Our arrival on a Saturday afternoon at a reception centre for asylum seekers on the outskirts of Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city, is met with mixed reactions. The grounds of the Sandmoen centre are empty; all activity seems to be taking place in the recreation room where a group of men are playing pool. We’re here to learn about the situation of asylum seekers in Norway, but some of the residents we meet are uneasy about our visit; others are only too willing to have their stories heard.
The treatment of asylum seekers is a contentious issue and one which has received significant attention on a local level in Iceland in recent months. A comparison with Norway (see graph) reveals that in 2008 Norway granted asylum at three times the rate of Iceland and positive decisions overall per 1,000 inhabitants at almost 30 times the rate. Both countries rejected applications in more than half of cases. While Norway processes cases more swiftly, the processing time in Iceland is getting shorter.
Most of the individuals we spoke with at the centre in Trondheim are outspoken about their situation: frustrated, even angry, about how their applications are being handled―others have given up on being granted permission to stay. Ubayo, a young man from Nigeria, is the first to approach me when I invite everyone to be interviewed. He is vocal about his criticism of the authorities’ handling of his case, and is confused as to why he and some of his fellow countrymen have not been granted asylum.
“Some people cannot go home because of what is chasing them. Somebody who is running for his life doesn’t have any hope in the future to go back home,” Ubayo says. “You are here to settle down, to begin a new life […] and now they want to send you back. You go crazy,” he adds.
Later, one of the residents shows us the buildings in which they live. Here we meet Belise, a softly spoken young woman from Burundi, who invites me inside. She shares her roughly 20m² room (comprised of a bathroom, kitchen, living and sleeping areas) with another woman. The room seems fairly standard for hostel-style accommodation but Belise says it’s difficult to share the small space with a stranger for any extended period of time.
Next we speak to Atif, the young Afghani man who lives next door. He invites us to his room for tea, where his English-speaking friends join us. They are keen to tell us how they ended up in Norway, more than 5,000 kilometres from their home.
Rashid, one of Atif’s friends, fled eastern Afghanistan five years ago. His application for asylum has been rejected. However, he ignored the Directorate of Immigration’s instructions to leave the country; instead he continues to live in Norway without a permit, staying with Norwegian friends who also offer him occasional work.
“One year has passed so I am a little bit brave now,” he says when asked whether he worries about the police deporting him. “All the time I am thinking about the future ―it’s not a life,” he adds.
Norway wants more restrictions
While the asylum seekers we speak to say that they haven’t had any negative experiences with locals, the few people we speak to in Trondheim are apprehensive about the number of asylum seekers arriving in Norway, particularly in light of reports of asylum seekers linked to criminal activity in the country. A survey by Nordic broadcasting companies released in April found that Norwegians were the most negative towards refugees and wanted the most restrictions out of the Nordic countries.
Gunn Hilde Garte, director of the reception centre in Trondheim, says that it usually takes a while for people to accept the idea of living in an area with asylum seekers.
“Reception centres tend to cause some negative reactions among the locals in the beginning, but after a while people learn that there is nothing to fear and that the camps can be a good thing for the community.”
Unlike most of the others we meet, Abu who arrived from Palestine five months ago is optimistic about his future, despite not having yet found work. “Norway is a good country. It’s cold sometimes, all the time actually, but it’s OK. I feel good for my future here,” he says.
Lengthy processing time a problem
While the reception centre staff in Norway and the Red Cross and others in Iceland organise regular social activities for asylum seekers, the Icelandic Red Cross Project Manager for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Atli Viðar Thorstensen, emphasises the importance of providing asylum seekers with opportunities to work or study, arguing that the lack of activity can lead to depression among asylum seekers.
“If people are rejected and they are sent back to their country of origin then it is bad if they have been waiting for a couple of years and are not able to do anything—no work, no education, no Icelandic courses―no nothing. It means that people will get depressed and it will be more difficult for them to return to their country of origin and face life there.” Asylum seekers in both Iceland and Norway can apply for a temporary work permit on the condition that they can either document their identity or present it as “highly likely.”
However, according to Thorstensen, the Directorate of Labour in Iceland has been stricter when granting work permits over the last few months, presumably following the surge in unemployment in Iceland, and gives preference to nationals of countries within the EEA.
Both countries apply Dublin
Regulation, Norway suspended transfers to Greece
Haukur Guðmundsson, Director of the Directorate of Immigration until the end of May, says that the low number of cases accepted by Icelandic authorities can partly be attributed to the country’s geographical location. As asylum seekers cannot travel directly from conflict zones to Iceland, the country is unlikely to be their first port of entry into Europe, meaning that the Dublin Regulation can be applied to many cases.
While Thorstensen agrees, he says that some challenge the use of the Dublin Regulation as an explanation for the low percentage of positive decisions. “People have been speculating that the refugee definition is interpreted more narrowly in Iceland than in other countries, [but] I don’t know about that.”
While signatories to the Dublin Regulation are not obliged to send asylum seekers back to the country responsible for their application, both Norway and Iceland do so in almost all cases.
The UNHCR urges European countries not to return asylum seekers to Greece under Dublin and has strongly criticised Greek asylum and detention policies.
Earlier in the year, Iceland reversed the decision to send back a group of five individuals to Greece. The Alþingi general committee however concluded this week that although a Ministry of Justice’s report found that there were “serious flaws” in the treatment of asylum seekers in Greece, the conditions in Greece are improving and Iceland could consequently continue to send refugees to the country. Norway on the other hand announced last year that it had temporarily suspended the transfer of asylum seekers to Greece.
Six hundred and eighty asylum seekers arrived in Iceland between 1990 and 2008. Two received refugee status, 66 were granted protection on humanitarian grounds and three were granted refugee status on family reunification grounds. Iceland falls well short of the Norwegian, and more importantly, European, rate of granting asylum seekers refugee status.
The asylum seekers we spoke to were seeking a new life in Norway, but their stories of hope, frustration, and desperation are echoed in Iceland and elsewhere. According to the UNHCR, 383,000 applications for asylum were submitted worldwide in 2008. The responsibility to protect those at risk must be shared. Norway and Iceland both experienced a significant increase in arrivals in 2008. Norway struggled to accommodate new arrivals, and while improvements have been made, a greater devotion to resources to cope with the increase and to also reduce processing times, particularly in Iceland, is needed.
*Names of asylum seekers have been changed.
2008 Statistics Comparison between Norway and Iceland
Norway, like Iceland, is a non-EU Member State and a signatory to the Dublin Regulation.
Number of arrivals 14,431 (Norway) 76 (Iceland)
Number of arrivals (per 1,000 inhabitants) 3.1 (Norway) .03 (Iceland)
Number of arrivals (ranking among European countries) 3rd (Norway) 20th (Iceland)
Increase 2007-2008 120% (Norway) 80% (Iceland)
*Applications processed by Directorate of Immigration 7,442 (Norway) 20 (Iceland)
*Positive decisions (per 1,000 inhabitants) .635 (Norway) .022 (Iceland)
*Average processing time (months) 7.5 (Norway) 12-24¹ (Iceland)
Donations to UNHCR 2008 USD 61, 048, 237, rank 6th (Norway) 100,000, rank 67th (Iceland)
Decisions on fully examined cases according to outcome 2008 (%)
Refugee status (EU average in 2008 = 13%) 14% (Norway) 5%² (Iceland)
Protection on humanitarian grounds 11% (Norway) 30% (Iceland)
Other protection 16% (Norway) —–
Rejected 59% (Norway) 65% (Iceland)
* Excluding Dublin and Family Reunification cases, as well as those who had their cases withdrawn
¹ Average for recent years according to Icelandic Directorate of Immigration
² Not including applicants granted refugee status on grounds of family reunification (FR). In 2008, three individuals were granted refugee status on FR grounds and permitted to join their family member who had received refugee status in Iceland. In Norway 3,536 family immigration permits were issued to individuals who were to be reunited with persons of “refugee background.” Not processed as application for asylum as in Iceland.
Sources: Eurostat, Norwegian and Icelandic Directorates of Immigration, Icelandic Red Cross and UNHCR.