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Proposed Danish Law Would Confiscate Cash From Asylum Seekers


We're heading to Europe now where the welcome for asylum seekers is wearing thin. More than a million people sought refuge in the European Union last year, and people continue to try to make their way from the Middle East and Africa. Many in the 28-nation bloc are taking steps to try to keep more people from coming. In Denmark, a controversial bill calling on police to confiscate cash and valuables from arriving asylum-seekers is expected to be passed by the Danish Parliament next week. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Copenhagen, and she's going to tell us more. Soraya, tell us about the proposed Danish law. Whose idea was this?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The center-right government here in Copenhagen is responsible for this measure. As you mentioned, the part that's getting the most attention is about the seizing of cash and valuables, potentially gold or rings - that sort of thing - from any asylum-seekers who bring with them more than $1,450 or the equivalent thereof. Zachary Whyte, a migration expert at the University of Copenhagen, is one of many Danish critics of this law. He says the seizures aren't about defraying costs but to keep new refugees from coming to Denmark.

ZACHARY WHYTE: What we're seeing across Europe is a tendency for a country to sort of shift rather than share responsibility for asylum-seekers, and I think this is precisely what's going on in Denmark.

NELSON: Given the fact that it costs about $20,000 or more to care for each of the refugees, Whyte says that what the police collect from newcomers isn't going to defray the cost. But he says what's more alarming is another provision that refugees who are granted asylum will have to wait three years to bring their families over, and they'll only get about a year's worth of a permit, which makes it very difficult for them to gain legal status so they can work and be integrated into Danish society.

MARTIN: What is it that the Danes are so worried about. They've only taken in about 20,000 last year compared to Sweden, which took 160,000. Is there something in particular that is sparking this at this point?

NELSON: Part of it is the bad experiences they've had with some other refugees in the past. They ended up not integrated, or unemployment rates ended up twice that of other Danes. But there's also a lot of concern about the fact that the two larger neighbors, as you've mentioned, Sweden but also Germany, are giving this open-armed welcome to refugees and now are backtracking. And the fear is that Denmark, which is wedged between them, is going to end up with a lot more asylum-seekers because these other two countries won't be taking them.

MARTIN: What is public opinion in Denmark? What are other people saying about this, and are they really envisioning searching people's belongings, taking their wedding rings? What are they saying they're actually going to do?

NELSON: It's very, very split in terms of public opinion. You have people who are just saying this is god-awful and it violated the Geneva Convention with regards to refugees. And then you have others who say, no, this absolutely has to be done because certainly Danes who are on welfare have to - if they have more than a certain amount of income or they have a certain amount of assets, they have to pay for their own way. They don't get to have the welfare either.

And ideally, what would happen in the eyes of the proponents of this law is for the police to actually check suitcases and that sort of thing as refugees come in. This is something that police object to as well because they're like, how are they going to be able to judge between what's an expensive necklace or what isn't if, in fact, jewelry is going to be taken. The proponents of this law - the government says that they're not planning to actually take people's wedding rings, if you will, although, they have not ruled out assets beyond cash that they would look to.

MARTIN: That NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Copenhagen. Soraya, thanks so much for talking with us.

NELSON: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.