By: Kellina Keylek
In 2015 alone, one million people from the Middle East and parts of Africa reached the European Union seeking asylum from countries consumed by war, political instability, and repression. Placed between two of the most “immigrant friendly” countries in Europe, Denmark responded to the influx of asylum seekers by enacting new policies further restricting the rights of refugees. In January 2016 the Danish Parliament amended the Aliens Act stating
[t]here is a legal basis for the police to visit an asylum seeker and to search for the asylum seeker's luggage for the purpose of securing money and valuables to cover the expenses of his or her maintenance etc. and the foreign authorities are allowed to take the said assets in preservation to cover expenses for maintenance etc.
Popularly known as the “Jewelry Law”, this new amendment “authorize[d] the government to seize cash and valuable, excluding items of sentimental value, with a value greater than 10,000 kroner ($1,500) in order to reimburse the government for costs incurred in providing emergency services.” Items of sentimental value may include “wedding rings, engagement rings, family portraits, decorations, . . . medals, and the like.” Items that have been taken by the Danish government and were determined to have low sentimental value include watches, cellphones, and laptops.
Given the new Jewelry Law, Denmark has been marked as one of the least friendly countries for refugees in the European Union. However, Denmark has historically been considered an advocate for refugees. For example, Denmark is a party of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and a member of the Council of Europe. As a member of the Council of Europe, Denmark has committed itself “to take the first steps for the collective enforcement of certain rights” including the human rights and fundamental freedoms of refugees. Specifically, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms states “every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in public interest and subject to the condition provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.” Additionally, the Danish Constitution provides “[t]he right of property shall be inviolable. No person shall be ordered to cede his property except where required by the public weal. It can be done only as provided by Statute and against full compensation.”
However, even with Denmark’s recognition of property rights, the new amendment and exception was met with outcry and a great deal of criticism. Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen told CNN the new amendment “prolong[s] the suffering of venerable people who have been ripped apart from their families by conflict or persecution” and “pilfer[s] the possessions refugees cling to.” The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, criticized the seizure of asylum seeker assets because “the measure could amount to an infringement of human dignity . . . and could also lead to violations of the right to property enshrined in Article 1of Protocol 1 to the [European Convention on Human Rights].”
Although the amendment was met with criticism from the European Union, the United Nation Refugee Agency, and Amnesty International, the Danish Parliament insisted this amendment was necessary to ensure refugees contributed to the generous welfare state Denmark offered its citizens and refugees. The spokesman for Denmark’s ruling Liberal Party stated “all Danish citizens and refugees coming here receive universal healthcare, . . . education from preschool to university, . . . elder care, language training[,] and integration training . . . paid for by the government.” Denmark accepted 21,000 applications from individuals seeking asylum and expects the number to increase moving forward. As the number of asylum seekers increase in Denmark, so does the government bill for the services it provides to refugees.
Even if Denmark is justified in this action, is there reasonable alternatives in achieving the public benefit without targeting an already venerable population?
As stated above, the right to property applies to all persons regardless of their immigration status in Denmark. Member states of the Council of Europe, which includes Denmark, believe individuals seeking asylum have the fundamental right to their property. However, the Council of Europe and the Danish Constitution give authority to the state to interfere with these property rights so long as it is for the public interest. Denmark authorities claim the authorization to seize cash and valuable is justified because those belonging will cover the costs of lodging, food, “other benefits to refugees and asylum seekers[,]” and the future benefits the refugee will obtain from the government. If Denmark’s goal is refunding the costs of refugees, the value of a single watch or laptop computer at a time when refugees are most vulnerable is not the only way to achieve Denmark’s goal. For example, after the refugee is admitted in Demark, the Danish government could require the refugees to pay a special tax for receiving the benefits the government supplies. Denmark would still be able to cover the costs acquired with accepting refugees within its border without seizing the only property the refugees have left.
Not only are there other avenues to compensate the costs of refugees, but the sentimental value exception is nearly impossible to apply universally to each refugee’s property. The three examples the Danish government has given as low sentimental value property are watches, cell phones, and laptop computers. Although a watch may be of low sentimental value to the Danish government, it is possible that a late grandfather gifted his grandson a watch, and it is the only item the grandson has to remember his late grandfather. The sentimental value of the watch would outweigh the monetary value placed on it by the government. However, under this exception, the authorities have the right to confiscate the watch so long as it is under the $1500 value. If a refugee has a coin collection that has been in their family for many years, the government would have the authority to take the money to compensate for the entrance into Denmark. Additionally, a worthless ring found on the streets placed on the correct hand and finger could be considered to fall within the exception and would not be confiscated.
Overall, Denmark has the authority to confiscate refugee property so long as it is for the public interest. However, as a member of the Council of Europe and the European Union, Denmark conveys the image of supporting certain fundamental rights that apply to all people regardless of immigration status. As such, it is necessary for Demark to reevaluate the means it receives reimbursement for the costs of refugees.
 Arno Tanner, Overwhelmed by Refugee Flows, Scandinavia Tempers its Warm Welcome, Migration Policy Institute (Feb. 10, 2016), http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/overwhelmed-refugee-flows-scandinavia-tempers-its-warm-welcome.
 Edward Delman, How Not to Welcome Refugees, The Atlantic (Jan. 27, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/denmark-refugees-immigration-law/431520/.
 Proposal for a Law Amending the Immigration Act, The Danish Parliament (Oct. 12, 2015), http://www.ft.dk/samling/20151/lovforslag/L87/index.htm.
 U.S. Dep’t of State, Bureau of Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper.
 Supra note 2.
 Council of Europe, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, 5 (Nov. 7, 1950).
 Id. at 31.
 Denmark- Constitution June 5, 1953, Part 1, § 73, http://www.parliament.am/library/sahmanadrutyunner/dania.pdf.
Arma Damon & Tim Hume, Denmark Adopts Controversial Law to Seize Asylum Seekers’ Valuables, CNN (Jan. 26, 2016, 6:46 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/26/europe/denmark-vote-jewelry-bill-migrants/index.html.
 Denmark: Amendments to the Aliens Act Risk Violating International Legal Standards, Commissioner For Human Rights (Jan. 15, 2016), http://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/denmark-amendments-to-the-aliens-act-risk-violating-international-legal-standards?redirect=http://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/news?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_easZQ4kHrFrE&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_state=normal&p_p_mode=view&p_p_col_id=column-1&p_p_col_count=1.
 Denmark: Law to Stem Asylum-Based Immigration, Global Legal Monitor (Feb. 1, 2016), http://www.loc.gov/lCw/foreign-news/article/denmark-law-to-stem-asylum-based-immigration/.
 Supra note 4.
 Migrant Crisis: Denmark MPs Consider Seizing Valuables, BBC (Jan. 13, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35300262.
 Supra note 12.
 Supra note 9.
 Supra note 10.
 Supra note 4.
 New Bill Presented Before the Danish Parliament, Immigration and Integration Ministry (Jan. 13, 2016), http://uim.dk/nyheder/2016/2016-01/new-bill-presented-before-the-danish-parliament.