Last spring, the Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL) made an executive decision that would thrust the institution into the spotlight of criticism that extended from the general public and into the halls of Parliament: evicting asylum seekers from their housing, denying them even their meager food stipends (asylum seekers are not, by law, allowed to work) and other services, because the evictees refused to assist in their own deportations to Greece.
While the decision would, by mid-June, be ruled unlawful by the Immigration Appeals Board (KNÚ), the fallout has prompted some to call for sweeping reforms within ÚTL, if not the closure of the office and the resignation of Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir. There also remains the question of deportations to Greece, a country which numerous international bodies have repeatedly reported is unsafe for asylum seekers—including those granted protection in that country.
What it’s like to have nothing
The Grapevine spoke with two of the asylum seekers from Gaza who were evicted, Ehsaan and Fahad (not their real names). They told us that, despite the ruling, they are not allowed to return to the housing where they were staying in Hafnarfjörður and would instead be moved to more remote housing at Ásbrú, near Keflavík. The reason they were given, through a translator at a meeting with other evictees, was that they had lost their services at the Hafnarfjörður housing—the same services that KNÚ had deemed unlawful to deny them in the first place.
“We tried to ask why we couldn’t go back to Hafnarfjörður and we were told that services there have been stopped because we got kicked out,” Fahad says. “So I said there’s a place at Grensás, why can’t we go there? They said that’s for families, that we need to go to Ásbrú, and they gave us four tickets for Keflavík. It was a translator speaking to us, not a ÚTL employee, who wasn’t even in the room. The translator was going in and out with our questions and kept saying ‘We don’t have that information’ and ‘I’m just a translator.’ He was just going in and out.”
The two spoke very candidly about the catch-22 that asylum seekers face upon arrival in Greece.
“As soon as we landed, we were told ‘You have two choices,’” Fahad explains. “‘You either claim asylum here, or you get sent back to Turkey.’ We took the asylum. We didn’t know what else to do. We got put in an isolated camp, fenced in and surrounded by armed guards, police or the military. It’s exactly like a prison.”
Being granted “international protection” in Greece, they say, offers nothing in terms of being able to have a normal life.
“In most European countries, when you get a residence permit, you get a chance to learn the language, integrate with society, learn about the culture—we had none of that,” Ehsaan says. “We were secluded all the time. Even after we got the permit, we had no idea what to do or where to go, we got no information.”
Fahad agrees, adding: “We both tried to find jobs there, because we were living in tents, but we were subjected to a lot of people taking advantage of us because of our conditions. Sometimes we were paid in food instead of money, that kind of thing, because they know how desperate we are. Sometimes we got nothing. They know we can’t do anything because no one’s going to help us. That’s just how it is in Greece.”
Is this even legal?
The Grapevine spoke with Ragnheiður Kristín Finnbogadóttir, a lawyer who wrote her Master’s thesis on Iceland’s immigration policies, on whether deporting people to Greece is even legal by Iceland law—Article 42 on the Law on Foreigners specifically states “it is not permitted to send a foreigner or a stateless person to an area where he has reason to fear persecution” or other inhumane treatment.
“In my opinion, deportations to Greece are unlawful under Icelandic law,” she says. “They’re not obliged to deport anyone, first of all. Second, you shouldn’t, if you know that the circumstances would provide for inhumane treatment. They say ‘this is all in accordance [with] the law, nothing to see here’, but when you look deeper, it’s not. The Dublin Regulation [is] not an obligation. You can always look further into their circumstances.”
Sema Erla Serdar, president of the refugee and asylum seeker rights group Solaris, agrees, saying that ÚTL could stop deporting people to Greece at any time.
“I would say that, in my opinion and in my legal understanding, that of course they can stop deportations to Greece,” she says. “They can give the people protection in Iceland. When they say that they cannot, they’re just not telling the truth. The law gives them the right to [grant them protection] and you can interpret the law in ways that let you stop these deportations. Besides that, the Minister of Justice can always send out a regulation that would stop deportations, just like they stopped deportations of people to Greece who are in the asylum system…So just like that, they can make this decision to stop deportation to Greece [of] people who have protection there already.”
But do we need ÚTL?
As early as 2017, there have been calls to close ÚTL in its current form, with proposals ranging from changing the existing institution from the ground up to making sweeping reforms. In light of the unlawful evictions and arguably unlawful deportations to Greece, does that argument still hold up?
“We don’t need the Directorate of Immigration and, in my opinion, ÚTL should have been closed a long time ago,” Sema Erla says. “We need to reconsider the whole system around foreigners in general and refugees and asylum seekers in particular. We should look at it from scratch to see if we even need a special ministry for matters concerning foreigners. We need to reconsider the whole system around it, make new institutions if necessary, but for sure ÚTL needs to be shut down—the sooner the better. And we need a government with a clear policy on refugee matters with the aim of humanity and human rights.”
“I think we do need some institution that will handle applications for asylum, citizenship and so on,” Ragnheiður says. “What people are criticising is not exactly the law itself. The law is fine, in my opinion, it’s the practice that’s wrong. They’re really extending their interpretations so that it fits their needs, instead of using it for the benefit of the applicant, which is what they should be doing. It’s not a normal institution. There are people who are running for their lives, who have nobody to help them.”
For their part, all Ehsaan and Fahad want is the chance to live an ordinary life, away from war and homelessness.
“We left Greece to have basic rights and stability, food and shelter, the things you need to have a normal life,” Ehsaan says. “But it’s not that different from what we’re experiencing here. The majority of us are all fully qualified. We have university degrees, some of us have master’s degrees, so we’re not coming here to just take benefits or expect other people to pay for us. We just want a chance in life so we can start using the skills we have, use the degrees, and have a normal life.”
Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.
You can also check out our shop, loaded with books, apparel and other cool merch, that you can buy and have delivered right to your door.
Also you can get regular news from Iceland—including the latest notifications on eruptions, as soon as they happen—by signing up to our newsletter.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!