Copenhagen (AFP) – Denmark’s parliament was on Wednesday to begin debating a controversial plan to seize refugees’ valuables, with the bill widely expected to pass a January 26 vote after being backed by a majority of lawmakers.
The bill, proposed by Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen’s right-wing Venstre party, would allow Danish authorities to seize migrants’ cash exceeding 10,000 kroner (1,340 euros, $1,450), as well as any individual items valued at more than 10,000 kroner.
Wedding rings would be exempt, along with other items of sentimental value, such as engagement rings, family portraits and medals.
The government has faced a wave of criticism over its proposal, which had initially put the limit for migrants at 3,000 kroner.
It has since backtracked, and finally reached agreement with other parties in parliament on Tuesday to secure a majority for the vote.
But the bill, even in its amended form, was criticised Wednesday by a group of 10 local and regional members of the ruling Venstre party.
– Widespread criticism –
“It is not just a matter of proper policy and humanity, but also Denmark’s international reputation,” they wrote in the Berlingske daily.
“When focusing on symbolic actions rather than real content, you forget that politics is about real people of flesh and blood,” they said.
Denmark already had laws that could be used to require wealthy migrants to support themselves, they argued.
“What is new is… expanded powers to search refugees’ luggage for money and valuables,” they said.
The proposal is part of a bigger immigration bill. The debate on Wednesday afternoon was the first of several to be held ahead of the January 26 vote on the bill.
A European lawmaker for Venstre last month left the party over its ever-tighter migration policies, which have included delaying family reunification times and advertising in Lebanese newspapers to deter refugees from coming to Denmark.
But observers believe the party’s leadership is unlikely to be influenced by critics of Integration Minister Inger Stojberg’s hardline policies.
“It is not at the centre of the party that this debate is taking place,” Bjarne Steensbeck, a political commentator at public broadcaster DR told AFP.
Three Social Democratic lawmakers have said they are prepared to vote against their own party on the issue.
– Bill is a ‘signal’ –
Migrants themselves have been sceptical about the proposal.
At the Auderod asylum centre 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Copenhagen, Tarek Issa, a 25-year-old law student from Hama in Syria, said he thought police would find little of value during their migrant searches.
“We almost paid everything to come here. Like a house, like a restaurant we owned before,” he told AFP. A police search of his bags would turn up “maybe 100 euros,” he laughed.
The level of public support in Denmark for seizing migrants’ valuables was hard to gauge, but there was widespread backing for tighter asylum rules in general, according to Steensbeck.
A survey by pollster Megafon on December 20 found that 51 percent of Danes were in favour of delaying family reunifications by three years, while 29 percent said they were against it.
Other respondents were unsure or said they were neither for nor against the move.
International media have compared the searches to Nazi Germany’s seizing of gold and valuables from Jews and others during World War II.
Steensbeck said that although the government had clearly taken note of the international criticism, it was unlikely to have an impact on its policy.
“Lars Lokke Rasmussen has to be elected in Denmark… not (by) the international media,” he said.
UN refugee agency UNHCR said earlier this month it feared that Denmark’s new immigration bill “could fuel fear, xenophobia and similar restrictions that would reduce — rather than expand — the asylum space globally.”
The bill includes delaying family reunifications for some refugees by up to three years, as well as making it harder to obtain permanent residency and shortening temporary residence permits.
A spokesman for the far-right Danish People’s Party told AFP in December that the bill was intended as a “signal” to dissuade migrants from coming to Denmark, and not aimed at actually raising money.
Denmark received 21,000 refugees last year, compared to 163,000 in neighbouring Sweden, which until recently had some of Europe’s most generous asylum rules.