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If you seize refugees' valuables, you rob them of their dignity

Wednesday 03 February, 2016

by Remzi Cej (Newfoundland & St Antony's 2008)

Remzi Cej

Remzi Cej came to Canada in 2000 as a teenager, after fleeing Kosovo with his family. He is a Rhodes Scholar and chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.

My father’s pocket watch is the most precious thing I own. It survived the relentless bargaining to save me from the armed paramilitary as we crossed the many checkpoints on our way out of Kosovo in 1999, when I was a child. My mother’s lifesaving trading chips were her few family heirlooms in the form of bracelets, necklaces, rings. Finally, the only piece of gold that remained on her fingers was her wedding band, which the armed men didn’t want because it was worn so thin.

Her wedding band and my father’s pocket watch – precious mementoes of another life.

I don’t know how much my father’s pocket watch is worth. Maybe nothing to a jeweller, but I know the paramilitary would have taken it in 1999 because stealing from vulnerable people was part of the humiliation they liked to inflict.

I wonder, if we were reaching the borders of Denmark and Switzerland as refugees today, could I keep my father’s pocket watch? Probably not. Those countries, along with the German states of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg, may seize refugees’ belongings valued at more than $1,100 and $540, respectively. A new Danish law will direct police to search refugee claimants’ bodies and belongings, and to seize cash and personal valuables worth more than $2,000.

In Night, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote that being forced to part with his family belongings upon arrival in Auschwitz was the moment he realized he was in a concentration camp. Taking away someone’s last few valuables and cash is an affront to human dignity. It’s what corrupt border guards and human smugglers do.

Refugee claimants will be allowed to keep their wedding rings and family portraits, but the portrait frames may be taken away. The head of the Danish police has said that his officers are no experts in identifying and valuing jewellery. The latest efforts to deter refugee claimants from seeking protection in Europe resemble a Kafkaesque episode of Antiques Roadshow, with police officers acting as appraisers and confiscators.

Denmark’s laws are a prime example of the refugee deterrence policies in Europe – the country was the first to sign and ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which lays out countries’ obligations to protect refugees. In Denmark now, refugees can’t get work permits for at least six months. They wait for hearings, living in collective centres, sharing rooms with strangers in derelict military barracks and training camps. Late last year, Denmark decreased the daily allowance for refugee claimants by 10 per cent (from the former $1.80 – a loaf of bread costs $3.50). The government has already placed ads in Lebanese media, warning of the new laws. All these measures point to a systemic effort to shirk responsibility for providing protection to people escaping instability, persecution, and conflict.

Governments enforcing the confiscation of valuables state these are routine measures they have in place for their income support recipients, and that legislation is simply being harmonized or enforced for refugee claimants.

They don’t note that citizens of these countries applying for income support are not strip-searched, nor are their valuables seized, and they are required to report mostly cash, unless they own a home or a vehicle. The reality is that refugee claimants are more vulnerable because they are restricted from being able to work for a given period of time while their claims are being assessed, presumably so they would not connect to the local labour market, in case their claims are rejected and they are deported. In Canada, a refugee claimant can apply for a work permit the moment they file their claim.

The Swiss government, which has had a law in place for 20 years to seize refugee claimants’ valuables, admits that the vast majority of its 45,000 refugee claimants last year were impoverished and destitute. Only 112 people had valuables seized, in the average value of $2,400. The UNHCR, UN’s refugee body, has been warning that confiscating from refugee claimants may fuel further xenophobia.

There are constructive ways to resolve these challenges: For some refugees, countries could invite refugee claimants to apply for their refugee determination processes through their embassies abroad, something Denmark used to do until 2002. This process allowed bureaucrats to review refugee claims before individuals came to the country – reintroducing this option would certainly alleviate the financial cost of providing social protection to refugee claimants in Denmark. But sometimes applying abroad is not an option, because it would require claimants to wait for months, maybe years – when someone’s life is in danger and they need to reach safety immediately, human smuggling routes seem to be the only choice.

The question is: When the refugees arrive after a long ordeal, will they be treated humanely? Or will the European nations forget that their own citizens were refugees to other countries themselves, just over 70 years ago?

Remzi Cej (Newfoundland & St Antony's 2008) read MPhil International Relations at Oxford University and is now an international relations and policy professional at the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. This article originally featured in The Globe and Mail on 26 January 2016. Photo credit: Jennifer Barnable.

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