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Taking Away Refugees’ Valuables: A Harmful and Disgraceful Move

January 23, 2016

The policy recently initiated by the governments of Denmark and Switzerland to seize the valuables of refugees on arrival is another example of governments’ senseless responses to the humanitarian crisis that refugees face in reaching Europe.

Notice that I am calling it a humanitarian crisis not a “refugee crisis” and that it is the refugees who suffer this crisis, not Europe. It is important to point this out because words have had such a distorting effect on how Europeans perceive the situation.

Anti-immigration rhetoric and inflammatory speech about the scale of refugee arrivals have distracted the public from the core of the problem: that large numbers of people at Europe’s borders are in need of humanitarian assistance because they are at risk of dying. While European countries have tended to be pro-active and generous in providing humanitarian aid after natural disasters (think: the earthquakes of Haiti or Nepal) or after a war (think Darfur or Congo) they have a different approach to this particular disaster. Does it mean that the EU’s humanitarian principles only apply when the people affected are far from its shores?

While EU states and institutions have spent large amounts of money in processing asylum applications and welcoming refugees, they have failed to devise a solid and comprehensive strategy so as to ensure all those in dire need receive assistance. This failure is not out of a lack of knowledge, capacities or of money as some governments have suggested. It is a deliberate lack of coordination allowing EU states to implement their own policies and opt for the response that best suits their current interests.

It would not be very difficult to divide the number of asylum-seekers between European member states so that the Mediterranean countries do not receive the bulk of arrivals and all states receive refugees according to their ability to absorb them. It would also not be very difficult to pool funds to finance life-saving assistance to those arriving in risky conditions. Nor would it be difficult to locate empty buildings (there are around 11 million empty homes throughout the EU, according to the Guardian in 2014) and use them to accommodate asylum-seekers rather than allowing them to live in tents for prolonged periods of time. But EU states continue to argue that there is no money for such a response and sadly, their electorate seems to believe them.

A German police officer talks to a young refugee as he waits for a bus outside the central railway station in Munich. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
A German police officer talks to a young refugee as he waits for a bus outside the central railway station in Munich. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

It is a disgrace that governments have pushed the “there’s no money” argument so far that they find it justifiable to rob refugees on arrival, who by definition have been subjected to life-threatening conditions in their own country and have also suffered a long, expensive and sometimes traumatic journey to reach Europe. These people have held on to their savings with huge difficulty. They carefully chose to save that money so as to maintain a small safety net for their future lives in Europe, and it is taken away from them on the very first day.

The irony is that the government confiscating this money is not poor like them. It is not stretched to its last penny as governments throughout the Union would like you to believe. Denmark is carrying out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq with F-16 fighters that cost nearly $US 30 million each. Danish airstrikes were first limited to Iraq but after the Paris attacks in November they were extended to Syria. So when 130 people were killed in France, Denmark was willing to cash out millions of dollars more in response. But when 3,700 migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2015 (and over 300,000 took that risk) Denmark had no cash to assist the few survivors who reached its borders.

The argument that the military and immigration budgets are separate and cannot be compared is flawed. It fails to see that foreign policy and immigration are very closely intertwined. The policy of bombing Syria is far more costly and far more risky than welcoming refugees at home. It will bring about no change in the conflict and may trigger revenge attacks by ISIS within Denmark. It also provokes the flight of civilians living within ISIS territory (because no one believes for a second that the strikes are only hitting ISIS military targets.) Worse, ISIS will use the flow of refugees from Syria as a weapon – it is the obvious and easiest way to target the West. It will send some of its fighters to claim asylum in Europe; they will be body-searched to make sure that they do not have valuables, but they will not be profile-searched to know if they are likely to be ISIS fighters.

Denmark and Switzerland’s policy of seizing asylum-seekers’ valuables exceeding EUR 1,340 (approximately USD 1,450) in value is not only senseless, it is also counterproductive. Refugees need to be assisted, like anyone else in a vulnerable position whose life is threatened. But the cash that they bring into Europe is protection. Humanitarian organisations that assist refugees all over the world have come to learn that cash is one of the best forms of assistance. Instead of turning people into passive beneficiaries of goods and services, it empowers them by letting them choose how to manage their money – and most of the time they manage it far better than NGOs or government agencies, stretching it out so it lasts as much as possible. Allowing refugees to keep that money is the most cost-effective way of protecting them with it.

Credit: UNHCR / A. McConnell
Credit: UNHCR / A. McConnell

How will Denmark and Switzerland benefit from stripping refugees of these meager savings? The governments will only find that this creates financial and emotional distress, making it even harder for the asylum-seekers to rebuild their lives and integrate society.

Most of these refugees are strong, resilient and determined people who have survived tough conditions, taken huge risks and have made proof of willpower and flexibility in times of hardship. They are the kind of people a society benefits from hugely. But taking away their valuables is ensuring that they will have no resources to put their skills to use, and no trust in the government that assists them. Who trusts a government that robs destitute people of their only assets after having fled their homes?

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