Weary travelers have long understood the rush of relief upon finally internal border checkpoints and controls between the 15 European
locating that youth hostel after stumbling around a foreign city for nations that have implemented the agreement – and the number
hours. The blue triangle symbol with the house and tree painted on it of permits issued bottomed out. Between 2001 and 2005, there
equals: cheap shelter, inexpensive beer and the perfect meeting spot. were roughly 413 asylum seekers knocking on Iceland’s door. The
For Abdel Rahman, the youth hostel in Njardvík, a small suburb of government granted political asylum to zero applicants while only 18
Kef lavík, was a godsend. But anyplace with clean sheets and a TV set humanitarian permits were issued, a dismal four percent.
appears heavenly after spending two weeks in prison. What happened to the other 96 percent? Most were deported, leaving
“I was treated like a criminal,” the 22-year-old Sudanese says in their advocates to believe Iceland has taken up Nancy Reagan’s old
a soft, ref lective voice. “I told them I was an asylum seeker, not a anti-drug adage: “Just Say No” to refugees.
criminal.” “This government seems to have decided that they don’t want to
(Abdel Rahman is not his real name. On the advice of his lawyer, the give out asylum,” says Sigrídur Rut Júlíusdóttir, a 30-year-old
Sudanese requested his name be removed for fear of persecution.) lawyer whose firm handles asylum appeals to the Ministry of Justice.
Locking up asylum seekers violates the Geneva Convention. To be An asylum seeker can appeal to the Ministry of Justice once the
fair, it’s not Iceland’s default position to immediately jail refugees. Department of Immigration has rejected their case. Roughly one-
However, since the Balkan wars, and September 11, 2001, European third of asylum seekers will appeal.
countries, even the socially progressive Scandinavian nations, are But numbers sometimes fail to paint an accurate portrait, according
closing the doors on asylum seekers. After the firestorm over the to Haukur Gudmundsson, a lawyer at the Ministry of Justice who
cartoons satirizing Muhammad that appeared in the Danish newspaper recently returned from Brussels where he served at the Icelandic
Jyllands-Posten, Europe appears ready to lock those doors shut. embassy as Justice and Home Affairs Councilor.
Bad news for Rahman. Although he’s languishing at the hostel in “It’s more of a changed reality,” Gudmundsson says, referring to the
Njardvík, awaiting word on his case, a process that can take years, increased percentage of asylum seekers deported from Iceland since
he appears quite leisurely at the moment, as if ready for a day at the the implementation of Schengen.
beach. He’s shirtless, dressed in shorts, towel around his neck. But he’s Gudmundsson believes Iceland now receives more accurate
not going anywhere except to the shower. Then he’ll hang around information about asylum seekers not only from other countries
the hostel like he does most days with the roughly 19 other asylum within Schengen, but also through Eurodac, a computer database
seekers waiting for a chance at a better life. collecting history on all asylum seekers within Europe.
Good luck. Since 1990, the Icelandic government has granted political “Before Schengen if the asylum seeker’s story was good enough
asylum to only one person. we would have to give them the benefit of the doubt” because not
I mention this anemic rate to Rahman, and ask why he chose this all the information could be accurately verified. “Better access to
craggy island to seek shelter. He explains that he had no intention of information tends to dry up a lot of the doubtful stories,” he adds
coming to Iceland. confidently.
“I didn’t know anything about Iceland. I just want to get to Júlíusdóttir doesn’t buy it. She feels the government is skirting its
Canada.” responsibility to the UN Convention on Refugees, the treaty
regulating the legal status of refugees.
THIS YEAR MARKS the 50th anniversary since Iceland first “If the government doesn’t want to grant asylum to asylum seekers or
officially began granting asylum. In 1956, the government absorbed have refugees in the country then why are we part of the Convention
52 displaced Hungarians, 14 of which still live in Iceland. Iceland on Refugees?” she asks passionately.
Living in Limbo text edward weinman Photos by Páll stefánsson
routinely welcomes groups of displaced peoples that have already
been granted refugee status by the UNHCR under what can be
Júlíusdóttir complains not only about Iceland’s policy, but asserts the
government is usurping the power of the courts. An asylum seeker
called a target quota system. Most of these have come from the former has the right to appeal Justice’s decision to the courts. However,
Yugoslavia (peaking during the Balkan wars of the 1990s), Poland Júlíusdóttir says the government deports the asylum seeker before
and Vietnam. the judge has time to rule. Once deported, the judge will obviously
The quota system brings in on average 20 refugees a year. When state there are no legitimate claims for asylum in Iceland because the
looking outside the quota at asylum seekers who just show up, the asylum seeker is no longer in the country. At this point, the asylum
numbers shrink dramatically. The Icelandic Red Cross indicates that seeker can only appeal for an annulment of Justice’s original decision.
from 1990 to 2000, out of 109 applications for asylum, one person If the judge grants an annulment, the asylum seeker’s only option is
The majority of asylum seekers washing up on Iceland’s shores are quickly shuttled away. was granted asylum under the UN Convention on Refugees, while then to once again ask Justice for asylum.
30 people were granted permits on humanitarian grounds, a total of “This could be a breach of the European Convention on Human
Is the government shunning its moral obligations under the United Nations Convention relating
about 28 percent of all applicants. Rights,” she says f latly. “It’s a never-ending story. Justice can keep
to the Status of Refugees, a treaty adopted in 1951?
In 2001, Iceland adopted the Schengen Agreement – a treaty to end playing this game until an asylum seeker gives up or dies of persecution
60 ICELAND REVIEW 61
ICELANDIC RED CROSS STATISTICS ON ASYLUM
NUMBER OF POLITICAL HUMANITARIAN
APPLICANTS ASYLUM PERMISSION
1990 4 0 2
1991 8 0 0
1992 3 0 2
1993 7 0 0
1994 0 0 0
1995 4 0 0
1996 4 0 1
1997 6 0 3
1998 24 0 13
1999 24 1 5
2000 25 0 4
2001 53 0 8
2002 117 0 5
2003 80 0 3
2004 76 0 0
2005 87 0 0
TOTALS 522 1 46
in his home country.” trips to the swimming pool. She is always available by telephone, to do like take Icelandic language classes.” Vidarsdóttir, a lawyer heading the asylum division, reviews a refugee’s
Is Iceland, a wealthy nation, deporting frightened refugees back and visits the hostel five days a week, sometimes just so “they have With zero being 2005’s percentage of refugees granted political case to determine if there is a legitimate claim to asylum, on political
to third-world countries where they wind up in dusty prison cells, someone to talk to.” asylum and zero being 2005’s percentage granted humanitarian or humanitarian grounds.
possibly left to die? While Ingólfsdóttir’s relationship with the asylum seekers is far from permits, what’s the point of learning Icelandic, I ask. The UNHCR defines refugees as “persons who are outside
“We are adamant that we are living up to our responsibilities. We motherly, she sometimes grows close to those she helps the most, “But it could be a tool, something to keep their mind occupied.” their country and can not return owing to a well-founded fear of
are not sending people back to where they are being persecuted,” the ones who choose to share more of their complicated stories with Then Thorstensen sits back in his chair for a moment of ref lection: persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political
Gudmundsson replies. her. It must be a difficult job since roughly 96 percent of the asylum “Maybe they could have the opportunity to learn English. English opinion or membership of a particular social group.”
seekers she befriends will be deported. has a value to everyone.” But how does one go about proving claims of persecution?
FEAR OF DEATH or persecution are the main reasons why a person “I’m almost always there when someone is deported. I’m there to take While a few asylum seekers volunteer at the Red Cross, most end up “One aspect is to evaluate the truthfulness. Are they telling the truth?
f lees their home country. With all the legalese f lung back and forth their key. These are people who have been here for maybe a year with watching cable TV and browsing the Internet, staying up all night Do they tell the police one story, and then change their story when
between Justice and lawyers battling for their clients, it’s easy to me. I think it’s better to close like that. To say goodbye,” she says. and sleeping most of the day. Couch surfing in a comfortable youth they talk to me,” Vidarsdóttir says, walking me through her thought
forget that the asylum seekers at the hostel are more than numbers Trying to get her to open up, I ask if she grows despondent watching hostel certainly beats sleeping in tents in some windy camp in the process during an interview.
and statistics to be debated. so many displaced people come and go through Iceland’s revolving middle of the African desert. However, many asylum seekers at the There are numerous ways to decide whether or not an asylum
“We live out here like dogs,” says a Nigerian asylum seeker, who also doors. Ingólfsdóttir chuckles, playing her emotions close to her chest youth hostel complained about swapping day for night, a common seeker is spinning a tall tale. If an applicant, for example, claims to
prefers not to reveal his name. With his voice rising like a preacher like a poker player working a bluff. phenomenon among patients in a hospital’s intensive care unit. be from war-torn Iraq, the immigration office can tape record the
delivering a sermon, he adds: “They should treat us like human “Sometimes you want a particular person to get [asylum], but I try My new Nigerian friend would like to leave the 24-room hostel more asylum seeker talking about the country’s local customs, the food,
beings.” not to think like that. I don’t make any decisions. I just make sure frequently, but when he has ventured out he’s routinely jeered. “The various towns, the landscape. This tape is then sent to SPRAKAB,
Clad in a woolly sweater and hat, this charismatic man leans over they have food and can sleep.” kids call us niggers,” he claims. Plus, without any money, he grumbles a Swedish language management company specializing in, among
a hot stove in a cluttered kitchen that looks as if it’s inhabited by a that there is nothing for him to do. other things, forensic phonetics. Here, the authenticity of the asylum
collection of college kids. He’s preparing spiced chicken and some A LACK OF SOMETHING TO DO is an issue the Icelandic Red It’s hard not to sympathize. While vague on the details, he says he seeker’s statements about their home country are evaluated based on
sort of doughy bread. “African food,” he tells me. Money for food Cross also feels strongly about, according to Atli Vidar Thorstensen, risked his life escaping Nigeria. He’s a man between countries. When things like accuracy of the descriptions, the speaker’s vocabulary and
comes out of the measly ISK 2,000 weekly allowance doled out to project manager for asylum seekers and refugees. It’s one of the few I ask if he’s hopeful about receiving asylum and escaping his past, he pronunciation.
each asylum seeker by the municipality of Reykjanesbaer. While the points of contention the organization will voice on record against the laughs sarcastically. Vidarsdóttir can tell by the smile I’m trying to hide that I find this
Nigerian is obviously worried about his case, which has been pending government’s handling of asylum seekers for fear of tainting the Red “You can only be hopeful when making good progress. We are not technique extremely iffy, so she quickly tells me it’s only one factor
for about four months, he seems to rather enjoy cooking. It helps him Cross’ founding principle of neutrality. (The other main complaints on track to asylum. We are just being kept here by the authorities.” taken into consideration. Plus, she adds, “I’ve only used the tape
pass the time. are that asylum seekers don’t have free access to an attorney until their twice.”
“It’s not so bad out there,” says Idunn Ingólfsdóttir, who was hired case has been rejected by Immigration, and they file for an appeal. THE TRACK TOWARDS ASYLUM begins when a displaced But changing one’s story seems like a shaky determining factor. While
by the Reykjanesbaer government two years ago to tend to the needs Plus, they are not issued ID cards stating who they are and that they person shows up at Iceland’s doorstep. After an initial police interview, at the hostel, I spoke with two asylum seekers from Belarus who, when
of asylum seekers while they live in limbo. “What they really need is have a legal right to be in Iceland while their cases are pending.) the asylum seeker is put in touch with a member of the Red Cross I asked how they got here, said they f lew directly from Moscow. There
something to do.” “The asylum system in Iceland is not as developed as in other (sometimes a Red Cross representative is present during the police happen to be no direct f lights from Moscow to Kef lavík but that
Ingólfsdóttir points out that she is not a social worker. Instead, she sets countries,” Thorstensen says. “But our overall treatment of asylum interview) and sent to the youth hostel. Eventually, their cases wind doesn’t mean the two young men don’t face persecution in a nation
doctor’s appointments for asylum seekers, helps them find lawyers, seekers is not bad. We think it’s more humane if they have something up at the Directorate of Immigration, in Reykjavík, where Björk where the iron-fisted president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, ordered the
62 ICELAND REVIEW ICELAND REVIEW 63
police to arrest groups of students last March who were protesting the that’s tragic. But you have to look at each case.” But then he adds:
results of what Western media outlets described as a rigged election. “It’s a diverse group. You often get men who travel together who look
I’ve been to Minsk. I’ve seen the swarms of police. I understand why at this as, if nothing else, an adventure.”
two asylum seekers from a police state might fudge the truth when Assuming asylum seekers are abusing the system by showing up
boxed in by Icelandic authorities. on “adventures,” it shouldn’t “raise any eyebrows” that Iceland’s
“Truthfulness is only one determining factor,” Vidarsdóttir assures acceptance rate for granting asylum or permits based on humanitarian
me. grounds is so low, says Gudmundsson.
She then describes the litany of ways she investigates the claims on “There are no direct f lights to Iceland from asylum producing
behalf of the Directorate of Immigration, from verifying stories countries. Therefore, we cannot expect refugees to travel en masse
through human rights agencies, through fingerprints, or with the through Western Europe or North America to find asylum in Iceland.
help of foreign embassies. She illustrates why some asylum seekers Most of the people coming to Iceland illegally are not real refugees at
are swiftly deported, based on the Dublin Regulation, another part least with regards to the 1951 Convention on Refugees,” he notes.
of Schengen. Dublin essentially means that if a person shows up in But asylum seekers are showing up. It’s possible that some of the ones
Iceland having previously sought asylum in Europe, or has been living I watched chatting to their friends over the Internet are nothing more
in Europe, then their request for asylum will not be processed, and than economic refugees or, more harshly, asylum tourists. However,
they are deported back to the relevant European nation. some are f leeing crumbling nation states like the Sudan. They’re not
These Dublin cases seem cut and dry. But the more Vidarsdóttir here for a quick tour of Gulfoss and Geysir.
explains the convoluted investigative process she goes through when “If you think about where these people are coming from, many come
it comes to verifying the claims of asylum seekers who show up from horrible situations. I would think this has to be reason to grant
without any identification, the less I understand. Affirming these some of these applicants permits to stay on humanitarian grounds,”
types of claims sounds very intuitive. says Katrín Theódórsdóttir, a lawyer representing asylum seekers.
“We take each case one by one,” she says. Theódórsdóttir speaks with a measure of hope today because she
The buck stops with Vidarsdóttir. She heads a department of one, just learned an Armenian client of hers, who came to Iceland with
although she sometimes has assistance. With her piercing blue eyes his daughter in September 2004, has been granted a permit to stay
framed by smart Diesel glasses, she carries well her air of authority. on humanitarian grounds – the first asylum seeker to receive such a
Yet, Vidarsdóttir comes across as sensitive to the plight of the refugees permit since 2003.
she meets and the stories they tell, despite the fact that the statistics Despite her recent moral victory, Theódórsdóttir believes Iceland
overwhelmingly indicate that a rejection notice will be stamped turns away too many asylum seekers, and feels her government should
across their file. be doing more to help.
Like Gudmundsson, the lawyer for the Ministry of Justice, Vidarsdóttir But as mentioned previously, Iceland does work in conjunction with
points out that Iceland’s deportation statistics don’t reveal the entire the UNHCR to provide refugees from unstable nations the chance
story. at a new life, as it did in 2005 by absorbing 24 Colombians and 7
“If we had 100 applicants and rejected all of their appeals for asylum Kosovars into society.
that would indicate the claims weren’t valid.” “We’re doing our part compared to what other countries are doing.
So the government’s not looking over your shoulder, subtly nudging There is no question about that. We are absolutely doing our bit by
you to send the asylum seekers packing? helping the UNHCR,” says Gudmundsson.
“We’re not focused on statistics, just whether the applicants are But “doing our part” is a relative term. The UNHCR counts the
legitimate or not.” world’s population of refugees at 9.2 million. During 2004, some
676,400 people applied for asylum, two-thirds were in Europe. Of
IMMIGRATION TO ICELAND is a relatively new phenomenon. those, 23,161 applied for asylum in Sweden. Sweden’s absorption rate
In 1990, there were 4,812 foreign citizens living in Iceland. By 2000, amounts to about 12 percent of asylum applicants. If Iceland were to
that number exploded to 8,824. Five years later, 13,778 foreigners equal its neighbor to the south’s percentage, it would have needed to
lived amongst Iceland’s estimated population of 300,000. Part of the accept only about 10 out of the 87 applicants that applied for asylum
jump can be explained by Iceland’s labor shortage. The government in 2005.
needs to import workers for the sectors Icelanders are starting to Remembering that in 2005 the government saw fit to let in zero asylum
avoid, such as construction or employment in fish factories. seekers, it makes it difficult to see how Iceland is doing its part.
Hanging out with the asylum seekers at the youth hostel, watching The Icelandic government fulfilling its obligations to the UN
them sit around, is f lat-out depressing. With Iceland’s lack of labor, Convention on Refugees treaty is what the collection of asylum
surely there must be 19 jobs to be found somewhere in the country. seekers at the youth hostel in Njardvík are counting on, as the
“It’s not fair to those who obey and respect the law to let someone who Nigerian explained to me just before I left:
shows up and says the magic word ‘asylum’ into the country” argues “We keep ourselves in the hands of God. But we are counting on
Gudmundsson, taking a hard-line approach. Seemingly switching Iceland to be fair with us. Because many of us are running away from
gears, he adds: “Dealing with people f leeing from bad situations, death sentences and executions.”
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