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15 January 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:59pm

It’s both unethical and unhelpful for governments to strip refugees of their assets

Denmark is debating a bill to allow authorities to seize cash and personal items from asylum seekers, and the Swiss government has followed suit.

By Tania Cheung

The Danish and Swiss governments are planning to seize assets from refugees – people who have fled from devastating conflict, losing their homes, family members, friends, most of their belongings and the life they built in their home countries. This should prompt universal moral outrage. But if that’s not enough, these decisions don’t make any sense.

Denmark is debating a bill to allow authorities to seize cash and personal items valued over 10,000 kroner (just £1,000) from asylum seekers. (Wedding rings at least are the line they’re not willing to cross.) The Danish government is justifying this as pre-payment for social assistance.

Switzerland has followed suit, already acting to seize financial assets over 1,000 Swiss Frances (£690) from refugees. The money will be returned to refugees, but only if they leave voluntarily within seven months. On top of that, refugees who are given the right to stay and work in Switzerland will have 10 per cent of their pay taken away from them until they “repay” 15,000 Swiss francs for the costs of processing asylum seeker applications and social assistance.

There are so many problems with these policies that it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s take them in turn.

First off, they’ve got their facts wrong. The Swiss government said that “the money covers costs they [the refugees] generate”, but evidence shows that refugees can make net contributions to local economies.  In Cleveland, USA, refugee service agencies spent $4.8m on support for refugees; the economic impact of resettled refugees in 2012 was ten times greater – $48m.

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Secondly, it will only make matters worse for the countries’ economies. Refugees contribute to economies, but only when they are allowed to work and can integrate and access job markets. These measures will make refugees more reliant on welfare and less able to invest in their livelihoods.

Thirdly, the reassurance that refugees will have their money returned to them if they leave within  seven months is meaningless. It allows the government to look reasonable, when the likelihood of anyone benefiting from it is nearly impossible. We know that refugees are hardly ever able to return home within months and almost always stay in exile for years on end.

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Fourth, the Danish government has claimed they are just applying similar rules they do to Danish citizens on welfare benefits. But refugees are not in the same situation as Danish nationals. They don’t speak the language or have the same connections or social networks and they’re entering an unfamiliar country with different customs or ways of working – all of which affect their ability to find work and provide for their families.

Also, letting people keep their assets might mean they won’t need to rely on welfare. Research on refugees in other countries showed how refugees who arrived with assets to invest managed to set up businesses, pay for their kids’ education instead of being a burden to their host countries.

Fifth, the policies infringe the right to property that both countries accepted in signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And if that isn’t enough, the policies are mean and humiliating towards people who are at their weakest.

So if these policies don’t even make economic sense for Denmark or Switzerland, what is the point behind them? Denmark and Switzerland clearly hope these policies serve as deterrents, stopping refugees from entering their country by trying to get around the legal obligation which the countries have to offer protection to asylum seekers.

But deterrent policies rarely work the way governments hope they will. We’re about to release new research on migration to Europe that finds that government policies are just one small factor in refugees’ and migrants’ decisions about where to go. Our work shows that policies to limit the number of people who can legally enter the country don’t work, but just lead to people entering illegally instead. Because they have to use riskier routes, they are more vulnerable when they arrive (which only hurts their ability to contribute to the local economy and society).

So what is the point? The only way in which the policies make any sense is politically, as an attempt to make a certain kind of tough appeal to an electorate. By doing this, the two governments are promoting the commonly repeated idea that refugees are attracted to countries by generous welfare. This is simply not true. We have clearly found that refugees are going to where they think there are jobs, and education for their children, not where they think they’ll receive welfare benefits.

Instead of improving their own ability to cope with the flow of refugees, what the Danish and Swiss policies are doing is contributing a race to the bottom in Europe, with countries trying to compete with each other to produce the worst conditions for refugees – who have already been through the worst that humankind has to endure.

Refugees have been exploited throughout their journey – by smugglers, border police, local authorities and “ordinary” citizens. The Danish and Swiss government can frame their decision however they want  it’s still just another case of powerful people making money off vulnerable ones.

Tania Cheung works for the Overseas Development Institute’s humanitarian team.