Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson introduced an omnibus immigration bill to parliament today which is par for the course when it comes to Iceland’s immigration policy: doing the bare minimum instead of leading the way.
This bill, as Grapevine reported, carries with it a number of much-needed changes to the law regarding asylum seekers. If passed into law, the bill would do away with arresting and charging refugees who come to Iceland with false passports. The time period for processing an asylum seeker application would be set at a maximum of six months. If, for whatever reason, the process takes longer than 18 months, the asylum seeker would be granted a residence permit on humanitarian grounds. The bill would also create an independent committee for those applying for residence in Iceland as asylum seekers.
Taken out of context, these seem like great leaps forward. In reality, all of these measures are among the many repeated requests made over the years to Iceland by international organisations, among them the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In the meantime, Iceland still maintains a three-tiered structure of immigration law. And by that I mean, accordingly to Icelandic law, there are three types of immigrants: Scandinavians, Europeans, and everyone else. These three groups enjoy three different sets of rights and privileges pertaining to freedom of movement, the right to employment, obligations for residency and citizenship. In a nutshell, the closer you are to Iceland- ethnically, culturally and geographically – the more privileges you will enjoy.
This obsolete structure is not supported by any rational justification. It maintains a fortress mentality and justifies xenophobia – the more different you are from “us”, ethnically speaking, the harder you will have to work to prove your worth in this country, with fewer privileges to help you, regardless of your merits as an individual. It is also a reflection of the idea that people ethnically closer to us are, for whatever reason, more deserving of privileges, regardless of their merits as individuals.
It should go without saying that such an immigration policy runs counter to our democratic principles of equality, justice, and meritocracy. But when the Director of the Directorate of Immigration herself casts groundless aspersions upon asylum seekers, it becomes clear that our three-tiered system justifies some of the worst prejudices we can have about people who are not like us. Even when those prejudices are openly and unapologetically expressed by a government official who is supposed to be ensuring the human rights of those seeking a better life in Iceland.
If Iceland really wants to lead the way in immigration and asylum seeker law reform, it could start by doing away with the three-tiered system. Judge each arrival on their own merits, set them to the same standards, and provide them each the same rights and privileges. This would be the beginning in terms of creating an immigration law that is actually in harmony with our lauded egalitarian principles. Merely complying with the repeated requests of international human rights organisations, by contrast, is just the least we can do. Literally.