Iceland’s immigration policy unleashed and unmasked
In December 1938, the Salinger family – Erich, Gertrud and eight-year old Steffi – penned a letter to Icelandic authorities. In it, they explained they were seeking refuge from the rise of persecution of minorities – specifically Jews, like themselves – in their home country. The Salingers received a reply. In red ink the word “No” was written on their application. The family was later murdered in Auschwitz concentration camp.
The story of the Salingers is only one among the countless tales of Jewish individuals and families who unsuccessfully sought safe haven in Iceland during World War II.
A few years before the outbreak of the war, the enforcement of Iceland’s law on the control of foreigners (no. 59/1936) saw the establishment of the country’s first immigration authority. The institution, then called Útlendingaeftirlitið (Surveillance of Foreigners), remains operational to this day. It didn’t even undergo a name change until 2002.
In modern times, it’s known as the Útlendingastofnun (ÚTL), or the Directorate of Immigration. It operates under the Ministry of Judicial Affairs.
Jumping back again, to 1940, it was Reykjavík police chief Agnar Kofoed-Hansen who became responsible for Surveillance of Foreigners. He was appointed by then-Progressive Party Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson. A year earlier, Agnar had been cordially invited to Germany, as the honorary guest of none other than Heinrich Himmler. During his visit, Agnar toured the country with Nazi officers, learning their methods – the tricks of their trade.
Using what Agnar learned from the Nazis, he and the Icelandic authorities succeeded in keeping unwanted refugees away from Iceland’s borders for the duration of the war.
This is the foundation on which the current Directorate of Immigration was built. Rooted in white supremacy and racist practices, the directorate has long been the subject of harsh criticism.
Which brings us to today.
“It’s built on Nazi roots, which it doesn’t seem to have escaped,” says Sema Erla Serdaroglu about modern-day ÚTL. Sema Erla is the founder and chairperson of the humanitarian aid organisation Solaris, which works to assist asylum seekers and refugees in Iceland by pushing for improvements in their quality of life. The organisation was formed in response to news coverage in 2017 about the poor living conditions of those trying to establish a new life in Iceland.
Solaris, and by extension Sema Erla and her team, has been busy in recent months, reacting to the predictably devastating knock-on effects of the government’s new Foreign Nationals Act, which became law in March 2023.
It can be noted that, historically, Iceland’s immigration policies have been largely left unattended. “Few people came here, so it wasn’t really tested,” explains Albert Björn Lúðvígsson, a lawyer specialising in asylum and human rights-related matters. “With some patchwork, laws were gradually added to the 2002 legislation, until they were comprehensively audited and the 2016 legislation was introduced. Those laws were well prepared and formulated in an agreement across party lines.”
However, Alþingi voted in March 2023 to pass sweeping changes to the 2016 law on foreigners. A number of controversial changes had long been petitioned for by Independence Party MP and then Minister of Judicial Affairs Jón Gunnarsson. Among them is the complete removal of social, medical and housing support for international asylum applicants. The updated law further erodes applicants’ opportunities to have their case re-evaluated on grounds of new evidence; contradicts the third article of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that no one should be subject to inhumane treatment; and infringes upon multiple international treaties which Iceland is a party to.
According to Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir Gunnarsdóttir – a Pirate Party MP and a former member of the General and Education Parliament Committee which oversaw the bill’s preparation last spring – it even goes as far as infringing on the Icelandic constitution.
The bill was tabled in Alþingi five times before ultimately being passed by 38 of Alþingi’s 63 members. It garnered the support of MPs from all parties comprising the current ruling coalition, as well as members of the People’s Party (Flokkur Fólksins) and the Centre Party (Miðflokkurinn).
Out on the streets, without any answers
Although the laws set forth several debilitating clauses against people seeking asylum in Iceland, perhaps the most aggressive of them is the 30-day deprivation clause. It stipulates that an applicant for international protection, whose case has been denied by ÚTL, will be deprived of all housing, social and medical services once 30 days have elapsed following the decision.
“You think that things couldn’t get worse, but life continues to surprise us,” says Sema Erla.
Although controversial from the outset – not least for conflicting with Iceland’s international human rights obligations – it wasn’t until early August that the ramifications of the bill in action became clear.
Around 50 individuals were made homeless in an instant when 30 days had passed from their respective cases being closed by ÚTL. Of those 50, around 30 resided in the capital area.
Reporting in local news outlets largely centred on the eviction of three Nigerian women from their residence in Hafnarfjörður on Friday, August 11. “I don’t know what they want us to do,” said one of the women in a news report by Vísir. Of those three, it is the case of Blessing Newton that has been most prominent in the media.
Blessing fled sex trafficking in Italy, subsequently finding herself in Iceland where she has been for the last few years.
Since her eviction, Blessing has been haunted by that day. “When I remember that Friday – it’s so horrible. I don’t believe they could put me outside. To do what? To start prostitution again?” she told the Grapevine. “God knows how I’ve survived.”
The asylum seekers now facing the wrath of the law are in Iceland for a reason, all having fled their home countries out of fear for their personal safety and well-being. Famine, persecution, war. For one reason or another, they do not deem it safe to return from the lands they fled. The women in Hafnarfjörður are survivors of sex trafficking who turned to Iceland for a new life. Time will tell if they can survive the state violence they now face.
Another asylum seeker who has come face-to-face with the implications of the new law has been forced to sleep outdoors for the weeks since losing his housing. Sema Erla explains that he has resorted to eating garbage scraps and has little more than a trash bag to shield himself from the elements. “These are the conditions created by the Icelandic government – by Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s government,” she says.
The hot potato of responsibility
While Solaris tries to make the best of the government-imposed state of indigence, working to secure facilities where people can have their basic needs met and survive one more day, state and municipal officials juggle the hot potato of responsibility.
In March, during the bill’s plenary discussions, Minister of Social Affairs and MP for the Left-Green Movement Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson was asked by opposition MPs what recourse asylum seekers would have when faced with a potential loss of shelter. Guðmundur Ingi evoked the Social Services Act, specifically a clause allowing municipalities to aid foreigners stranded in Iceland.
In those cases, municipal authorities can provide for those people until a solution is found. Examples of such municipal aid include providing temporary accommodation, plane tickets and monetary assistance for foreign nationals who’ve lost their passports or been victims of theft. The type and amount of assistance is determined on a case-by-case basis in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Affairs.
As the situation has unfolded, municipal officials have made it clear they were unaware of the expectation for them to step in with a safety net once the government had pushed asylum seekers from their homes, and they have criticised the government for not clarifying the obligations of the different levels of government before the law was enacted.
“It would be a historic first if municipalities should provide for asylum seekers as part of the homeless population,” said Mayor of Reykjavík Dagur B. Eggertsson, in a report by RÚV.
“These clauses [that municipalities should assist foreigners] are based on helping tourists who’ve lost their passport and need a hotel room for two weeks. It’s not based on people who aren’t going anywhere,” says Arndís.
That lack of clarity has thus far left 50 individuals homeless, with no means of survival and no rights to apply for support that were previously available to them.
Despite the dangers posed by returning to their home country – including violence, slavery or loss of life – the Icelandic government has centred its discourse around freedom of choice. According to the government, these people have the choice of cooperating with authorities, in which case they will be sent back into the unknown.
As it stands, the government relies on the total subjugation of these individuals’ will. Authorities cannot forcefully send them back, due to reasons as numerous as the people currently snagged up in the ramifications of the law. In most cases though, it comes down to insufficient bilateral agreements between Iceland and other states, as well as the expiration of necessary permits.
“You need to be living in another reality if you think yourself to be in a position where you can demand people in need to cooperate,” laments Sema Erla. “They are starving people into obedience. They are starving people by taking away all possibility to feed themselves, so they surrender to the authorities.”
Sema Erla is not the only one working to expose what she sees as the true nature of the legislation. Albert says the government’s motives in passing, and now enacting, the controversial law are all too clear.
“It’s a policy hostile towards humanity,” he says. “There’s been a very clear policy line in these issues, which is all based on impairing people’s rights to apply for asylum in Iceland.”
In light of the serious implications the updated Foreign Nationals Act has on human lives, surely there must be a logical reason for the government to take such drastic steps to erode the human rights of asylum seekers. Looking at the discourse surrounding the bill, its primary stated goals were the increased efficiency of application processing, coordination of laws to more closely resemble similar legislation in other Nordic countries, and the optimisation of finances.
All the experts consulted by the Grapevine agreed these claims fail to hold water. “These laws don’t lead to any cost savings,” says Arndís Anna. “And I don’t believe that its real purpose had anything to do with efficiency.” According to the Pirate Party MP, the changes to the law only exacerbate a system with pre-existing widespread complications, leading to increased strain on government facilities. Ultimately, and contrary to the government’s claims, this only means a more expensive asylum system.
“These are questionable changes, but they are also badly implemented, meaning they are difficult to execute,” rationalises Arndís. With the uncertainty the law imposes, Arndís says the current situation is only going to increase pressure on the police, health services and the welfare systems, in addition to the extra work being created for all the specialists and government officials analysing the current problems stemming from the law’s execution. “How much time has the prime minister and the government spent trying to figure things out?” Arndís questions.
“The best solutions are often very simple,” Sema Erla continues. “The easiest way out of these circumstances is for the government to offer the people a work permit so they can continue with their lives. This wouldn’t cost the government a thing, except showing some compassion.”
“Setting up new remedies – for example, now there’s talk of some sort of a prison camp for refugees – those will only further increase government expenditure,” Sema continues.
Albert concurs. “It’s obvious that every option from here on out will be costlier than the alternatives [in place] before,” he says. “And it’ll only be more expensive if the municipalities are made to pay up because their responsibilities towards the subsidy of individuals are greater than the state’s.”
Don’t tread on me
Looking more closely at the numbers, the proportion of asylum applicants to “legal” immigrants in Iceland is roughly 4%.
The number of immigrants in Iceland reached 70.000 earlier in 2023, comprising about 18% of the country’s total population. Furthermore, immigrants in Iceland make up about 23% of the domestic workforce, constituting the majority of employees in Iceland’s biggest industries – the tourism and fishing sectors – according to the National Bank and census data.
As it stands in August 2023, the number of applicants for international protection are approximately 2.860. Of those, 36% originate from Ukraine and 43% from Venezuela.
According to data from July 2023, ÚTL has currently processed 2.062 applications. Among those applications were 914 Ukrainian refugees who were granted asylum. Like many other countries, Iceland offers expedited application processing to Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Of the 1.148 applicants remaining, only 284 are also granted asylum. Meaning that approximately 70% of asylum applications from individuals not originating from Ukraine are denied.
Even if all applications for asylum would be granted, it would still only be a drop in the ocean of Icelanders with a foreign background.
The governing parties’ discourse about increased rates of asylum applications to Iceland in recent years is not false. But it is willfully perverting some key factors. Namely the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, after which Iceland extended an open invitation to Ukrainian refugees; the Venezuelan crisis, from which millions of people have fled persecution and extreme state violence; and the ongoing European migrant crisis, which saw the most number of asylum requests in Europe in a single year since World War II.
The Independence Party, whose back-to-back justice ministers are responsible for the passage and implementation of the Foreign Nationals Act, bases its ideology on individualistic freedoms, presenting itself as the vanguard of liberal ideas in Iceland.
This bill and its execution is an almost too-perfect example of the paradoxical ideology permeating the party: The state coffers should be kept tightly locked – unless we need to expel foreigners from the country.
Amidst what 23 Icelandic humanitarian organisations are calling a “humanitarian crisis,” current Minister of Judicial Affairs Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has suggested opening a refugee camp. In conversation with Vísir, Guðrún mentioned that for individuals “who won’t cooperate with authorities,” a possible solution would be opening a camp with “limited freedom of movement.”
Since the Vísir report, Guðrún appeared in an interview with RÚV where she cemented her ideas of detention centres for refugees “who don’t follow Icelandic laws.” The centres, she explained, are expected to open in the fall of 2023.
It’s a scenario that Sema Erla calls “abhorrent,” and which Albert says he’ll have nothing to do with. “This current problem, which is fabricated, will make the job easier for advocates of closed refugee camps,” he points out. “I sincerely hope they won’t materialise… this is not a group that is dangerous or poses any problems to society.”
While humanitarian workers, lawyers and municipalities scramble to make sense of the lack of available solutions, the justice minister insists the laws are clear: people who cooperate will receive aid – only it will be in the form of a government-funded one-way ticket to their untimely demise.
Neither the Justice Minister nor a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice responded to the Grapevine’s repeated request for comment.
“I think it’s clear that we’re experiencing a humanitarian crisis,” says Sema Erla, “and I’m afraid it will quickly worsen.”
The case for starting again
Before being passed into law, the bill had floated in Alþingi for approximately five years. A number of humanitarian aid organisations in Iceland submitted reviews on the legislation, expressing their concerns regarding the ramifications on human rights. The bill received minor adjustments, not necessarily in line with the humanitarian concerns expressed, but to clauses that were no longer relevant. For example, the clause on mandatory COVID tests for applicants, which – in the government’s opinion – became irrelevant post-2021, was removed.
Given the very real potential for severe implications on human lives, government systems, and taxpayer’s money, why weren’t the necessary adjustments made?
The answer, in Arndís’ opinion, is obvious. “The goal of the law – which was apparent given the discourse of its supporters – is to send a message. ‘You aren’t welcome here. You won’t receive protection.’ Which is the most serious implication because it promotes animosity towards these people.”
“This is a case of bad legislation,” Albert says. “And the government is now disputing whose responsibility this is. It was perfectly unnecessary, but it’s also perfectly clear what motives are behind it, and those are to starve people to obedience.”
The bill’s ramifications were predictable ahead of time. “Before the bill was passed as law, it was clear it would have serious consequences on refugees,” claims Sema Erla. “It was acknowledged it would increase homelessness, which it has. We knew it would force people into extreme poverty, which it has. Multiple humanitarian aid organisations had warned about this. This was predictable.”
Regarding the future of the legislation, Albert is hopeful of legislative recourses that can push back these consequences. “There are always cases where certain articles of Iceland’s administrative laws are tested. I think it’s absolutely clear that this will be tried before court,” he states.
In recent years, repeated calls for the abolition of the Directorate of Immigration have been voiced (and ignored). Asked whether Arndís thinks it a reasonable plea, she says: “I think it’s so reasonable, I’m even suggesting it.”
Arndís continues, “I think the biggest hurdle in the system is informal attitudes within ÚTL. It’s often claimed that it operates on a ‘Computer says no’ basis. That’s incorrect. It isn’t square and doesn’t follow the law systematically. They are ready to go out of their way to deny people asylum.”
By abolishing ÚTL and pivoting its responsibilities over to other governmental agencies, like Þjóðskrá (the National Registry) and county commissioners, Arndís claims the system can be made more efficient.
Until authorities assume responsibility for Iceland’s humanitarian crisis, little can be predicted about the future of the currently displaced individuals. Only a fraction of them have bent to the government’s orders, while the majority continue to survive one day at a time.
Since Blessing Newton was made homeless, she has found shelter among good samaritans. She’s not hopeful of the future. “I’m not happy to say it, but maybe I can kill myself. I feel there is no hope.”
She says the best outcome would be for the government to have mercy by allowing her to stay and work. “My life is so broken. I could possibly start my life again.”
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!