Story highlights

Approval of Denmark's so-called jewelry bill allows the government to take asylum seekers' assets

Observers say the main purpose is to deter asylum seekers from coming to Denmark

The law reflects a hardening of attitudes toward migrants in famously liberal Scandinavian countries

Copenhagen, Denmark CNN  — 

Danish lawmakers voted Tuesday in favor of controversial legislation empowering authorities to seize cash and valuables from asylum seekers to help cover their expenses.

The law was passed in parliament by 81 votes to 27, with one abstention.

The passing of the so-called jewelry bill allows the seizure of valuables worth more than 10,000 Danish kroner (about $1,453).

Items of “special sentimental value” such as “wedding rings, engagement rings, family portraits, decorations and medals” are exempted, according to the Danish Ministry of Immigration, Integration and Housing. But “watches, mobile phones and computers” can be confiscated, it says.

The legislation has been criticized across the political spectrum, appalling many in this northern European nation, which has a longstanding global reputation for tolerance and promoting liberal, social democratic values.

Rights group Amnesty International slammed the law, saying in a statement that it reflected a “dismal race to the bottom” by European countries in response to the migrant crisis.

“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 in a statement.

“Today’s meanspirited 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.”

A fair deal, says government

Denmark’s ruling Liberal Party says the legislation is about ensuring that asylum seekers contribute to the country’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,” Liberal Party spokesman Jakob Ellemann-Jensen told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month.

“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.”

Similar laws exist in Switzerland and Germany, according to officials there. Dozens of cases were reported in Switzerland of migrants’ assets being confiscated to fund their living expenses, although in Germany it was unclear if, or how widely, the policy was enforced.

Deterring migrants

But others – both backers and critics of the law – say it has more to do with deterring further arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers who have entered Europe in numbers not seen since World War II.