In recent months, the treatment of refugees in Iceland and the failure of the authorities to uphold the domestic and international refugee law has finally come under some scrutiny. At the heart of the matter is the principle of equality or the lack thereof, not just in the treatment of refugees as second-class citizens, but also in the strange legal immunity that only government officials (and bankers) seem to have developed.
If the average citizen steals a chicken from the supermarket, they can expect to face the legal consequences. Government immigration officials, however, can blithely ignore supposedly binding refugee legislation, and continue to walk the streets. Just as with the economy busting bankers, it seems that the more spectacular one’s crimes, the less likely one is to be brought to account for them. Perhaps the only way to protect decent society from such dangerous offenders is to lure them through the turnstiles at Bónus with the hope that, in a moment of madness, they may pilfer some poultry. Unfortunately the actions the immigration directorate go beyond mere petty theft or even bureaucratic incompetence involving several breaches of national and international law.
In March, the current Minister of Justice made a public show of meeting with refugees to hear their grievances. At this meeting, Ragna Árnadóttir pledged to apply fair and just procedure. However, as the months go by and little changes, it begins to look more and more like a cynical public relations exercise. And speaking of going through the PR motions, Björg Thorarensen, the head of the committee on refugees, recently turned down a request for a meeting with several individuals who have been working tirelessly in support of the refugees. Refusal was on the bizarre grounds that the committee had not planned on meeting with “agents of the refugees,” an entirely sensible policy only if one’s central aim is to avoid informing oneself on the issue for which you have been made responsible, for fear you might actually be forced to do something about it.
This Pontius Pilate approach to public policy is also evident in the sham report produced recently for the Ministry of Justice on the thorny issue of returning refugees to Greece, the principal land route for refugees into Europe. Sending refugees back there under the third country rule has long been controversial due to appalling conditions and lack of legal protection they face there. Many are simply imprisoned before being returned to their country of origin without any semblance of due process. The report claims that conditions have improved, and to the intense surprise of nobody, recommends returning Icelandic refugees there. Back in the real world, the EU officially rebuked Greece less than a month ago, for failing to meet minimum standards of care for refugees. Cited in particular was a detention centre originally built for 280 people that currently houses almost 2000.
Just last Sunday, in a dawn raid, Greek police demolished an illegal migrant camp, in what the Red Cross described as deliberate attempt to terrorise the occupants. The camp had been in existence for almost thirteen years, the direct result of Greek refusal to establish proper procedures for dealing with immigration and asylum.
At the end of the day, the refugee issue in Iceland comes down to political expediency, the golden rule of politics that transcends the conventional political spectrum. Refugees have no votes, no family connections, no influence, and, ultimately, no political capital.
All of which brings us to Dostoyevsky, who wrote that the ultimate yardstick of a decent society was the way it treats prisoners, its most powerless and vulnerable members. Such a litmus test could equally apply to refugees, in which case it is a test that this Republic has thus far miserably failed.
1. The law clearly states that a refugee has the right to be informed on every aspect of their case and the “rights” to which they are entitled in Iceland in a language they can reasonably be expected to understand. In clear legal breach, refugees receive most relevant papers, and even deportation orders, in Icelandic. Such theoretical rights are rendered worthless if the relevant information is disseminated in a language obviously incomprehensible to its recipients.
2. For years, Iceland has successfully managed to evade its fair share of responsibility for European refugees by invoking the third country rule, whereby a refugee can be returned to the original country through which they entered Europe. Under the Dublin Convention, however, if the third country does not make an official request, within three months, to the original European country of entry to take back the refugee, then the refugee becomes the responsibility of that third country . In such circumstances, a refugee in Iceland having come from Denmark, for example, would then have the right to have their case heard in Iceland. In flagrant breach of this internationally binding agreement, Iceland routinely returns refugees months, and in some cases years, after the deadline has expired.
3. Both the Dublin Convention and United Nations directives stipulate that illegal entry by refugees should not be held against them, or prejudice their case. However, in a cynical attempt to tarnish the reputations of refugees in the eyes of the public, the recently departed head of the immigration directorate, Haukur Guðmundsson, disclosed to the press that some of the refugees had made it to Iceland using false papers. As well as being a clear breach of the law guaranteeing refugees’ right to case confidentiality, it is also the most idiotic of counter-intuitive statements. Of course they got here using false papers: if they were in possession of genuine ones, they wouldn’t be refugees in the first place!
4. When not breaching the letter of the law, the immigration directorate busies itself breaching its spirit, with vindictive raids on the refugee hostel in Keflavík and deportation operations on ten minutes notice, despite the right of refugees to at least query their deportation order (in the unlikely event they would actually be able to read it!).
5. Under refugee law, it is also illegal to deport refugees en masse, as each have the right to be treated as an individual case. Apparently undeterred by such minor legal details, Haukur Guðmundsson was on the verge of kicking out a group of five refugees until the minister for justice, Ragna Árnadóttir, stepped in ordering a temporary stay on the deportation order. After effectively turning a blind eye to the goings on for years, the Ministry of Justice, the ultimate authority in these matters, finally seemed to have become engaged on the subject.