Denmark – a country primarily known for its pastries, its Vikings, its mopey Shakespearean princes and its superlatively happy population – has recently been gaining the incongruous image of a small-time mob boss, shaking down newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees for their valuables before letting them into the country.In an attempt to offset both the political and financial costs of the current refugee crisis, the Danish parliament has approved the so-called “jewellery bill” allowing police to search incoming asylum seekers and seize non-essential items without sentimental value that are worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner, or about £1,000. These goods will apparently help fund the welfare expenses of some 20,000 people who applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015, although since the bill’s implementation on the 5th of February this year the measures have generated exactly zero kroner.
Indeed, some commentators are of the opinion that the measure is intended to be a symbolic deterrent rather than a revenue generator, although it’s hard to say which is more destructive for one’s faith in humanity – the idea that the government wants to claim what little possessions refugees might have managed to drag halfway across the world with them in order to sweeten the welfare pot, or the prospect of trying to compete with countries like Hungary for Worst Place to Be a Refugee.
Although it’s taking a lot of heat at the moment, Denmark is far from the first country to employ these tactics in recent years. Australia’s soul-crushingly terrible deterrent policies regarding asylum seekers arriving by boat have inspired wannabe copycats in Europe, and are now vying seriously with Apartheid and Rolf Harris to be the shittiest thing Australia has ever exported to the rest of the world.
In fact Denmark is joining the company of countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and parts of Germany in requiring refugees to surrender their valuables in exchange for asylum. While these bills are undoubtedly kind of a dick move, they are far from the most worrying political motion currently in play. In the midst of this entire ruckus, the Prime Minister of Denmark has actually called for the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention to be revised to a more convenient version that would reduce European countries’ obligations to provide asylum.
This is serious business. The 1951 Refugee Convention is used as an international standard for the protection of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights, and was set up in the wake of the last great crisis that saw millions of people displaced from their homes. There are 147 countries party to the Convention worldwide, including all the EU member states. It is the oldest and perhaps most well established of the three treaties or agreements that are currently having the greatest impact on refugee policy at a European level. To understand why Denmark is calling for revisions to one of the most important humanitarian documents in history, we have to understand how these three treaties interact.
So what are the other two? First up is the Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement between 26 countries (22 EU countries plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein). In essence this means you can travel from Treviso to Tromsø without ever needing to show your passport or change visas, which is good news for people who hate train delays, airport queues and immigration paperwork (read: everybody). The inimitable CGP Grey explains a little about how Schengen fits into the EU’s whole deal here:
The other treaty to consider is the Dublin Regulation, also sometimes referred to as Dublin III. It primarily aims to be a mechanism by which everyone can decide which state should be responsible for dealing with an individual’s claim for refugee status. The BBC has helpfully put together a 90 second video that gives an overview of the Dublin Regulation here:
This is where things get complicated, for two main reasons. As the video above points out, under the Dublin Regulations there are several countries that end up taking a disproportionate burden of responsibility for asylum seekers entering the EU due to their location on the coast or southern edges of Europe. Since Dublin III usually dictates that the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU should be responsible for that person’s application, Italy and Greece end up in the position of either processing a huge number of applications or throwing their hands up and letting people move inland to other, less bureaucratically clogged states.
In fact, this leads to the second complication – due to the Schengen Agreement, asylum seekers can in theory travel unhindered through Europe until they reach a country where applying for refugee status might be easier/be more desirable/take less than five freaking years. After years of complaining about the Dublin Regulation’s ineffectiveness, Germany chose to stop enforcing the rules by which asylum seekers might be returned to other countries in August last year. Around the same time, Denmark – which is sandwiched between two of the countries with the highest number of applications for asylum in all of Europe – started receiving a huge amount of foot and train traffic travelling north from Germany to Sweden and promptly freaked out. Since January, national borders have been reinstated between Germany, Denmark and Sweden in an effort to control the movement of people northwards. Many see this development as the beginning of the end for the Schengen Agreement.
European regulations and treaties are complicated beasts at the best of times. The European Union is basically held together on the premise that its members want to be part of the great European project, and by agreements that they all want to operate under common rules to streamline economic and social processes. While there are courts and political systems to act as instruments that uphold various laws and treaties, when it comes down to it the consequences of breaking such agreements are often more along the lines of severe side-eye and a lot of snarky comments about how the offending Member State can’t be trusted to keep its word.The suspension of the Schengen Agreement and the condemnation of the Dublin Regulation could mean that these treaties will be renegotiated and restructured to address the changing situation in Europe – in Dublin III’s case, this process could begin as early as March. While these measures will certainly have complex long term ramifications for asylum seekers, refugees and (especially when it comes to Schengen) Europe as a whole, a project as vast and (relatively) new as the European Union is necessarily going to see some changes over time as it figures out what it is and what it’s going to be.
But the Danish government’s call to rethink the 1951 Refugee Convention is a different ballpark altogether. 65 years after it was brought in, the Convention remains crucial to the work of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and underpins the fundamental notions of who refugees are and what their rights should be. At a time when more people than ever before are left vulnerable by displacement and conflict, the notion of reducing those protections in such a core piece of legislation is almost unthinkable. After all, we seem to have enough trouble even considering refugees as human at the moment:
All this isn’t to say that there isn’t hope. A great number of Danes are deeply concerned with the plight of refugees, and there have been some fantastic local outreach and integration initiatives within the country. But as long as politicians are willing to use the plight of refugees and asylum seekers for political gains, there is a very real danger that even the most basic of human rights could be under threat.