From Iceland — Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Published May 25, 2009

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

“It is better that I kill myself than to be killed when sent back,” says Medhi, a 50 year-old refugee from Iran. He has now been waiting for answers from Icelandic authorities about whether he will be granted the status of a refugee for more than four years. Giving up on waiting, he went on a hunger strike. It was not until the 28th day that the authorities gave in and granted him a six-month work permit. What happens after that, he doesn’t know, but he is happy: finally providing for himself and the family he left behind. “It can drive you crazy waiting like this, year after year – sleeping, eating, sleeping – not knowing what they’re going to do with you.”

Five other refugees have gone on hunger strikes since last summer. One of them committed suicide; he had been rejected and was about to be deported. Another two dozen are still there, waiting. Some have been waiting for months, others for many years, getting increasingly desperate. “Do we all have to go on hunger strike to get the authorities’ attention?” they ask themselves, fear in their eyes. Lately, they’ve been watching yet another of their mates, Mansri Hichem from Algeria, deteriorating day by day. On the 25th day he gave in, when promised a positive outcome in his case that is now finally on the table of the Minister of Justice herself.

FIT HOSTEL – The Guesthouse
Hidden away in the lava of the southwest corner of Iceland, close to where the NATO base used to be (until 2006), the refugees are housed in the Fit Hostel. “An attractive hostel with various facilities. The hostel/guesthouse is situated in Njarðvík and offers good and affordable accommodation for everyone,” it says in the ad – along with refugees from places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, Algeria, Russia etc. Backpackers from Europe who share toilets with the refugees often surprised when confronting them in the hallway. They were even more surprised when, on September 11 of 2008, a special force of 60 police officers rushed into Fit hostel, breaking open all of its doors in the early morning, “searching for criminal activities,” as they later stated.

“We could all expect raids on our houses at any time,” the director of the Directorate of Immigration, Haukur Guðmundsson, said when explaining this unexpected event that shocked the general public. These words indicate that the standard “innocent until proven guilty“ only applies to banksters and “New-Vikings” in Iceland; at least those haven’t had their houses raided, though “guilty beyond reasonable doubt” in the minds of many Icelanders. “The burden of proof is on us, but we are not criminals,” said Katarina, a 30 year-old from Russia, shaking with anger when explaining the peculiar day, “we are simply people like you. Why do you keep us here for so long?”

“The primary problem of the 21st century”
Provided with food and a 2.500 ISK per week stipend, the refugees-in-waiting are free to move, but as one of them puts it: “This is worse than prison. When in prison, you at least know when they’ll let you out.” Most of them have been stranded on the shores of Iceland while on their way to the Promised Land in the west. Caught with forged passports, they are taken to Fit hostel where they are kept while their cases are being investigated. If the refugee has applied for asylum in another country of the Schengen area prior to landing in Iceland, he or she will be sent back to that country within three months, or so says the rule. If the individual has not, an investigation will start.

It should not take the authorities longer than six months to determine whether the home country of the refugee is “secure” for him or her, according to regulations, but, as Guðmundsson explains, only two full time employees are tasked with processing these cases. He admits that because of a lack of financial means and lack of political policies when it comes to this “primary problem of the 21st century,” the cases can drag on for a longer time, sometimes without ever reaching a conclusion. Even though some of them have been rejected, the authorities are not allowed to send them back to their home countries, if the situation there is determined insecure by the United Nations or other humanitarian organisations.

Only one got through
Iceland is a signatory to the Dublin Regulation, which was set in 2001 in order to “share” the burden of the Mediterranean countries, where most refugees initially arrive. Overloaded with desperate people, Greece, Italy and other countries in the south of Europe have been reprimanded for their treatment of asylum seekers, where they receive neither food nor shelter, and can only turn to the streets. Iceland has been reprimanded as well, but for different reasons. Since 1990, Icelandic authorities have only granted one person refugee status, out of  600 who were stranded here. This is the lowest percentage (0.26%) to be found among our neighbouring countries. There are exceptions; the number went up 400% last year, when a family of four from Sri Lanka was granted refugee status. The father of the family had been the driver of an Icelandic commission on assignment in Sri Lanka.

Explaining this low number is the obvious fact that Iceland is never the first country where the refugees arrive, so Icelandic authorities have the “right” to send them back to the country of their initial arrival. Iceland can, however, grant the refugee a permit to stay on humanitarian grounds. Around fifty people have been that lucky since 1990. But this permit is not handed on a silver plate, often many years pass before authorities simply give up on trying to find plausible reasons to send the refugee back.

Hunger strikes the only tool?
“I can’t take this anymore, I have been waiting for two years and they don’t give me any information,” said the aforementioned Hichem on the 22nd day of his hunger strike. Upon learning of his hunger strike through the media, the authorities presented him with a statement to sign, saying: “I undersigned hereby confirm that when unconscious because of my hunger strike, I will deny all medical assistance.”  “Standard procedure,” said Guðmundsson. “If people intend to starve themselves to death, it is better to know it.” Amnesty International does not agree: “Not even in Guantanamo do they leave them to die, quite the contrary, they feed them with force.”

Guðmundsson admitted in an interview that the case of the Algerian had been “forgotten” for a whole year before his case was opened. Only Guðmundsson himself knows how many other such cases presently lurk within the system. Hunger strikes seem to have become the only tool these landless people have. No papers, no identity, no rights. “We didn’t come here for the food. We have only one thing in common here in this house: to be allowed to live a normal life” says Hassan, a 23 year-old from Afghanistan.

“The passport is more important than our lives,” he adds. He has been on the road for six years, seeking for this “ticket to life.”  Last month, the Directorate of Immigration decided to send him, along with four others, back to Greece, despite reports from the UN, classifying Greece as an unfit receiving country. “I wouldn’t even send my dog there,” Guðmundsson said while meeting up with the refugees last month. The Ministry of Justice overruled this decision at the last moment. Only 2% of refugees in Greece get their cases investigated. They are usually sent to prison before being deported back home.

Protests another tool?
For some weeks now, the asylum seekers at Fit have been pressuring Icelandic authorities to change their harsh policies towards refugees – that are among the most strict in Europe – with various protests. They have been demonstrating in front of the Parliament, meeting various politicians, who have all sympathised with their cause and promised a just and fair procedure. They even met with the Minister of Justice in person, who greeted them warmly at her home. “I’m not in the habit of giving any promises,” she said, but still promised to apply a fair and just procedure to their cases. How a new government will greet them remains to be seen. What will be the fate of these individuals who reside at Fit hostel? Will they all go on a hunger strike, like they recently threatened to do, to receive their fair and just treatment? Will Iceland stand up to its image and treat these people with the “basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled?”

1. 19 Year-old Baghdad native Nour Al-din is one of the refugees currently waiting for resolution at the FIT hostel. Nour is a veritable rapper, and occasionally performs in Reykjavík. Go see him if you have the chance.

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