By Mina Shah
Earlier last week, Denmark’s parliament passed measures allowing refugees to come into the country for a time. These measures, meant to deter refugees from seeking asylum or longer-term habitation, allow officials to confiscate the valuables of refugees, meaning that refugees may keep only items of a sum-total worth up to an equivalent of $1,450. The measures also make it possible to delay family reunification for three years.
“Why is this a big deal?” you may ask. Switzerland has a similar policy of taking the possessions of refugees that exceed a certain level, as does the German state of Baden-Württemburg, as do (reportedly) other southern states of Germany. And in Switzerland and Germany, the threshold for confiscation is much lower. For example, in Switzerland, anything above a value equivalent to 1,000 Swiss francs ($985) can be confiscated by officials. In Baden-Württemburg, the limit of kept possessions is 350 euros ($380).
While it is true that the status of refugees and their ability (or lack thereof) to keep that which belongs to them is worse in other places than Denmark, the Danish parliament’s decision could start a nasty trend in the direction of further confiscations, which should be extremely troubling to readers. This is certainly not to excuse the other countries that are taking tariffs from folks seeking refuge, but as this is a more recent development, it seems worth addressing in this forum at this time.
It may seem to rational some that local governments are taking steps to ensure that they will be able to confiscate the possessions of refugees. People seeking refuge ought to pay for their ability to stay in that country as much as possible, right? And, besides, items of great personal value, such as wedding rings, are exempt from the calculation, aren’t they?
Unfortunately, this thinking is also extremely flawed, both from a logistical and from an ethical standpoint.
Logistically, it simply does not make sense to confiscate the material wealth of incoming refugees. They have no way of becoming employed in order to support themselves, and to take away their only potential method of maintaining some sort of self-support will simply mean that they will end up being a drain on the system more seriously in the long term.
On top of this, though, it feels morally reprehensible to have a law such as this or with a similar functionality in place. Refugees do not seek asylum because they’re looking for a new vacation spot or because they think that they can capitalize on the structures in place of the countries in which they seek refuge. They’re fleeing deadly situations in their home country. Not dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, but deadly situations. They’ve been experiencing and continue to experience the traumas associated with being in a war state. They’ve been experiencing and continue to experience traumas associated with being estranged from their homeland and needing to adjust to a radically new way of life. And on top of all these traumas, we want to add another by stripping them of their worldly possessions, some of which they probably risked a lot to bring with them in the first place.
The fact that items of high personal value, such as wedding rings, are exempt from the tally of incoming wealth makes the idea of this policy a little better, but not significantly enough to justify the law. While some minor functional difference is made, the humiliation of being stripped of that which you own cannot be undone.
The new law-to-be, though, doesn’t simply contain clauses about confiscating that which belongs to these people who are already disenfranchised. The other (possibly scarier) piece of the policy relates to the re-connection of families, or rather creating a set of ways to make it easier for officials to prevent the reunification of families for a longer period of time (up to three years).
It’s as if the initial insult of taking people’s possessions were not enough and the Danish people wanted to flip the bird to folks who come to their country genuinely asking for nothing more than a place to stay. Have we so completely lost our humanity and become so xenophobic that we think that it’s a good idea to perpetuate the pain that comes with being in a separated family?
Denmark’s parliamentarians really needed to think harder about the local and global implications that the passage of this law would have. Those of us here in other countries still in the process forming policies pertaining to refugees should take note and avoid making morally questionable moves.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.