POLITICAL MS: On Danes, Refugees and Jewellery

IMG_0799On 30th June 2016, Danish police issued a press release stating that they had confronted five foreigners who had tried to cross the border at Copenhagen Airport using fake travel papers.   The five were arrested and charged with falsifying documents and attempting to enter Denmark illegally. Afterwards, all five stated that they wished to seek asylum in Denmark. The police then confiscated DKK 79,600 of the DKK 129,600 the five were carrying in USD and Euros.

The incident at Kastrup Airport went largely unreported outside Denmark, most likely because it happened a week after the Brexit vote. This was in stark contrast to January when the legislation within which the police were acting had been debated in the Danish parliament. Back then, international opinion makers joined a string of Danish celebrities in expressing their displeasure although polls showed the European general publics were inclined to support the scheme. What was rarely reported was the details of the act, whose main points can be summarised as follows:

  • The act permits authorities to confiscate cash and valuables from refugees.
  • The act can be applied if the authorities expect to incur expenses as a direct result of a refugee’s stay.
  • In addition to cash, jewellery and valuables worth in excess of DKK 10,000 can be confiscated.
  • International credit cards cannot be confiscated (unless, cash is withdrawn from the account inside Denmark).
  • Items such as watches and mobile phones are exempt unless of exceptionally high value.
  • Numerous items, collectively exceeding a value above DKK 10,000, cannot be confiscated.
  • Items of sentimental value are exempt (e.g. wedding bands and engagement rings, medals, memorabilia, and religious symbols).

The act was passed with a substantial majority, and although opinion polls showed a tie in the general public, internationally much surprise was expressed at the notion that almost forty per cent of the population in such a ‘liberal’ country could support these measures. International opinion makers wondered if the hardening of the Danish tone was caused by increased anti-immigrant sentiment or whether the Danes, until recently living in a virtually mono-cultural society, were merely being exposed for what they had always been; bigots and racists.

Now, whilst there is no doubt that Danes, like many, are struggling to deal with the challenges that an influx of refugees can bring, and also no doubt that some Danes are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of multiculturalism, I would like to propose an additional reason why the Jewellery Act could gain such support:

Danes strive for an equal society. And despite their frequent talk of increasing inequality, they have – compared to many other countries – got one. (Check here for OECD stat, with one click you can see how your country compares).

Unlike their British or American peers, Danish noses are rarely rubbed in 20 million pound properties outside estate agent windows, the tarmac in their airports remains clear of private jets, and their capital has no serviced flats occupied by foreign owners whose dinners are delivered by staff from The Mandarin Oriental.

In Denmark, the redistribution of wealth that takes place via the tax system serves a dual purpose. It raises funds for public services, of course, but equally importantly, it removes excess wealth from individuals otherwise prone to rising too highly above their fellow citizens in pecuniary terms. The latter of these two functions serves to uplift the tax authority from a mere provider of funding to an almost mythical creature, the facilitator of equality and thereby the saviour of society. In fact, the tax authority, now simply known as ‘Skat’ (= tax), used to bear the official name, ‘The Tax Spirit’ or ‘The Tax Spectre’, again affirming its ethereal quality (or sinister, depending on one’s chosen translation and indeed, inclination). Incidentally, the Danish word for ‘’treasure; and ‘darling’ is also ‘skat’ although I believe that’s a coincidence. It can be hard for outsiders to comprehend, but for many Danes, taxation is cherished not only for what it provides, but also for what it takes.

Such sentiment is internalised in young Danes from a early age. Prior to the 2015 general election, I overheard a child on the Metro proclaim that when she grew up she would never vote for the Liberal Alliance Party. ‘They want to lower taxes’ she said with a facial expression so full of horror it would not have been out of place had she been talking about the ‘Eat Little Children Party’ – (not a thing).

Whilst, there is no doubt that the ‘jewellery act’ was in part intended as a symbolical deterrence (something widely acknowledged amongst its proponents), and in part a practical measure (providing funding for services), the relative ease with which it went down amongst Danes can, in part, be subscribed to the fundamental Danish principle that if you posses an asset then you must share it. For better or worse, this principle is applied to everybody, be they a company director, a pensioner or a refugee, and whilst the jewellery act does not form part of Danish tax legislation, the principle that you’re only ‘allowed’ so much before it gets confiscated, squares nicely with inherent Danish sentiment.

Data: OECD, Source of jewellery ‘story’: Berlingske Tidende

This post was written by Mette Jolly


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