As if following the pattern of a migratory bird, Iceland’s refugee issues have yet again flown into the discussion. Last year’s harbinger of spring was an Iranian refugee’s attempted self-immolation inside the Red Cross headquarters of Reykjavík. This time it was the jailing of two teenagers, one from Algeria and one from Morocco, who entered the country with forged passports (See Issue 6, page 18).
Grassroots activist movement No Borders plays a large role in this discussion. The movement can be traced back to the summer of 2008 when two men ran onto the runway of the Keflavík International Airport and stopped an airplane from deporting a Kenyan refugee to Italy. After a long and complicated process, the Kenyan man, Paul Ramses, was finally granted asylum in Iceland.
I met up with two No Borders activists—Haukur Hilmarsson, one of the two airport runners, and Jórunn Edda Helgadóttir, a master in International Law—to ask them about the movement’s ideas and actions. Below is a glimpse of our conversation, which you can read in entirety on The Reykjavík Grapevine’s website.
So, what is No Borders?
Haukur: It is a banner used by movements around the world that share the idea that borders are a form of violence that must be abolished. These movements work with refugees and immigrants by, for instance, assisting them in entering the countries they want to live in. As No Borders is a particularly informal network, it’s up to each chapter to organise their work in a way best suited to achieve their goals.
Jórunn: The vision of a world without borders is also based on the idea that the freedom of movement is a fundamental right.
Haukur: Our priority so far has been to secure refugees’ stay in Iceland, which has resulted in us not being able to focus enough on our fundamental anti-racist ideas, such as that borders should not exist. Instead, we have been kind of forced to constantly criticise the system on its very own terms.
A world without borders would mean the end of the nation state, wouldn’t it?
Jórunn: At least as we currently know it. The strength of the nation state depends on the idea of sovereignty, which again depends on strong borders. Each time Iceland deports a refugee, the small and powerless state is showing that it can at least exercise this type of power, thereby reinforcing its sovereignty.
Haukur: Yeah, that’s a good way of describing it. For me it’s clear that abolishing borders inevitably leads to the end of The State. This idea has, however, been the biggest matter of contention within our group, and we haven’t reached a consensus. Still, it has never been a hindrance to our activism. People who don’t identify as anarchists can still agree that everybody should be allowed to travel over whatever imaginary line there is. People, who in many ways speak the language of state power, can very well see how that same state power is violating basic human rights. We all share this radical idea of opening up borders, which would imply huge changes that many people are afraid of, but we believe are good.
In what way would that be good?
Jórunn: I can envision a whole lot of potential positive effects, but as I consider the freedom of movement to be a fundamental human right, abolishing the borders and thus stopping the violation of this particular right is good enough in itself.
Haukur: First and foremost, I think it would lead to greater individual freedom on a global scale. I believe it’s good for people to enjoy freedom, to be able to travel to new places, to share their ideas and to get to know new ones. I don’t think that foreigners are dangerous to the locals of a given place, and I don’t think the general public of the Western World has a single reason to be afraid of the public of the Third World.
At the same time, many people haven’t hesitated to announce the death of multiculturalism…
Jórunn: Well, I have witnessed multicultural societies that work out very well and there are plenty of such examples. Those who state the opposite often just use a single example of conflict between different cultures to discredit this idea.
Haukur: People tend to think of a multicultural society as one where people who have slanted-eyes or dark-skin are allowed…
Jórunn: Where it is OK to cook exotic food…
Haukur: And to dance in a non-traditional way… but where people are nevertheless obliged to speak the language of the ruling system and raise their kids in that society’s predominant culture. That is a very strange idea about a society of many cultures.
Back to the refugees, it would be fair to say that something has changed in recent years though, right?
Jórunn: If the policy used to be to refuse as many refugees as possible, it seems to have changed due to pressure. Statistics show that more refugees are granted asylum than before, and due to a new law, most of those who would in the past have been granted asylum on humanitarian grounds now fit a similar criteria as refugees and thus have stronger standing.
Haukur: However, I would hesitate to state that any permanent policy changes have been made. There have hardly been any irreversible changes, changes that can’t be taken back at the single stroke of a pen by a new government.
Given that you don’t expect your radical ideas about the abolition of borders and the nation state to be fulfilled in the near future, what do you want to see happen now? What are your current goals?
Jórunn: I would like to see the Directorate of Immigration (UTL) shut down and a new institution established in its place. That one should not be built on the UTL’s old, fascist foundations and should be staffed with people working in the interests of immigrants and refugees. It should operate as a service institution, in favour of people’s rights, not against them.
Haukur: I would like people to see the situation of refugees and immigrants in Iceland in the context of a global history of racism. I know so many people who would never attempt to justify the South African apartheid, but can nevertheless speak in favour of this segregation of refugees.
Jórunn: And it surely is a form of apartheid when people are not allowed to enter the country and are instead deported back to a place they don’t want to be in, or even to places where their lives or dignity are at risk.
Haukur: Furthermore, it’s not enough to understand—one also has to act in accordance with that understanding. I have no hopes of any acts from The State, but would like to see more people connecting personally with refugees. That will only happen physically, by meeting and empathising with them.