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Denmark says plan to seize refugees' valuables misunderstood

Denmark: We won't be taking refugees' jewelry
Denmark: We won't be taking refugees' jewelry

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    Denmark: We won't be taking refugees' jewelry

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Denmark: We won't be taking refugees' jewelry 07:54

Story highlights

  • Proposal: Refugees may have to give some of their valuables to Danish government
  • "We are a generous people," Danish ruling party spokesman says
  • U.N. Refugee Agency calls proposed law "an affront to (refugees') dignity"

(CNN)A controversial proposed law in Denmark that would see the government seize refugees' valuables to finance their asylum has been deeply misunderstood, a spokesman for the ruling Liberal Party says.

"No, we are not going to take the jewelry away from people," Jakob Ellemann-Jensen told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday. "I mean, this is outrageous. We would never do this."
    But he didn't deny the essence of the bill: that people seeking refuge in Denmark may, if they have the means, be forced to contribute some of their wealth -- and therefore belongings -- to the Danish government.
    The proposal has come under heavy criticism since it first surfaced late last year. The Danish Parliament debated the issue this week, and a vote is expected soon.
    Migrants, many from Syria, walk to police vans last week in Padborg, Denmark.
    The U.N. Refugee Agency called the proposal "an affront to (refugees') dignity and an arbitrary interference with their right to privacy."
    Bent Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Denmark, said the initial plan "had the character of what was actually in force during the Nazis' persecution of minorities," according to the Times of Israel, citing the Danish news agency Ritzau.
    But to Ellemann-Jensen, the proposal is fair -- naturalizing newcomers to Denmark's generous welfare state.
    "All Danish citizens and refugees coming here receive universal health care; you receive education from preschool to university, and you receive elderly care; you receive language training and integration training free of charge, paid for by the government," he said.
    "The only thing, the only demand that we set to measure this is if you have the means to pay for your housing and for your food -- regardless of whether you are a Dane or whether you are a refugee -- then you should.
    "And if you can't do this, then the government will provide for you. This is the essence of this bill."
    Danish police in Padborg prepare to board a train from Germany to check passengers' identity papers.
    The shadows of the Holocaust remain strong for many -- images of Nazi soldiers ripping wedding rings off helpless hands.
    It's a perception the Danish government has desperately tried to fight.
    "As the Prime Minister said, this is probably the most misunderstood piece of legislation in Danish history," Ellemann-Jensen said.
    Under the proposed law, the Danish government could seize cash more than 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,460) and any valuables worth that amount or more, according to the Danish Ministry of Immigration, Integration and Housing.
    After the initial wave of criticism, the proposed law was altered to raise the threshold for seizure from 3,000 to 10,000 kroner.
    The ministry said that items of "special sentimental value" such as "wedding rings, engagement rings, family portraits, decorations and medals" would be exempted, but that "watches, mobile phones and computers" could be subject to seizure.
    A Syrian hoping for Danish asylum lets his daughter rest in a German train station near Denmark.
    "I think many people, also here in Denmark (have) had an interest in spreading the wrong history regarding this," Ellemann-Jensen said.
    "We are an open people, we are a generous people, and we receive people who come here ... in need of aid."
    To many observers, the proposal is part of a rightward shift across Europe over the past year following both an influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere and terrorist acts that have tested the continent's resolve and infrastructure.
    Denmark's right-leaning Liberal Party took office last year. From France to Poland, right-leaning (or outright far-right) parties have been gaining in strength and taking power.
    Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, said local authorities may seize any refugee's belongings valued at more than 1,000 francs (nearly $1,000), according to the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration.
    (The office told CNN it has so far only been applied to 120 of 66,000 asylum seekers, and it is the same policy that is applied to any Swiss national seeking benefits.)
    Countries across Europe have, by turns, instituted temporary border controls to get a handle, they say, on the refugee crisis.
    Sweden and Denmark, two of the most generous countries when it comes to asylum, have both recently extended their temporary border controls.
    The moves have brought into doubt the future of Schengen, the system of open internal borders essential to the EU. In November, Benedicte Frankinet, Belgium's ambassador to the United Nations, told Amanpour that the end of Schengen "has been put on the table."
    "We need to be able to control what is going on with the people coming to Denmark," Ellemann-Jensen said. "And therefore, we are passing legislation that, yes, tightens up a bit.
    "But we are still a very generous people (compared) to almost the rest of the world."