Denmark has been receiving significant attention for its so-called “Jewelry Law” that passed 81 to 27 on January 26, 2016. This new law gives authorities the power to seize valuables from asylum seekers (refugee claimants) who enter the country. Legislators included exceptions for items of “special sentimental value” such as wedding rings and medals; however, items such as cell phones and computers may be seized.
Based on reports from UNHCR, CCR and other organizations, the refugees flowing into Europe have been using their cell phones to communicate and exchange information about where to find shelter and safety, which borders are accessible and to maintain contact with family and friends. When they take selfies, for example, they may be letting their family members know that they are safe. By seizing cell phones, Danish authorities are putting these people at risk and cutting them off from the diaspora. In essence, the Danish government passed a law to take away the lifelines of the desperate refugees entering their country.
Since the law passed, Denmark has been getting significant negative press. The law has been described as a “quick fix” and “reactionary legislation” to a huge problem faced by governments around the world. UNHCR warns that the law could fuel xenophobia. The law is abhorrent on multiple levels. First, seizing the scant assets from people fleeing their homeland is simply deplorable. Second, Danish politicians have stated that the purpose of the law is to protect their “advanced welfare system”. The stated purpose of this law, unfortunately, fails to address the underlying systemic problem and contradicts a central objective of a welfare program: to improve the lives of vulnerable people.
Digging down, this legislation is only one example of the erosion of the 30-year-old Schengen Agreement and the breakdown of European cooperation. The central tenet of the Schengen Agreement, the so-called “passport-free” zone, was designed to allow for only temporary suspension. According to European law, the European Commission can allow countries to reimpose controls for six months no more than three times until May 2018. Now, they are revisiting this limitation on border controls to allow European countries to opt out of the passport-free condition for 2 years.
It is not a coincidence that much of the bad press is coming from this side of the Atlantic. There is no doubt that European countries have been reeling from the influx of Syrians refugees escaping northward. The Danish government rightly points out that it has accepted a huge number of refugees per capita. In 2013, the country of roughly 5.6M accepted more than 21,000 refugees. By comparison, if Canada accepted the same number per capita, we would be accepting more than 133,000 refugees. The Liberal government is certainly to be commended for its efforts to settle 25,000 Syrians in Canada but it is a very small number of those in need.
If Canada is truly committed to restoring our humanitarian reputation, we could spearhead an initiative for greater global cooperation through international law. After past major disasters, the global community has come together to draft agreements and build on the foundations of international law. In my own practice, I have quoted the Geneva Conventions, for example, too many times to count.
At this point, we need the Big Thinkers to come together and organize long-term solutions. It is disappointing that Europe has not been able to come together and, instead, legislators across the continent have been focused on drafting NIMBY laws to make their particular jurisdictions less attractive. In my view, we need a systemic, organized approach to the situation; an approach that can be applied to this problem and to any potential future catastrophe that leads to large migrations of families. Canada could seize this role and regain its stature on the international stage.