According to Red Cross Project Manager for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Atli Thorstensen, there are currently 20 to 25 asylum seekers in Iceland, some of whom have been waiting for a response on their status since 2005.
Icelandic law states that the police cannot deny individuals who maintain that they have been forced to seek asylum as a political refugee entry into Iceland. Upon arrival in Iceland, the authorities conduct an interview with the individual 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 request that the applicant leave the country immediately.
In theory this sounds fine, but records show that the vast majority of applications for asylum in Iceland are rejected. To date, only one asylum seeker has received refugee status and around 45 have received permission to stay on humanitarian grounds.
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, there were 45 applications for asylum and 19 applications were accepted on humanitarian grounds between 1996–1999. During the period 2000–2005, there were 437 applications for asylum and 26 successful applications granted on humanitarian grounds. In 2000, Iceland granted its first refugee status under the 1951 Convention. Seven years later, this case remains the sole application to receive successful refugee status. The UNHCR has not yet released its most recent figures for 2006, but according to Thorstensen there were 38 or 39 applications for asylum – none of which have yet been accepted.
Katrín Theodórsdóttir is a lawyer who has dealt with some of the recent applications for asylum in Iceland: “There have been some tremendous changes on the acceptance of permanent residency for humanitarian basis,” she says. The changes Theodórsdóttir refers to is the reduction in recent years in the percentage of asylum seekers being granted asylum on humanitarian grounds, as illustrated in the aforementioned UNHCR and Red Cross statistics. “I have been working with four serious applications and they have recently all been rejected. The applications were considered neither to meet the requirements of the Geneva Convention nor did the authority find them entitled to stay in Iceland on humanitarian grounds, even though we hear about severe violations of human rights in the countries they are coming from. We need to speak about this openly,” she insists.
Hildur Dungal, Director of the Directorate of Immigration, explains that “the number of asylum seekers in Iceland has fluctuated quite a bit in the last few years.” “What has also been a big factor is the Dublin Convention which came into effect in 2003 and since Iceland is not a country which can be travelled to quite easily, quite a lot of cases are not processed here but in other countries,” she explains. “Each case can be very different and therefore the number of permits is also different from year to year.”
The Dublin Convention states that the first country that an asylum seeker applies for asylum is responsible for dealing with that application. The purpose of the convention is to ensure that every asylum seeker’s application will be examined by a member state, thus avoiding situations of refugees being shuttled from one member state to another, with none accepting responsibility. The convention also prevents asylum seekers from “shopping around” by submitting multiple applications.
The first decision of the asylum determination procedure is made by the Asylum Department of the Directorate of Immigration. If the Directorate of Immigration rejects an application for asylum, the applicant can appeal to the Ministry of Justice. If the application is also rejected at that point it can be reviewed by the civil courts usually on the basis of procedure rather than merit.
An appeal must be lodged with the Ministry of Justice within 15 days following notification of the decision. The general principle is that the decision ordering asylum seekers to leave Iceland cannot be implemented until the decision on the appeal has been made. However, there have been accusations by some lawyers and refugee advocates of asylum seekers being deported within these 15 days before the final ruling has been completed.
Theodórsdóttir has been working on several such cases. “In recent years we have had asylum seekers that are part of minority groups in Russia maintaining that they are not granted protection by the police [in Russia] against persecution by violent groups. Even though we learn every day of the corruption within the police in Russia, the Directorate of Immigration is applying the speed procedure. This procedure can only be used to order deportation of the asylum seeker when it is obvious that their case lacks merit,” Theodórsdóttir says.
So, is the government failing in its moral obligations towards international refugee law, namely the 1951 Convention on Refugees?
Theodórsdóttir says that when cases are rejected over and over again that she can only assume that the conditions for humanitarian grounds must be incredibly strict: “When is the situation serious enough to give the person a permit to stay on humanitarian grounds?
How can you measure humanitarian needs?” she questions. “It can come down to interpretation. There are [only] a few people working on cases at the Ministry of Justice, so it comes down to them. […] Many more were accepted in the late 90s than now. Is it a coincidence that they [asylum seekers] are [supposedly] not in need now? […] The administration is political not independent like many people think. I think we need to have this reviewed.”
Theodórsdóttir mentions the issue of the effect that this lengthy process can have on asylum seekers who are coming from very distressful situations. One such person is Hassan Abboud (not his real name) who fled the conflict torn region of western Darfur, Sudan, and arrived in Iceland via Sweden in late 2005. During a routine interview with police for asylum seeking arrivals at Keflavík, he told them that he was on his way to Canada to apply for asylum and that his European passport was in fact fake. Abboud was subsequently sent to prison on the basis of having false documents. According to Theodórsdóttir, Abboud applied for asylum in Iceland after the Red Cross intervened and informed the police of his situation. Nevertheless, Abboud spent three weeks in jail before being transferred to the Fit hostel in Reykjanesbær where asylum seekers usually stay while they wait for their applications to be processed.
Abboud’s application for asylum with the Directorate of Immigration and subsequently with the Ministry of Justice was denied on the basis of lacking verity. According to Abboud, Immigration believes that he is from Ghana. While he has a Ghanaian girlfriend, who he met since arriving in Iceland and now has a young child with, he vehemently denies being from Ghana himself. The Directorate of Immigration also questions why Abboud did not seek asylum in Sweden rather than travelling on to Iceland.
“I don’t have a passport, no papers, they don’t trust me. I say if you want to help me, help me. If not, take me to Sudan [but] you can’t change where I am from,” he says. “I have a girlfriend from Ghana – does that make me from Ghana? If I have a girlfriend from Iceland they will say, ‘oh, so now I’m from Iceland?’” he challenges.
Abboud has been waiting to be granted asylum for around 18 months now. At this point, he is simply asking for a work permit so that he can support his child. “I’ve been here for almost two years and there is no change. I always hear some story. I can’t see if they can help me,” he confides. Although Abboud gave us permission to use his real name, on the advice of his lawyer it has been removed for fear of his case being affected and persecution in his home country.
“People say it will affect my case [but] I’m not afraid to tell my story – it’s the truth.”