Migrant crisis: Why are countries taking refugees’ valuables?

A man from Syria carries his sleeping daughter on 6 Januaryx 2016 in Padborg, Denmark.Image copyright
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Denmark expects to receive around 20,000 asylum seekers in 2016

Plans in Denmark for border police to seize cash and valuables from asylum seekers to help pay for their stay have drawn international criticism.

The new law, which is expected to be approved by Danish MPs, has been compared by some commentators to the confiscation of valuables from Jews during World War Two.

But Denmark’s right-wing government has defended the move, saying Danes also have to sell valuables to qualify for social benefits.

PM Lars Lokke Rasmussen has called it “the most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history”.

Other countries in Europe are also using similar measures as they struggle to cope with the number of migrants and refugees arriving.

BBC News looks at some of the main questions surrounding the controversy.

What are Denmark’s plans?

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A new camp in Vordingborg, 100 km south of Copenhagen, is meant to house up to 2,000 migrants

The new law gives the Danish authorities “the power to search clothes and luggage of asylum seekers… with a view to finding assets” to cover expenses such as food and accommodation, according to a government statement (in Danish).

Police can seize cash over 10,000 kroner (€1,340, $1,450) as well as any individual items valued at more than that amount, such as watches, mobile phones and computers.

Wedding rings and any other items of sentimental value are exempt.

Savings and money in bank accounts will not be seized, a spokeswoman for the immigration ministry told the BBC.

As a main rule, money and valuables will be confiscated on arrival, she said. Assets discovered at a later stage during the asylum seeker’s stay may also be taken.

However some experts have questioned how this will enforced.

While the seizing of assets has dominated international headlines, legal experts and human rights groups have voiced more alarm over measures making it harder to obtain family reunions and residency permits.

Amnesty International has said refugees fleeing war would face “an impossible choice” if the waiting period to apply to bring over their family was increased from one year to three.

Migrants feel chill of tighter borders

Europe’s migrant crisis

Which other countries already take migrants’ money?

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Asylum seekers in Switzerland are required to declare their assets on arrival

Switzerland has had a law enabling the authorities to confiscate assets belonging to asylum seekers for 20 years.

Migrants are required to declare their assets on arrival, and anything over 1,000 Swiss francs ($1,000; €900, £700) can be taken. Objects of emotional value are never seized, the government says.

In 2015, the Swiss authorities collected a total of 210,000 Swiss francs from 112 people. Most of this was cash.

As the vast majority of asylum seekers are destitute, assets are confiscated from only a small number, the government says.

It was forced to defend the policy last week following criticism of the Danish proposals.

In the Netherlands, asylum seekers are supposed to declare their assets, and deductions can be made if this exceeds €5,895 for an individual or €11,790 for a family.

They also have to pay levies on their income towards their stay, once they are allowed to work.

A report in the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad found asylum seekers had paid nearly €500,000 towards their living costs since the start of 2013.

Meanwhile in Germany, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann has reportedly said cash and valuables worth more than €750 can legally be seized in his state – one of the main entry points for migrants arriving in the country.

“The practice in Bavaria and the federal rules set out in law correspond in substance with the process in Switzerland,” German newspaper Bild quoted him as saying.

In the neighbouring German region of Baden-Wuerttemberg, asylum seekers can only keep money and valuables worth €350 (£265), the report said.

Why is Denmark doing this?

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A police officer tries to separate pro-migrant and anti-migrant protesters at the Danish-German border

The government insists that the new laws are needed to stem the flow of refugees.

Denmark expects to receive around 20,000 asylum seekers in 2016, compared with 15,000 last year, the integration ministry told BBC News.

Media captionJenny Hill says the plan is designed to deter people seeking asylum

Officials say the policy on seizing valuables brings migrants in line with jobless Danes, who must sell assets above a certain level to claim benefits.

However, some politicians have said the move is “purely symbolic” in order to deter migrants from travelling to Denmark in the first place.

The move also comes amid heightened tensions over the migration crisis in Europe, with recent opinion polls suggesting 70% of Danes rank immigration as their top political concern.

Prime Minister Rasmussen’s Venstre (Liberal) party won the June 2015 election after promising an “immediate slowdown” of refugees.

Is it allowed?

Despite being a member of the EU, Denmark has opted out of most of the bloc’s asylum rules.

The country’s immigration minister has repeatedly insisted that “Denmark’s immigration policy is decided in Denmark, not in Brussels”.

However, Denmark is bound by the UN Refugee Convention, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned that the latest plans risk violating these standards.

In a letter to Ms Stojberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, also said the issue of delaying family reunions raised “issues of compatibility with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects the right to respect for one’s family life”.

The bill “could also infringe on the rights of children to live within their family environment, as prescribed by the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

But the concerns were dismissed by government ministers.

“Those are his personal views,” AFP news agency quoted Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen as saying. She said the Council of Europe had not started a legal case against the move.

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