The decision of the Danish parliament on the 26th of January to approve new legislation on asylum seekers has generated much discussion and media coverage across Europe. Much focus has been on the aspect of the Bill that allows the seizure of asylum seekers’ valuables and assets over 10,000 Danish Kroner, approximately £1000 to help pay for the cost of their food and housing.
The particular way that proposal was worded and the message put out by some politicians has rightly been met with serious criticism in Denmark and abroad. The original proposal was for valuables over £300 to be seized and this threshold has since been raised due to objections. It has also been clarified that no items of sentimental value will be taken. Denmark is not alone in this. In other EU countries it is also customary to make asylum seekers pay for their own housing and support – or only provide support if the person is destitute, including the UK, where you can ”apply for asylum support if you’re homeless or don’t have money to buy food.”
The idea that an asylum seeker arriving in your country to seek safety, after an often arduous journey, where often no or few possessions can be brought, must be subjected to a search of their personal items and removal of their valuables seems odious. But the focus on the seizing of valuables, however callous an act it may be, has overshadowed some other crucial issues and the wider context.
Issue 1. The proposal is only one of a series of measures in the Bill to tighten asylum provision in Denmark. Several of the other new rules have perhaps much greater implications long term. There is for instance the rule that a foreigner with temporary settlement status in Denmark now has to wait three years instead of one to be able to apply to bring their family to Denmark; the amount of time a refugee is given protection for is reduced to one or two years; there is a 10% reduction in the amount of asylum support given; asylum seekers will no longer be able to live outside the ’asylum centres’; and Denmark when taking resettled refugees will be able to choose those who are most ’ready to be integrated’. These are some of the other areas in the Bill which in different ways make it harder for a refugee to feel safe, to settle, to integrate. These must also be discussed.
Issue 2. The point of the Bill and the way it was originally communicated was part of a broader effort to send a signal to asylum seekers, (and to people smugglers), that Denmark was a not a country asylum seekers should come to. These were ’dog whistle’ signals, intended only for the ears of asylum seekers. Never mind how it made Denmark look abroad more generally, as long as asylum seekers got the message that they were not welcome. In 2015 The Danish Government placed ads in papers in Lebanon to point out the difficulties of seeking asylum in Denmark in order to try and reach potential asylum seekers and dissuade them from coming.
It is of great concern to me that both the government and the largest opposition party, the Social Democratic party, have said clearly that they want to do whatever it takes to make sure fewer asylum seekers come to Denmark.
Commenting on the Bill’s rules regarding extending the time before a foreigner can seek family reunification, Dan Jørgensen, The integration spokesperson for the Social Democratic party expressed that ”it is the refugees’ responsibility, if they choose to go to Denmark, where there rules are in effect. It is their choice. It is not the case that you stand in a camp and then you say ’now I have to flee, either to Denmark or not at all.’ There are other countries you can also choose. So it is an active choice on behalf of these refugees to flee to Denmark, where you know these rules are in effect.”
The idea is that people are made to feel unwelcome so they do not choose your country. Never mind that the vast majority of asylum seekers do not make such a choice of where to go. The focus is on Denmark preventing asylum seekers from coming, not on the right to seek sanctuary or on the importance of providing protection to those in need of it.
I have a real issue with this. A country cannot send this signal when it comes to asylum. As nation states we have the possibility of deciding on the number of migrants we give visas to for work, for study, etc., but we have signed up to the Refugee Convention in the recognition that some people don’t have a choice: they have to flee for their lives, and we as the world, do not have a choice, we have to offer protection to those seeking sanctuary, or at the very least process the application for asylum.
Issue 3. The current broader issue underlying all of this is the issue of lack of solidarity between countries in Europe. As we have seen all of last year, countries have responded in very different ways to the refugee crisis, with some countries offering to help and others wanting to keep asylum seekers out. Across Europe the number of asylum seekers countries have received varies greatly, in real number and per capita, and there is still resistance to the plans to resettle refugees across Europe in an attempt to distribute them more fairly among countries.
In January, Sweden, the country in Europe which has taken the greatest number of asylum seekers per capita in 2015 (150,000 in a country of 9.5 million people) closed its border with Denmark for the first time in 60 years. Sweden is finding it difficult to continue to cope with greater numbers of asylum seekers, unless other European countries help as well. Sweden is also frustrated that Denmark is not doing more to help. The attitude in Denmark meanwhile is that all of Europe should reduce the number of asylum seekers. The Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said in December that he wanted to work with other countries to change the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Despite these signals that Denmark is not a welcoming country to asylum seekers, it has had 21,000 asylum seekers in 2015, while the UK had just over 25,000. Now I am not suggesting that Denmark can't take 21,000 asylum seekers or can't do more, out of a population of 6 million, we can indeed manage. But the UK has over 60 million people and can surely manage to do more as well.
The EU has 503 million inhabitants, and the asylum seekers it received last year were around a million. There is an urgent need for all European countries to work together in solidarity to do so much more to provide sanctuary. There is not a moment to lose.
Anne is the Project Development Manager at Migrant Voice and originally from Denmark.