In some ways, the case of Medhi Kavyanpor is typical of many asylum seekers in Iceland. He fled Iran in 2005, leaving behind a wife and child, paying a smuggler an exorbitant sum to get him safe passage to Canada, only to be ultimately stopped in his tracks in Iceland. Once here, he waited through countless appeals to the institutions that deal with asylum seekers for any decision on the matter to be reached. What makes Medhi’s case exceptional is just how long he has been made to wait: it was not until mid-October that a decision was reached on his case, making his the longest wait of any asylum seeker to Iceland.
Medhi will not be sent back to Iran, but this is only after years of appeals, a hunger strike, and vows to sooner commit suicide than be deported. This is despite the fact that Article 19 of Dublin Regulation II—Europe’s controversial and much criticised agreement on the treatment of asylum seekers, of which Iceland is a signatory—specifically requires that either deportation occur “at the latest within six months” or that the application process for asylum be completed within “a maximum of one year”.
No Real Policy, No Standards
Kolfinna Baldvinsdóttir, an advocate of the rights of refugees who spoke with the Grapevine on this issue, has worked very closely with Medhi’s case and fought for his stay in Iceland. She pointed out to us that there is a lack of any clear policy with regards to how Icelandic authorities are supposed to handle asylum seekers. “There’s no red thread connecting one case and the next,” she says. “No standard for how someone is chosen to stay or told they’re going to be deported. I can’t tell someone who arrives here what their chances are, unless they’re cute, white and Christian.”
The lack of any established policy on asylum seekers has led to some troubling discrepancies, in particular the one Kolfinna raises. According to the latest statistics from the Red Cross, most asylum seekers in Iceland come from Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. However, between 2006 and 2009, 57.1% of asylum seekers who were granted refugee status were self-identified Christians—only 20% were Muslim.
“How is it that the one Christian asylum seeker I met got their application approved within 7 months, while at the same time my guys have been waiting two or three years for an answer and still haven’t gotten one?” Kolfinna asks.
Related to a lack of an official asylum seeker policy is that Icelandic authorities seem to lack a sense of cultural context. She relates the story of an Indian refugee who ran into a land dispute in his home country, and was threatened with his life. Immigration officers asked him why he didn’t just call the police, or get in touch with an attorney. “They always approach things from an Icelandic point of view,” Kolfinna says. “Never taking into account what the situation in these other countries might be.”
A Frustrating Limbo
While waiting for an answer that seems to be made arbitrarily, asylum seekers in Iceland aren’t exactly living the high life. Icelandair is heavily fined if they allow refugees to fly out of Keflavík, so customs officials there are specially trained to identify false passports and look for red-flag behaviour. As almost all asylum seekers arriving in Iceland do so through Keflavík airport, many of them end up at Keflavík’s Fit Hostel. There, they get “a room, 2.500 ISK per week, a library and pool card, and weekly food rations.” However, the location is isolated, and there is only one shared computer for accessing the internet. They receive weekly visits from Red Cross volunteers, but “the refugees get tired of answering the same questions over and over, telling their stories again and again.” Furthermore, Kolfinna says Fit Hostel also rents out to tourists, and “asylum seekers are told not to tell anyone that they’re asylum seekers.” She speculates that this is because if tourists learn they’re staying with refugees, they might bring media attention to their situation.
To be sure, the Dublin Regulation to which Iceland is bound is flawed. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles has harshly criticised the treaty, saying that it “increases pressures on the external border regions of the EU, where states are often least able to offer asylum seekers support and protection” and “impedes integration of refugees by delaying the examination of asylum claims, by creating incentives for refugees to avoid the asylum system and live ‘underground,’ and by uprooting refugees.”
But overall, it’s the not knowing that takes the greatest toll—having no past precedent upon which to pull together even the vaguest notion of what an answer from the authorities might be, living a frustrating and isolated limbo that more often than not leads to depression, desperation, and anger. “What sort of future does the state envision for its refugee policy?” Kolfinna asks. “Do they want to see refugees wandering around downtown with nothing to do? Do they want to continue this policy of neglect, letting anger grow among these disaffected people, possibly with disastrous consequences for us all?”