Welcome to Denmark: How Will You Be Paying for Your Stay?

Christiansborg_Folketingssalen_20120420_0222F_(8188480571)Andrea Curley
Third year law student at the University of North Carolina, focusing on immigration law

In January of this year, much to the dismay of refugee rights groups, the Danish Parliament passed a law allowing police to search for and confiscate assets belonging to refugees entering the country’s borders. The law permits police to take any cash or property that exceeds 10,000 DKK (approximately $1456 USD), with the exception of sentimental items like wedding rings. Although the law ostensibly serves as a deterrent to future asylum seekers, Danish officials have stated the new measure is necessary to pay for the cost of lodging, processing, and other related expenses. As the refugee crisis has deepened, European states have found it increasingly difficult to manage the processing and housing of the huge number of incoming refugees. So it should come as no surprise that measures that place additional burdens and deterrents on the refugees themselves are now widely supported.

The UNHCR was quick to condemn this measure, recommending that for Denmark–as a member to the 1951 Refugee Convention (the Convention)–to abide by its international obligations, its parliament should strike down the provision completely. For opponents of the law, it evokes unsavory images of police physically searching and seizing the few remaining possessions of scared families fleeing conflict. But even if this process is distasteful and traumatizing to refugees, does it rise to the level of violating refugees’ rights as defined by the Convention?

UNHCR maintains that this measure not only violates European property rights laws, but also the essential spirit of the 1951 Convention. One of the main goals of the Convention is to allow refugees the time and ultimate power to decide the right solution for their status.[1]  When entering a country to seek its protection and shelter, there are four permanent solutions a refugee may take to end her flight: repatriation, reestablishment, naturalization, or resettlement.[2] Repatriation and reestablishment both mean that the refugee would return to her home country. Through naturalization, a refugee could be granted citizenship in the country where she is currently situated. Finally, resettlement means that the refugee is in the current country of refuge temporarily and will move on permanently to another country that has granted her admission.

If a refugee takes the path of resettlement, then Denmark’s latest law permitting the seizure of assets will violate the Convention. Article 30 of the Convention declares that “a Contracting State shall…permit refugees to transfer assets which they have brought into its territory, to another country where they have been admitted for the purposes of resettlement.” This means that whatever property or valuables a refugee brings with her or later has transferred into a state must be available to her for export to the country of resettlement.[3] Refugees are in particularly vulnerable positions and are most likely traveling with only what they physically can carry. Therefore, the limited resources available to them should be accessible for setting up a new life.[4]  Article 30 sets forth a mandatory obligation, but, as some commentators have noted, it is not a particularly strong obligation.[5] A refugee’s right to transfer her assets is limited only to the resettlement country.

Despite the clear language of Article 30, it is not obvious that the article will ever apply to the refugees entering Denmark. In fact, it is very unlikely to ever be implicated. Resettlement means that a refugee is legally admitted to a country other than the country of initial processing. Even though there is a European Union led resettlement program, and despite the urging of the European Commission, most member states accept a shockingly low number of refugees for resettlement. This means that, in practicality, the refugees being processed in Denmark have little chance of resettlement. So even if seizing refugees’ assets in order to foot the bill of their care contradicts the spirit of the Convention, in reality, Denmark will violate the Convention in only a small number of cases. And that is only if Danish officials do not return the assets once resettlement is granted.

Even though Article 30 may not be violated, Denmark’s law is still morally ambiguous and discriminatory. The law may in fact violate Article 29 of the Convention, which declares that a state “shall not impose upon refugees duties, charges or taxes, of any description whatsoever, other or higher than those which are or may be levied on their nationals in similar situations.” Although the Danish government asserts that the new legislation treats refugees the same as Danish citizen welfare recipients who must relinquish assets, this assertion is suspect. Refugees may have escaped war and violence. Most did not wish to leave their home country. Furthermore, under Danish asylum procedures, the majority of refugees are required to stay in government housing while their applications are processed, which means that a refugee may be forced to relinquish property to the government even if she had the means to support herself. In short, a refugee’s situation is not the same as a welfare recipient’s in Denmark. In light of other provisions passed that increase waiting time for family reunification and widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric, this law only serves to increase distrust of and anger at refugees and should never have been passed.

[1] See James C. Hathaway, The Rights of Refugees under International Law 914 (2005).

[2] Id. at 916.

[3] Id. at 973.

[4] Id. at 967.

[5] Id. at 973.

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