According to the the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a refugee is a person who “owing to a wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside their country of nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themself of the protection of that country.”
The World Refugee Day was celebrated on June 20. In Iceland, the Red Cross, UNHCR and the Municipality of Reykjavik used the day to bring attention to the issues concerning refugees and asylum seekers both in Iceland and around the world. The Grapevine is also taking this opportunity to introduce the topic.
Red Cross Project Manager for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Atli Viðar Thorstensen, says that World Refugee Day is about “advocacy and protection”. “It’s about informing people in the government and the public about refugees in Iceland and overseas,” he said. “It’s to show people how refugees live,” added UNHCR representative Sylvia Kithole from Kenya.
Earlier this year the state-appointed Icelandic Refugee Board and the UNHCR reached an agreement to invite 30 refugees to the country each year. As part of this commitment 30 Columbian refugees currently living in Ecuador will arrive later this summer. The group will consist of women and children on behalf of the UNHCR’s international project “Women at Risk” which gives priority to females and single mothers and their children in need of refuge. In 2005 a group of 24 Columbian women and children were invited to Iceland through the same project. The annual intake of the other Nordic countries of the last few years has been as follows: Sweden between 1,000 to 1,800, Denmark 500, Finland 750 to 1,000, and Norway 800 to 1,500.
Earlier this year, the Icelandic government decided to donate USD 100,000 (approx. 6, 275,000 ISK) to the UNHCR for the aid of Iraqi refugees. Iceland’s contribution in 2006 ranked 63rd on a list of 114 countries and private donors. But, according to the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið, ten Iraqis applied for refuge in Iceland but have had their applications rejected. According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, the policy is to accept around 30 refugees – those in most need. Although the government has discussed the possibility of accepting refugees from Iraq, at this stage they are giving preference to those coming from Ecuador. The Red Cross explains that the UNHCR (who is in charge of making recommendations about refugees to the government) is focusing on refugees from Columbia because of the lack of political pressure to accept them.
Thorstensen recently returned from Ecuador where he helped interview refugees from Columbia who will potentially be resettled in Iceland. “The reason for UNHCR asking Iceland to accept Columbian refugees is because there is an ongoing armed conflict in Columbia […] More than two million people have been forced to flee their homes. Most of them have been displaced within Columbia but many have fled to other countries,” he explains. Thorstensen also explains that some refugees may continue to be at risk in Ecuador and therefore need to resettle in a third country such as Iceland.
What are refugees entitled to once they arrive in Iceland? When refugees arrive in Iceland they are provided with a twelve month integration program. The Municipality of Reykjavik provides refugees with free housing including heating and electricity, medical care, financial support and obligatory intensive Icelandic language classes.
“They area also permitted to work from their first day in Iceland and are provided assistance in finding a job […] and pretty much all of them that came in 2005 found jobs within a year,” says Paola Kjærnested, Red Cross Project Manager for Immigrants and Young People. The situation with asylum seekers is a little different though. To clarify, an asylum seeker differs from a refugee in that he/she is someone who has made a formal application for asylum and is waiting for a decision about their status. If their application is accepted then they become a refugee.
Asylum seekers usually stay at a hostel in Reykjanesbær while they wait to hear if they are granted refugee status. During this time they receive medical care, housing and an allowance of 2200 ISK per week, but are not entitled to work.
So, what happens to asylum seekers when they arrive on Iceland’s door? According to Icelandic law, police cannot deny entry into Iceland to individuals who maintain that they have been forced to seek asylum as a political refugee. The authorities conduct an interview with the asylum seeker and if their statement is considered credible their application for asylum is forwarded to the Directorate of Immigration. If not, the police may refuse them entry into Iceland and the applicant may be required to leave the country immediately.
Thorstensen says that the human rights of asylum seekers who have been allowed entry in Iceland are upheld. “Asylum seekers who are staying at Fit hostel can leave the hostel if they like and they have their freedom of travel within Iceland. Many, however, feel restricted to the hostel and Keflavík [Reykjanesbær] because of lack of money,” he says.
However, because under Icelandic law police must be able to contact the asylum seeker until a decision on their status has been reached, the applicant may need to report to police or not travel beyond certain limits in the country. In theory detention can also be applied.
Records show that the vast majority of applications for asylum in Iceland are rejected. “Only one asylum seeker has so far received a refugee status in Iceland. That was in 2000. A few asylum seekers however receive permission to stay on humanitarian grounds […],” Thorstensen says. According to Thorstensen there are currently 20 to 25 asylum seekers in Iceland, some who have been waiting for a response on their status since 2005.
According to the Directorate of Immigration there is no law in the Act for Foreigners that details the maximum time that can be spent on processing an application, but according to the Administrative Act all applications must be processed as quickly as possible.
“We always try to answer them as fast as we can. But with more complicated cases it can take longer because we assess each case individually,” says an employee at the Directorate of Immigration who preferred to remain anonymous.
While researching for this article, the Grapevine attempted to speak to other various government offices but did not receive sufficient comment or assistance to quote them in this article.