Last year, Denmark proposed a new law that would allow authorities to confiscate valuables from refugees entering the country. The Danish Parliament approved the bill into law on January 26. (Jason Aldag,Rick Noack/The Washington Post)

Denmark's Parliament passed a controversial law on Tuesday that allows authorities to seize valuables and cash from refugees.

The measure was part of a larger immigration bill, and its approval seemed certain after the government reached a parliamentary majority for it earlier this month.

Much has been written about this small aspect of Europe's current tendencies to oppose illegal immigration. But while the law applies strictly to Denmark, it could have consequences in other European countries in the future.


Denmark's Minister of Integration Inger Stojberg listens to the Danish Parliament debate a Danish law about seizing immigrants' assets, in Copenhagen on Tuesday. (Mathias Lovgreen Bojesen/European Pressphoto Agency)

The government has said that passing the law was the right thing to do and was meant to help pay for refugees' expenses. But critics continue to disagree.

The Danish government has repeatedly argued that the bill has largely been misunderstood abroad. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen even called it the "most misunderstood law" in the country's history.

"No, we are not going to take the jewelry away from people," Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, spokesman for the ruling Liberal Party, told CNN earlier this month. "I mean, this is outrageous. We would never do this."

In December, The Washington Post reached out via email to the Danish Integration Ministry and asked it to define what kind of jewelry the country would seize.

At the time, the government replied:

"It is explicitly mentioned in the bill before Parliament that the new rule on seizure will only apply to assets of a considerable value. Thus, foreigners will always be able to keep assets which are necessary to maintain a modest standard of living, e.g. watches and mobile phones. In other words, the general principle of a minimum amount exempt from execution also applies in this context."

"Furthermore, assets which have a certain personal, sentimental value to a foreigner will not, as a main rule, be seized unless they have considerably value. "

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) recently said the law "could fuel fear, xenophobia and similar restrictions that would reduce — rather than expand — the asylum space globally and put refugees in need at life-threatening risks."

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Stephane Dujarric, criticized the decision.

"People who have suffered tremendously, who have escaped war and conflict, who've literally walked hundreds of kilometres if not more and put their lives at risk by crossing the Mediterranean should be treated with compassion and respect, and within their full rights as refugees," Dujarric said.

The first criticism of the bill came from Danes themselves and initially had little impact.

Bent Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Denmark, said in December that the initial proposal appeared "like it had the character of what was actually in force during the Nazis’ persecution of minorities," the Times of Israel reported. Other commentators made similar comparisons.

But it was the international attention the bill received that seemed to push the government to adjust the wording and its public message.

Like many European nations, Denmark wants to limit the number of refugees entering the country. But at the same time, it needs to keep good relations with partner countries. When U.S., French and British commentators reacted negatively to the bill, leading Danish politicians alleged that people weren't only misunderstanding the law but also the nature of the Danish welfare state. In a welfare state, they argued, everyone needs to use up their own resources first in order to receive benefits.

Similar rules are indeed in place for Danish citizens (although police officers do not search clothes and luggage). As it has recently been reported, Switzerland and at least one state in Germany have had more or less comparable rules in place for years -- although they have only rarely been enforced and were not adopted amid an influx of refugees.

At a time when waves of refugees are trying to reach Europe, Denmark has tried to set limits and discourage would-be newcomers.

In 2015, the country placed several ads in Lebanese newspapers, directly addressing refugees willing to come to Denmark. The ads listed a number of reasons why coming to the country would be a bad idea, including a reduction in social benefits.

Then came the current immigration bill, which many viewed as an attempt by the government to seize valuables from refugees as they entered the country and then send them away as quickly as possible.

The Danish government would strongly disagree. The country has repeatedly pointed out that it cares about the refugees it accommodates and that it spends a lot of money on their education and health care, for instance.

Eventually, the government adjusted its asset-seizure law in a way that made it sound less harsh.

One detail might help explain the change. Last weekend, Denmark's foreign minister accused the country's opposition of deliberately and negatively talking to foreign media outlets about the law -- and ultimately damaging the country's reputation.

That statement sums up perfectly the Danish government's double strategy: It wants to please voters, but not in a way that would cause problems with other Western governments. For instance, in December, when coverage of the law picked up, Denmark's television channel TV2 interviewed a business expert to discuss whether the international attention to the law proposal could threaten the country's reputation -- or even its economy.

Danish tabloid newspaper Ekstra Bladet published an editorial earlier this month under the headline: "The damage is done."

The more liberal-conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten, however, criticized the debate as being excessively focused on Denmark, with a headline saying that other countries "do the same, or are even worse.”

“However, it is Denmark, which is left with the dirty reputation,” Jyllands-Posten complained.

This post has been updated.

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