Immigration Director Remarks On Refugees Spark Controversy

18.1.2013
Words by Paul Fontaine
The director of the Directorate of Immigration told reporters that some asylum seekers come to Iceland to receive free room and board. The director said her remarks were taken out of context.

RÚV spoke to Directorate of Immigration Director Kristín Völundardóttir about asylum seekers in Iceland.

"It can be a bit appealing for people who are not exactly asylum seekers, who intend to work illegally or come here for other reasons, to come to Iceland," she said. "It could be a very attractive bonus to get free food and shelter when the application process is so long." She said there were "indications" that some people were engaging in what is called "asylum shopping."

"People go abroad to get to know the country and its people, and enjoy the services that asylum seekers are offered," she said.

Her remarks have sparked a rage on social media sites. Blogger Eva Hauksdóttir wrote a satirical column mocking the idea that the condition asylum seekers in Iceland live under is somehow appealing. Renowned media figure Egill Helgason also expressed bewilderment at the director's remarks. The feedback has prompted a response from the director herself on the directorate's home page.

Kristín said RÚV took her remarks out of context. "What I was trying to convey was that a longer processing time [for applications] has some consequences ... unfortunately some individuals will try to take advantage of the services provided asylum seekers. ... The experience in neighbouring countries has shown that the best way to prevent abuse of the system is to make the asylum seeker process faster and more efficient," she said. She also stood by her remarks that "asylum tourists" have come to Iceland, saying that they came from countries or situations not considered inhumane or life threatening.

According to the directorate's website, the services for asylum seekers are "provided through the social welfare services in Reykjanesbær in accordance with a contract between them and the Directorate. ... Asylum seekers enjoying the care get, for example, access to suitable accommodation, food, health care and psychological assistance."

What this means, in fact, is that asylum seekers are usually detained by police upon entry, questioned, and then are made to stay in FIT Hostel in Njarðvík while their application is processed. They are not legally permitted to work during this time, and receive a small stipend for buying food. In the meantime, the application process can take many months or, in some cases, even years.

UPDATE: Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson has responded to Kristín's initial remarks about alleged asylum tourists, saying, "There is no logic to [these statements], and these are speculations that I consider not at all appropriate. But I intend to ask for a further explanation [for these remarks] soon."

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