Published May 20, 2011
“There was nothing else for me to do, I couldn’t take it anymore”, says Iranian asylum seeker Medhi Kavyanpoor (born 1958), who for seven long years has waited for a positive reply from Icelandic authorities regarding his status as a refugee. Medhi hit the Icelandic news-sphere last week, reminding Icelandic authorities of his existence. This wasn’t the first time Medhi has aroused media interest, but this time Medhi engaged in a shocking act, never attempted before in this supposedly peaceful island. It was, quite intentionally, supposed to be his last.
On Friday May 6, Medhi Kavyanpoor took a taxi from his home to the headquarters of the Icelandic Red Cross. Once there, he proceeded to pour gasoline over his body. Two lighters in hand, he threatened to set himself aflame. Asking those present to step away from him, he headed for the office of the sole staff member who officially represents refugees in Iceland. As that is the only contact person that refugees have while waiting for answers, Medhi had some questions: “Why do you do this to me? Give me some answers, or I’ll answer myself.”
The only answer Medhi received was the police extinguishing him before he managed to turn the trigger. But his mission was accomplished. This man, so long left forgotten in the system, shook Icelandic society. Iceland’s Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson appeared in the media expressing sympathy for the man’s desperation, but he could though not state clearly why Medhi, who arrived in Iceland in early 2005, was still here, with nothing in hand, save for a couple of lighters. Medhi’s case is complicated, as is to be expected after seven long years of waiting, stalling and legal complication.
“My daughter turned 18-years old on April 29. I had told her that we would finally get the chance to meet. I haven’t seen her since she was eleven”, Medhi explains to me, as we meet at the psychiatric hospital where he is being detained while his case is examined. “I had been promised a positive answer in January, but then, as always, months went by and the phone never rang”.
IF YOUR LIFE DOESN’T HAVE ANY MEANING…
It was then that Medhi started making his plans. But was his intention really to kill himself, or was he first and foremost trying to remind society of his existence? “You are not from a war-torn country”, he explains. “You come from a small, peaceful country, and therefore you cannot understand, but sometimes you simply have to stand up for yourself. You cannot harm other people, but your own life—well, if it doesn’t have any meaning, you better take it. In the situation I’m in, it is my only weapon. I don’t have anything else.”
Medhi tells me he arrived on the shores of Iceland with the help of a smuggler he paid to get him out of Iran. He fled after having been imprisoned and tortured by his government, which he had worked for, for losing confidential documents. He did not know where he was when the smuggler dropped him off in Iceland. Speaking no English at the time, he presumed he was in Canada.
For four years Medhi lived in a small room at the Fit Hostel in Keflavík, where refugees are kept, close to Iceland’s international airport (it also serves as a guesthouse). At every level, his request for asylum was refused, but since he was from Iran, there was no way for Icelandic authorities to send him back home “unless he assists Icelandic authorities in doing so, or agrees on being sent back”.
Medhi’s name has appeared regularly the Icelandic media. In 2008, Medhi (who is called ‘daddy’ by other refugees at the Fit hostel) went on a hunger strike. After 28 days of not eating, a feat that came close to ending his life, authorities gave in and granted him a temporary work permit. Medhi felt almost like a free man when he could finally move out of the hostel, find work and an apartment of his own. Since then, he has being living a ‘regular life’, paying his taxes, but nothing more. For seven years he has never left the island, not even travelled around it. A man without a ‘kennitala’ is a man without rights.
THE FINAL ANSWER
In October of 2010, Medhi received his final answer, from Iceland’s Supreme Court. The phone call he craved for so long turned out to be negative one. Medhi, who said in interviews: “I will rather end my life here, than having it taken from me in Iran”, went into hiding, fearing the worst.
The authorities assured him that there was no need to panic, and offered him to apply again, this time for a permanent residence permit based on humanitarian grounds. Relieved, Medhi submitted an application last January. Knowing about his desperate situation, well informed about Medhi’s declared intentions, the authorities promised a quick process. Four months later, with his daughter angry with him for not fulfilling his promise, Medhi could not wait longer.
He had been called for an interview at the Directorate of Immigration that very Friday. “Again, another interview, about what?” Medhi says. “What more could they possibly want to know about me? I have told them everything, again and again.” According to his lawyer, Medhi’s request for asylum has been refused because he “has not been able to prove that he was tortured in Iranian prison,” and “he has refused to assist Icelandic authorities in proving who he is.” “They have insisted that I apply for an Iranian passport,” Medhi explains. “This I cannot do, I am on the run from Iranian authorities, how can I apply for a passport?”
“WE WILL EMBRACE ALL GOOD PEOPLE”
When asked about Medhi’s case in an interview, interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson stated: We will embrace all good people who seek our assistance, I will make sure that we will stand up to our good name of respecting people’s human rights, while of course keeping the bad people out.” He then went on to elaborate on Iceland’s reaction to international organised crime.
Upon arrival, refugees to Iceland are often put under the same hat as ‘criminals’ and treated as such in the beginning stages. It is obvious that because most refugees arrive with forged identity documents, or how else are they to get out of their native countries? Doing so, they have indeed broken the law, but the thorough screening they go through upon arrival is to make sure that it is their only crime. With nothing in their hands to prove their identity, it of course takes time to investigate each case, researching the humanitarian breaches the individual could face in his native country, according to each story and its consistency—especially since there are only three lawyers working these cases. But unlike other refugees already granted asylum (though unable to confirm their stories), Medhi seems to have a greater burden of proof. As he points out: “Iran is Iran, it shouldn’t take an expert seven years to understand what awaits me there.”
HOW WILL THEY RESPOND?
In 2008, Iceland’s right-wing government, which had only one policy towards this “biggest problem of the 21st century”—to keep them away—was replaced by Iceland’s first ever purely leftist government. It professed a more humane approach to the issue. Up until then, only one individual had been granted political asylum in Iceland, while around fifty had been granted a residence permit on humanitarian grounds. Since then, the numbers have swelled with twenty individuals granted asylum and yet another ten given a humanitarian permit (see www.utl.is).
However, it was only when the aforementioned Ögmundur took over the ministry last year that activists fighting for refugees in Iceland sighed with relief. He had shown the issue a great deal of interest whilst in opposition, so great hopes were attached to his new post. One of his first tasks was to prevent refugees being returned to Greece, finally giving in to a 2008 “request” from the United Nations. He promised to come up with a formal governmental policy, which has yet to be formulated.
Now with the ministry preparing a revision of refugee laws, it remains to be seen how the Icelandic state will respond to Medhi’s desperation and with regards to four others who are in similar positions. Will he be convicted of risking other people’s lives? Or will he be granted a permission to stay, based on his ‘mental breakdown’?
Many questions remain unanswered, but one thing is for sure: Medhi has cornered Icelandic authorities. Giving him a positive answer now could easily trigger others to attempt the same—those few but desperate individuals who have nowhere to go and yet nowhere to stay. But giving him a negative answer will have as dramatic consequences. Medhi has made up his mind. Now the authorities have to make up theirs.
Addendum: after this article had been proofed, we learned that Minister of Foreign Affairs Össur Skarphéðinsson had offered asylum to an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who faces execution in her homeland after being convicted for adultery and murder. When we brought this up with Medhi, he replied: “Do I have to kill somebody then, to get a similar offer?