Denmark refugee law: Concern over 'inhumane' family reunification delays that could cause more deaths

The UN raised concern over the measure, which it said could force more refugees to risk their lives on smugglers' boats or leave them trapped in warzones

Denmark’s plan to seize asylum seekers’ valuables and cash has provoked international outrage - but there is one key part to the law that may have a far bigger impact on refugees.

Plans to search new arrivals and take anything worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) to cover their housing and food costs is just one of a raft of new measures approved by the Danish parliament on Tuesday.

Critics likened the practice to the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, but some human rights groups were more concerned by changes to family reunification laws.

Critics say Denmark has tried to portray itself as a destination few refugees would want to go to

The waiting period before refugees can apply for their spouses and children to join them has been raised from one year to three, potentially stranding vulnerable people in conflict zones or elsewhere on the migration route through Europe, activists said.

The Danish government itself acknowledged that the change may be incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which protects the right to a family life, but argued that family members only have “limited” links to the country.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said family unity is a “fundamental and important human right” ensured by a number of regional and international laws ratified by Denmark.

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In its report on the legislation, it said the proposals were “evidently aimed at conveying a message to make it ‘less attractive’ to seek asylum in Denmark, and is a deeply concerning response to humanitarian needs”.

“It should be a priority to ensure that Syrians can join family members who are residing in European States, as a legal entry channel,” the UNHCR report said.

“This would also contribute to reducing the number of persons now having no other options for reaching safety but to embark on dangerous boat or risky overland journeys.”

Family reunion laws allow the children, partners and spouses of those given protection to legally join them in Europe, with permission to stay for the same period.

Many of the men who have reached Italy and Greece this year have risked the treacherous smuggling routes and sea journeys alone while their families remain in Syria and other warzones, planning to gain family reunion permits so they can join them safely.

But Denmark’s delay could force dependent wives and children to resort to smugglers instead, risking abuse, exploitation and drowning on overcrowded boats.

The UNHCR also said that family separations can have “devastating consequences” on the well-being of both adults and children, as well as damaging the integration process.

Amnesty International accused Denmark of forcing families to make an "impossible choice" between taking children and loved ones on potentially deadly journeys or leaving them behind in "the horrors of war".

“To prolong the suffering of vulnerable people who have been ripped apart from their families by conflict or persecution is plain wrong,” John Dalhuisen, the group’s Europe and Central Asia Director said.

“The mean-spirited vote in Danish Parliament seeks not only to pilfer the possessions refugees cling to, but also to needlessly lengthen their separation from their loved ones.”

Andreas Kamm, from the Danish Refugee Council, said family reunification delays were “very worrying and very inhumane”, leaving vulnerable groups in conflict zones.

Jonas Christoffersen, the director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, accused Denmark of violating international law.

He told Al Jazeera: “The right of refugees to be reunited with their family is protected by numerous international conventions ratified by Denmark. 

“We believe the government is overstepping international law by implementing this bill.”

Denmark’s new laws have also shortened residence permits from five years to two and restricted the conditions for obtaining the permanent right to stay.

Officials have been authorised to additionally consider “integration potential” in resettlement cases and increase administrative fees.

Denmark had already tightened its immigration laws last year, when it received 21,300 asylum applications, by reducing benefits for asylum seekers and stepping up efforts to deport those whose applications are rejected.