that connect the country to continental Europe via Germany, the Post reported, to make it more difficult for refugees to reach Danish territory. As the Post noted, most of those refugees are just trying to pass through and make it to Sweden, which has been more welcoming. The Danish aren't willing to help them, and refugees trying to make the last leg of their journey have to walk to the border.
In response to criticism, Danish leaders clarified that they won't take family heirlooms and items with sentimental value from refugees -- except when they will.
"It is explicitly mentioned in the bill before Parliament that the new rule on seizure will only apply to assets of a considerable value," the Danish government explained in a statement. "Thus, foreigners will always be able to keep assets which are necessary to maintain a modest standard of living, e.g. watches and mobile phones. In other words, the general principle of a minimum amount exempt from execution also applies in this context.
"Furthermore, assets which have a certain personal, sentimental value to a foreigner will not, as a main rule, be seized unless they have considerable value. "
Let's be honest here: Syrian refugees aren't carrying 50-inch flat screens on their backs. They're not rolling up to Denmark in $60,000 Escalades, flashing bling, with cases of priceless artworks in the trunk. These are people who already had little before their country was devastated by a brutal civil war. Many of them left in a hurry, without time to take everything that was important to them. And almost all of them were forced to leave valuables at home, knowing they couldn't take what they couldn't carry.
Now the Danish want to strip them of what little they have, even if they're only passing through to more welcoming Sweden. The new law could fuel fear and xenophobia, U.N. leaders said, leading other countries to consider similar measures. Switzerland, another nation that enjoys high living standards and wealth, is similarly seizing assets from freshly-arrived refugees, according to the Guardian.
"People who have suffered tremendously, who have escaped war and conflict, who've literally walked hundreds of kilometres if not more and put their lives at risk by crossing the Mediterranean should be treated with compassion and respect, and within their full rights as refugees," said Stephane Dujarric, a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Shame on Denmark.