Europe pulls up drawbridges
Western countries are going out of their way to deter desperate refugees, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
The image of an old, desperate refugee woman being stripped of her jewellery, watch, cash and any valuables by an officer of the state, conjures up images of World War II. But this is exactly what the State of Denmark has legislated this week it will do to refugees within its borders in 2016.
In what has been dubbed the Jewellery Law, Danish politicians voted 81 to 27 on Tuesday to seize any valuables possessed by refugees in order to pay for their housing and food.
Denmark has historically been known as a country of tolerance, which promoted liberal and democratic values. How did lawmakers from such a country lose their humanity so quickly?
Referring to the mean-spirited vote in the Danish parliament, Amnesty International’s Europe director commented: “To prolong the suffering of vulnerable people who have been ripped apart from their families by conflict or persecution is plain wrong.”
The UN refugee agency called Denmark’s law “an affront to refugees’ dignity, and arbitrary interference with their right to privacy.”
Europe is quietly pulling up the drawbridges. Countries which purport to be the champions of freedom, democracy and human rights are now going out of their way to deter desperate refugees from coming anywhere near their borders.
The influx of refugees from Syria and Africa has led to a hardening of attitudes towards refugees across Scandinavia, and anti- immigrant parties have soared in the polls. The anti-immigration Swedish Democrats have garnered 20% of popular support, while in 2010 they didn’t have a single seat in parliament.
The fact that many of the refugees are Muslim has led to religion becoming a scapegoat for the wave of xenophobia.
Right-wing Swedes complain that refugees don’t think the same way as Swedes given that they are Muslims with a different culture.
They contend the refugees are disrupting the Swedish way of life and their welfare system. The Jewellery Law was clearly intended to deter further refugee flows to Denmark.
Denmark also voted to triple the period of time before an asylum seeker can apply for a separated family member to be reunited with them in Denmark.
The spokesman for the right-wing Danish Peoples’ Party declared this week: “We hope this will start a chain reaction throughout Europe where other countries see the need to tighten their rules on immigration in order to keep the European culture.”
The sense of superiority in such a statement is glaring.
We hear the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, declare that Europe must protect the dignity of the refugees, but there is no public condemnation of Denmark’s actions.
Then again, the EU as a body has largely been all talk and little action on the refugee crisis. The EU promised to relocate 160 000 refugees, but little more than 145 refugees have actually been relocated. Europe had also pledged $2.46 billion (R40 billion) to assist the refugees, but only $5.36 million has been received.
Compare this to Turkey, a developing country which hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, with over 2.5 million Syrians living within its borders. It has always allowed refugees to work, but recently provided them with official work permits.
Turkey has been praised for building 25 camps for the refugees, and spent $11 billion to care for them, while 2 million Syrian refugees still live outside the camps.
The Turkish Government is providing 700 000 Syrian children with free education, and has issued refugee families with electronic debit cards in order to preserve their dignity so that they can shop for the food they prefer. Turkey has taken these measures at a time when it has lost $10 billion in trade and tourist revenue because of the war across its border.
The most glaring contrast to Turkey’s largess is Australia, which for 37 months has sent asylum seekers who reach its shores to the island of Papua New Guinea.
There they are confined to a detention centre inside an army base, and then processed to a transit centre on Manus island. The refugees are never allowed to leave the island, are subjected to a curfew, not allowed to work, and their communications are restricted.
Many of the asylum seekers have reported gross violations of human rights on the island by police officials, including beatings, arbitrary imprisonment and torture. The Government of Papua New Guinea agreed to take the Australian asylum seekers in return for an additional $430 million in aid.
Amnesty International has described the growing ill-treatment of refugees as “a dismal race to the bottom”, which it is.
The sense of compassion for vulnerable and desperate people seems to have largely evaporated in the developed world, and the fact that the Syrians are being bombed from all sides, including by European nations and Australia, is largely forgotten.