Danish lawmakers debate seizing refugees' valuables

Copenhagen (AFP) - Denmark's parliament on Wednesday debated a controversial plan to seize refugees' valuables, with the bill widely expected to pass after being backed by a majority of lawmakers.

The bill has been condemned by the UN refugee agency which fears it will fuel xenophobia, while international media have compared the searches to Nazi Germany's seizing of gold and valuables from Jews and others during World War II.

"Refugees have lost their homes and almost everything they possess, it beggars belief that somebody would want to strip them away from the little they have managed to salvage from their lives," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said.

The proposal would allow Danish authorities to seize asylum seekers' cash exceeding 10,000 kroner (1,340 euros, $1,450), as well as any individual items valued at more than 10,000 kroner.

Wedding rings would be exempt, along with other items of sentimental value, such as engagement rings, family portraits and medals.

A vote on the proposal will be held on January 26.

Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen's right-wing government has faced a wave of criticism over its plan, and to secure the backing of other MPs it agreed to amend the bill by raising the amount of cash a refugee can keep from an initially-proposed 3,000 kroner to 10,000.

It reached agreement with other parties in parliament on Tuesday to secure a majority for the upcoming vote.

The Scandinavian country has some of Europe's strictest immigration policies, and has repeatedly tightened its regulations in recent months to deter foreigners from seeking a new life in the country.

- 'Reputation at stake' -

But the bill, even in its amended form, again came under fire Wednesday by a group of 10 local and regional members of Rasmussen's ruling Venstre party.

"It is not just a matter of proper policy and humanity, but also Denmark's international reputation," they wrote in the Berlingske daily.

In a near-empty parliament Wednesday, Integration Minister Inger Stojberg said there had been "some criticism and many, many misunderstandings -- maybe also sometimes deliberate misunderstandings."

The main spokeswoman for the leftist Red-Green Alliance, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, said it was "rather unclear what jewellery is going to be snatched from the refugees" and that the aim of the proposal was simply to tell the world "that Denmark is not a nice place to be."

Social Democratic lawmaker Dan Jorgensen defended what he called a "compromise" solution hammered out "in a difficult situation."

Denmark, a country of 5.4 million, received 21,000 asylum applications last year, compared to 163,000 in neighbouring Sweden, home to 9.8 million people.

European Union Vice President Frans Timmerman said the 28-nation bloc would examine the Danish plan "once the law is adopted and... then give our official position to the Danish government."

The proposal is part of a wider immigration bill that also includes delaying family reunifications for some refugees by up to three years, as well as making it harder to obtain permanent residency and shortening temporary residence permits.

At the Auderod asylum centre some 60 kilometres (37 miles) northwest of Copenhagen, Tarek Issa, a 25-year-old law student from Hama in Syria, said he thought police would find little of value during their migrant searches.

"We almost paid everything to come here. Like a house, like a restaurant we owned before," he told AFP. A police search of his bags would turn up "maybe 100 euros," he laughed.

Public support for seizing migrants' valuables was hard to gauge, but there was widespread backing for tighter asylum rules in general, according to Bjarne Steensbeck, a political commentator at public broadcaster DR.

A December survey by pollster Megafon found that 51 percent of Danes were in favour of delaying family reunifications by three years, while 29 percent were against.

- 'Sending a signal' -

A member of the European Parliament for Venstre last month quit the party in protest at its increasingly hardline migration stance, which has included advertising in Lebanese newspapers to warn off potential migrants.

The UNHCR said earlier this month it feared the new immigration bill "could fuel fear, xenophobia and similar restrictions that would reduce -- rather than expand -- the asylum space globally."

Steensbeck said the international criticism was unlikely to have an impact on the government's policies.

"Lars Lokke Rasmussen has to be elected in Denmark... not (by) the international media," he told AFP.

A spokesman for the far-right Danish People's Party told AFP in December the bill was intended as a "signal" to dissuade migrants from coming, and not aimed at actually raising money.