Published December 22, 2014
“I don’t understand how a society can afford to break people this way,” said the UNHCR’s Pia Prytz Phiri at the Red Cross’ press meeting last Tuesday, referring to the conditions asylum seekers in Iceland have endured in recent years. Lawyer Katrín Oddsdóttir has described the situation of at least one imprisoned asylum seeker as slavery.
Phiri says the UNHCR will continue to press Iceland to cease arresting and imprisoning those who, seeking asylum, enter the country on false IDs. This was reported by DV.
The UNHCR and the Red Cross
As reported, Phiri, the Baltic and Nordic Regional Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), already reprimanded Iceland in November 2013, on behalf of the UNHCR, not least for the habit of systematically arresting migrants who travel with false passports. “I want to make it very clear that [the UNHCR] considers this unjustifiable,” she said at that occasion. “It is plainly stated that you cannot punish refugees for illegally entering a country.”
Last Tuesday, Phiri verified that some improvements had been made, regarding Iceland’s treatment of refugees, but reiterated her critique of the systematic arrests: “It is true that we have seen certain changes in legislation, but not in regard with automatic arrests of people who travel with false ID. We are concerned about this”, she said, adding that the UNHCR “will keep trying to convince Iceland not to use custody except as last resort.”
This weekend, the Red Cross urged Icelandic authorities to follow the example set by Norway, where, last Friday, a law became valid which forbids the imprisonment of refugees traveling on false passports.
Prison Director Calls Arrests Of Refugees “Completely Futile”
On Sunday, Páll Winkel, Director of the Icelandic Prison Service, echoed the UNHCR’s and the Red Cross’ concerns. He said that imprisonment for traveling with false IDs has no deterrence effect, and thereby serves no purpose at all. This was reported by RÚV.
“First and foremost I find it said, as we who work in the system know that often these people are victims of human trafficking, and have been through serious hardships. These are people, for example, from Afghanistan and Syria,” Páll said.
“Each year, between 25 and 50 people come here for fifteen days and are then thrown out. This serves absolutely no purpose. We cannot take care of these people. Most often they are unable to speak so we cannot provide them with any assistance,” Páll said, and expressed his doubts as to whether “people in Afghanistan know if people are imprisoned for fifteen days in Iceland if they travel on false passports. That is completely futile and the reasoning of those who want to preserve this system, let alone toughen it — well, I’d like to see it.”
450 people currently await serving a prison sentence, Páll said, while arrested asylum seekers are given priority in the system. He said that hardened criminals are rare among asylum seekers. Páll added that often those arrested do neither realise where they are nor in which circumstances.
Ögmundur Jónasson, member of Alþingi and former Minister of the Interior on behalf of the Left-Green Party, has proposed a resolution, by which Alþingi would forbid such arrests.
Refugees enslaved in prison
RÚV also reports that Lawyer Katrín Oddsdóttir has described the situation of at least one imprisoned asylum seeker as slavery: “One of my clients was used as a sort of slave, forced to do the dishes for the others, and then he was beaten. In the end he had to be transferred to another jail, because he was so threatened by other prisoners. This was a man who barely spoke any English, let alone Iceland. He got no assistance. This is dead serious. And here, the State is, in my opinion, violating against people’s human rights. They are held captive and it is the State’s duty to ensure that they do not suffer degrading treatment, not to mention violent”.
Already in November 2013, DV covered the story of a man from Ghana, arrested on his arrival, for carrying a false passport, then enslaved and degraded by local prisoners.