A number of people have gone so far as to suggest that the law is reminiscent of policies put in place by Nazi Germany that seized jewelry and other valuables from Jews. For example: In December, Bent Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Denmark, said the proposal seemed to have "the character of what was actually in force during the Nazis' persecution of minorities." And given that the law comes at a time when Denmark has gone out of its way to tell potential refugees not to come to Denmark — even taking out advertisements in newspapers to convey that message — the new law has been widely interpreted as evidence of a cold-hearted approach from the Danish government.
However, many in the Danish government say that's unfair. They argue that, in fact, it is Denmark's generous attitude to refugees and others that makes the seizure of valuables and cash necessary to raise funds. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has called the new law the "most misunderstood" in the country's history. Others have pointed out that similar laws in Switzerland and Germany already exist.
Is Denmark being unfairly maligned? WorldViews emailed with Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, spokesman for the center-right Liberal Party that currently runs Denmark's minority government, to find out. Ellemann-Jensen argued that the world was misunderstanding the law and that comparisons to Nazi policies were offensive.
Read on to make your own judgment.
WorldViews: Could you tell me a little about how this law came to be passed?
Jakob Ellemann-Jensen: There have been quite many misunderstandings regarding this bill. Therefore I need to clarify a few things to begin with: First of all, Denmark is one of the countries in the world who contributes the most to solving this humanitarian crisis. Compared to our size, we are among the five largest contributors of development aid in the world. We are among the largest contributors of aid to the local regions which are affected by the war in Syria. And furthermore, we are one of the countries in Europe that receives the largest number of refugees per capita. For comparison, if the U.S. had received as many asylum seekers per capita last year alone as Denmark, the U.S. would have received more than 1 million people. I say this not to criticize other countries but to create a clearer picture of the proportions in this and of the size of the task we are taking our fair share in solving.
Second of all, Denmark offers one of the most advanced welfare systems in the world to Danish citizens as well as to the refugees we receive. Among other things, we provide universal health care, education from preschool to university, and elderly care. Regardless of income and wealth. A prerequisite for this universal welfare state is the fundamental principle that when you live in Denmark, if you are able to pay for your own food and housing, you should do so. If not, the government will provide this for you. This applies to Danes, and with this bill, it will also apply to refugees coming to Denmark. I believe this is a fair and balanced approach — to align services and obligations as we do to people born here.
In the present situation we have to be realistic. For our advanced welfare system to pass in the future, we have to set a few demands as the number of refugees coming to Denmark will affect our ability to make the subsequent integration a success. That is why we have to tighten up a bit and say that the rules should apply to refugees as well as Danes. Danes cannot receive cash benefits if they have in their possession assets of a value that exceeds DKK 10,000 [$1,450]. This is due to the principle that Denmark is a universal welfare state which provides a safety net for all people who live here. But if anyone can provide for themselves, they should.
WV: How exactly would it work in practice?
JEJ: As part of the processing of asylum cases, the authorities will if necessary look into the asylum seeker’s financial conditions. And in reality, this bill will of course not apply to the majority of refugees coming to Denmark. It will only apply to a small minority, and it is not a question of economics, rather a question of fairness to treat refugees and Danes alike.
The new law on seizure will only apply to non-sentimental assets — such as large amounts of cash. The allegations that authorities would seize people’s jewelry or other items of sentimental value are both outrageous and false. Assets of sentimental value will not be seized. Whether or not an asset is of sentimental value is for the asylum seeker to determine.
WV: The law has received quite a bit of international attention. Were you surprised by that?
JEJ: As mentioned above, there has been a lot of misunderstandings regarding this bill. Denmark is known for its universal and unique welfare system and generosity, which we are proud of. And to protect this system, to continuously be able to help the ones in need and to have a strong safety net, we have to make sure that if you are able to provide for yourself, you should do so.
WV: Quite a few of the responses have been very angry: Some have even compared it to the seizure of Jewish property by the Nazis, for example. How do you respond to that?
JEJ: This comparison is completely outrageous, and it is extremely disrespectful to the millions of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust, and disrespectful and hurtful to the many, many people affected in generations by Holocaust to even compare one of the safest and most generous welfare systems in the world to the Nazi regime known for systematically killing innocent people. The Nazis were murderers. They were the darkest chapter in Europe’s history. They did not provide universal health-care, education and a social safety net to anyone. In Denmark we provide this to everyone, regardless of income and wealth.
WV: From what I gather, Switzerland and some German states have had similar laws on the books for a while. Why do you think the Danish law has received more attention?
JEJ: The attention Denmark receives these days is not caused by the level of aid we provide. It is caused by the fact that we adjust this level. We are still among the most generous countries in the world. From being 10 kilometers ahead of other countries, we are now 9.9 kilometers ahead. We are still among the largest contributors of aid both to the local regions and in Denmark, compared to our size. And we take good care of refugees coming to Denmark. But we have to protect our country and our welfare system, that relies on the fact that anyone who can contribute should do so.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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