Friday, March 4, 2016

Seizing valuables from Syrian asylum seekers: a fair practice or an affront to dignity?

Today's post is by guest blogger Chong Choe-Smith.

In January 2016, Denmark passed a law allowing the seizure of jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers, possibly setting precedent for other states overwhelmed by the influx of asylum seekers from Syria and other parts of the world. Some are criticizing the law as an affront to dignity, reminiscent of how Nazi Germany stole jewelry and valuables from Jews en route to concentration camps. If Denmark’s law is also wrong, what exactly is wrong about it?

Let's consider the question from a Kantian perspective and begin by using Kant’s categories of perfect and imperfect duties. But before answering this question, it may be helpful to explain my use of the phrase “asylum seekers” instead of “refugees.” According to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), a refugee is a person, who is outside of his or her country and cannot return as a result of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” An asylum seeker is a person who is claiming refugee status, but whose claim has not yet been verified. Most of those who are fleeing Syria and other war-torn areas are asylum seekers and not refugees.

From a Kantian perspective, perfect duties can be characterized as duties to respect humanity in oneself and others that must be obeyed without exception. Perfect duties are duties of right, such as the duty to tell the truth. Imperfect duties can be characterized as duties with room for a person to exercise discretion or free choice (Metaphysics of Morals 6:390). Imperfect duties include the duty of beneficence (i.e., making the happiness of others one’s end) (MM 6:450). The duty of beneficence is a duty, but one has discretion as to how one goes about fulfilling that duty.

With this in mind, we can ask ourselves: Is Denmark’s duty to Syrian asylum seekers a perfect or imperfect duty? While it is not impossible to argue that countries have a perfect duty to Syrian asylum seekers, it would be difficult to prove. One could argue that a country has such a duty, for example, either because it is in some way responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria or because every state should take in a fair share of asylum seekers. Such arguments are difficult to prove because they rely on controversial facts or causal connections or particular conceptions of justice.

Denmark’s duty to Syrian asylum seekers, I think, fits more squarely in the category of an imperfect duty as a duty of beneficence. From a Kantian perspective, Denmark, as with other countries, have a general duty of beneficence to promote the happiness of others in need and, in particular, to help those in dire circumstances who are fleeing violence or the threat of violence.

Some may argue that what is wrong with the law is that beneficence and payment for services don’t mix. Even Kant explains that beneficence involves helping others “without hoping for something in return” (MM 6:453). But it also is reasonable for Denmark to say that helping with the Syrian “refugee crisis” is one thing and providing public services free of charge is another. Denmark can open its borders without hoping for something in return, but someone still has to pay for food, shelter, education, healthcare, and other services.

As mentioned earlier, an imperfect duty is a duty, but a duty over which one has discretion as to how one goes about fulfilling it. It is up to Denmark to decide the reasonable terms of fulfilling its duty. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy that provides universal services, such as education and healthcare, in exchange for relatively high taxes. Danes pay into a system and, in return, they receive benefits.

Syrians are entering Denmark and seeking shelter and services. Why shouldn’t they also have to pay in accordance with their ability to pay? If they have valuables worth over 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,453), under the new law, these valuables can be confiscated. Seems fair and reasonable, no?

Well, maybe Denmark is not out of the woods just yet. It is not clear how the new Danish law will be implemented, but let’s assume the reports are accurate that the law allows for the confiscation of jewelry and other valuables.

What I would suggest is that maybe what is wrong with the law has to do with how the payment is being collected. Kant says that humanity has inner worth, a dignity, and the proper response to dignity is respect (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:434-435). He also says that we have a perfect duty to respect humanity in others, i.e., to treat oneself and others as an end and never merely as a means (GMM 4:428). We respect humanity in others by treating them as ends, i.e., free and rational agents, who are capable of discerning the obligations of the moral law and setting ends for themselves. We respect humanity in others by allowing them to make their own decisions. 

One way to characterize what exactly is wrong with the new law is that, even if Denmark is reasonably exercising its discretion in imposing a tax or fee, it fails to treat asylum seekers as ends, as free and rational agents who are capable of making decisions for themselves. What exactly is wrong is not that Denmark is imposing a tax or fee, but how Denmark is collecting the tax or fee, namely, through the involuntary seizure of property.

There were clearly many abhorrent things about Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, but one of the most generally repulsive aspects of it was the failure to accord them even a modicum of human dignity. Denmark is obviously no Nazi Germany, but the involuntary seizure of personal property is also an affront to human dignity, and an uncomfortable reminder that even generally humane nations can begin to lean in that direction.

Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Georgetown University


  1. Chong,

    Great post about those "great" Danes. Pun fully intended. For they are opening themselves to the criticism that they are behaving like dogs here, in my view. And very naughty dogs, to be more precise.

    But enough venting on my part. I agree with you that it's one thing, and a reasonable thing in my view, to request, and even require, that asylum seekers seek to pay for goods and services to some extent. But it's another thing entirely, and one that is not at all reasonable, to expect families to strip off their wedding rings and their family heirlooms and such that they grabbed when running out the door from people who were hell-bent on beheading them. (

    Now, to be fair, when I actually read the CNN article that you linked to, it seems the confiscation law is willing to make exceptions for those things. Here's the relevant sentence:

    ""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."

    OK. Thank goodness. It's not quite as bad as I initially thought. But still...

    1. Yes, Russell, the policy specifically exempts items of special sentimental value. If it did not, that alone would be grounds for harsher criticism.

  2. Thanks for this timely post, Chong. It's not obvious to me that this policy necessarily treats the asylum seekers as mere means. I think it depends on how the policy is implemented. If the policy is well advertised in the relevant ways, then asylum seekers can choose to seek asylum elsewhere. (The cynic in me thinks this is the main point of the policy). Assuming the policy is well-advertised, then asylum seekers have a choice, and their rational agency is not ignored. Remember too that providing Danish citizenship (at a price for those who can afford it), is probably motivated by beneficent concern for the asylum seekers. Lots of social scientific evidence points to the cultural and economic homogeneity of Denmark as being an important cause of their consistently high life satisfaction ratings.

    All this being said, the only problem I have with the policy is if it is not grandfathered (if it is applied to asylum seekers who have already arrived and are awaiting processing). Presumably these asylum seekers still have the chance to leave, but the decision might not be "free" in the sense that they might be attempting to meet family members who depend on them in Denmark and they might not have a way to contact them. You might also think that it would be a problem for asylum seekers without enough resources to safely travel to another country, but the policy would not apply to them (they don't have enough resources to warrant the Danish government taking some).

    1. Dan, I entirely agree that it all depends on how the policy is implemented. Assuming the reports are accurate, as I mentioned in the post, and the policy allowed for the "confiscation" of personal property, this suggests a kind of involuntary seizure.

      Yes, if advertised (a law is often advertised through its implementation--e.g., the move-over law is posted, which isn't helpful for those already on the way, and violators face a penalty, and then word eventually gets out), asylum seekers have a choice in whether to seek asylum in Denmark or some other state with a different policy.

      But, for those already there or on the way, the involuntary seizure of personal property amounts to a deprivation of free choice.

      Also timely is thinking of taxes generally (just had my taxes done last weekend). When a tax is imposed, a person is essentially given a bill and a time period to pay the tax (again, maybe, Denmark's policy may be implemented in a more Kantian-friendly way). The government doesn't stop us in our tracks and take away our property. A person may get settled, find work, and then repay the government for any services rendered. Those who earn the status of a refugee in the US (and this takes an average of about 17 years), receives a "travel loan" and six months for the person to find gainful employment and then repay the loan. Just because the asylum process happens in a more hurried manner doesn't mean that asylees have to abandon their rights (or what is due them as rational agents) at the border.

  3. I think this is much easier. It isn't necessary to show that the potential host country caused the asylum seekers' problems. The destination countries aren't merely failing to confer a benefit; their policies actively harm asylum seekers. It's not bad luck that they're unable to make a life-improving move; it's a deliberate coercive policy to actively prevent them. Government actors have perfect duties not to cause harm, just like you and me.

    A more explicitly Kantian argument would simply invoke his argument for a cosmopolitan right of universal hospitality, which "is not a question of philanthropy but of right" (PP). So states have a perfect duty not to turn away a foreigner when this would be "causing his destruction."

    1. Kyle, I'll have to look again at Kant's argument for a cosmopolitan right of universal hospitality. But my initial thoughts are that the distinction I drew earlier between opening its borders and providing services may be relevant here. Safe harbor is one thing; free healthcare is another.

      From what I know of Kant's political philosophy, it leans statist (relying on consent) and this is why I think that, when we're talking about services or the benefits of citizenship, we also want to respect the property rights of citizens. Citizens are the ones who ultimately bear the burdens of universal healthcare or services.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, everyone! I may not have addressed every concern as I'm in a rush to get out the door. Coincidentally, I'm going to a second full day of training to participate with a volunteer organization that works with refugees (mostly from Africa and Asia) in the Boston area. I'll respond to any other comments when I return.