The Icelandic legislation on aliens (96/2002) has been subject to desperate and haphazard review for years. Passed with little consideration for immigration and intake of refugees, the current, sorely outdated law went on to define an inefficient institutional structure that is utterly incompatible with today’s freer movement of people.
Patched repeatedly through the decades, the law was last significantly altered in 2010. Iceland’s last, left-wing government attempted to completely overhaul the legislation during its reign, but failed to pass the new legislation in time for elections. Icelanders thus now find themselves presented with a comprehensive review of the law—based in part on the previous government’s proposals—which was just completed by hardy workers at the Ministry of the Interior.
The proposed new law has been met with anxious anticipation and scrutiny since it was introduced on August 24. I, along with a number of associates, spent many days over the last few weeks poring over the draft, with the aim of turning in comments to the Ministry of the Interior before the September 7 deadline (we made it!). After thoroughly reviewing the new law, I can attest that it will smoothen the edges off some abusive and problematic aspects intrinsic to the one it is meant to replace. However, most of the major faults remain—and some new ones are introduced.
The draft provides for the increased safety of stateless persons and children, and easier reunion of families. The technical term “asylum-seeker” has been eschewed for one that’s not derogatory, namely “applicant for international protection,” the European legal term for an asylum applicant. While the exorbitant waiting times asylum applicants are subject to have recently gotten shorter, the new law guarantees a time-limited process by offering applicants a residence permit if their case remains on the administrative level after eighteen months. Last but not least, the law decrees the establishment of a reception centre for refugees, which will, among other things, assess their needs and health condition upon arrival—a significant improvement.
Refugees should not be punished for faking their IDs, and this is finally being put into law—but only in instances of “uninterrupted travel” from the “applicant for international protection’s” country of origin. Of course, it stands to reason that refugees rarely, if ever, arrive to Iceland without stopping in another European country first. This also allows Iceland to deport many of them back there, in accord with the Dublin regulation, which will remain a cornerstone of Iceland’s asylum process.
When refugees have had their needs and health evaluated at the reception centre, the police will get unrestricted access to any reports filed, in order to assess their potential criminality, the draft’s 26th article dictates. Furthermore, the article contains no stipulation that the refugees will be informed of this. This abhorrent clause is to my knowledge the first instance of the state declaring open season on the private documents and medical records of a group of people.
All in all, the draft is a mixed bag. Sadly, a great opportunity to reflect Iceland’s liberal values in its legislation has been missed, the law retaining a strong current of suspicion against foreigners. This is ultimately an indicator of a strong conservative influence on the law, apparently emanating from somewhere other than the public’s will.
The reworking of the law is done under the auspices of a parliamentary committee established for the task. Lead by Bright Future MP Óttarr Proppé, the committee further consists of MPs from every party at Alþingi: Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Pirate Party), Líneik Anna Sævarsdóttir (Progressive Party), Svandís Svavarsdóttir (Left Greens), Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir (Independence Party), and Össur Skarphéðinsson (Social Dems).