From Iceland — When Ulysses Comes a-Knockin

When Ulysses Comes a-Knockin

Published February 2, 2015

Debates on Monday #21

When Ulysses Comes a-Knockin

Debates on Monday #21

It is quiet, isn’t it?

I mean Iceland. It’s suspiciously quiet. There’s this saying that if you look around the poker table and you don’t know who’s being bluffed, it’s probably you. Something fishy must be going on.

The Mediterranean

The Debates on Monday

Have you heard about the Icelandic Coast Guard’s vessel currently serving the EU’s common frontier surveillance authority, FRONTEX? ICGV Týr is its full name, but locals just call it Týr: “A god associated with law and heroic glory in Norse mythology,” according to Wikipedia. Also, apparently, Týr “is a god of war and will take mead, meat and blood for sacrifice.”

The vessel pops up in the news every now and then, after taking part in a successful rescue operation. That means, for example, receiving an emergency signal and tracing it to a rusty old freight ship overcrowded with people, left adrift—a repeated occurrence in recent months.

Last year, according to estimates, two percent of the migrants who took such desperate measures to seek refuge in Europe died on the way. One in fifty. In 2014, this meant over 3,000 people. Crossing the Mediterranean. Iceland rightfully takes pride in its involvement in rescue operations, without which, it would seem, the death toll would be even higher. That is, however, far from being the whole picture. Once rescued to port, what happens to the people?

What happens is the reason people take this route in the first place. The reason people attempt “irregular” migration, in legalese, is that they cannot count on “regular” processes. Those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean consider the 1 against 50 chance of death better odds than applying for entry at Europe’s borders.

Iceland is not a member of the EU, but it is a full member of the EU’s Schengen area and, thereby, Europe’s common borders. The only exceptional thing about Iceland is that its policies regarding migrants have, until now, been even more restrictive than those of most other European countries.



In his last years, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote and lectured on the Greek notion of parrhesia. The term is not easily translated, but Foucault’s lectures on it have later been published under titles such as “Fearless speech,” which comes close. Truthfulness as courage would be another option.

The meaning of parrhesia has changed through the ages, but, in any case according to Foucault, a certain core persisted: parrhesia is the act of telling the truth in conditions where the truth-teller thereby risks her/his life, safety, reputation, social position, an important friendship, or anything of such importance, but does it regardless, for the sake of something even more significant at stake.

In certain times, the notion has taken on a mainly private meaning. An addict may have to act parrhesiastically towards him or herself, face the ruthless truth they would rather disregard, to change the course of their life. Or a person may find her or himself forced to confront a friend about their ways: you have done so and so, it has lead to this and that, it cannot go on.

The notion seems to originate, however, in a political context. Not in the sense of petty party politics, but politics in a broader, more fundamental sense: what to do with public authority.

When DV’s journalists kept insisting,  in the face of the now-former Minister of the Interior’s denial and threatening behavior, that the Interior Ministry leaked the document which the Ministry in fact did, they were practicing parrhesia.

When Ómar Ragnarsson, a universally beloved entertainer for decades, quit his secure job at RÚV to tell the truth about the damage done by Icelandic governments’ persistent pro-heavy industry policies, Ómar took on the role of a parrhesiastes—the noun for someone engaging in parrhesia.

If there is reason to admire Greece’s new Left wing, anti-austerity government already, even before Syriza has actualised its promise of a free Greece, it seems to be not least due to the parrhesiastic dimension of their way of doing politics: there seems to be actual risk involved in telling the EU and IMF’s Troika to keep calm and fuck off—which they do, with the apparently light-hearted dignity of a person defying her executioner.

Perhaps the most apt translation of parrhesisa is speaking truth to power. This notion is what combines the expectations sometimes made to journalism, to literature, to the arts in general and to the academia, but very rarely to politicians. There seems to be an established agreement that assuming the former roles entails a promise of telling truth to power which the latter does not.

The non-existing appeals board

Vulnerable migrants have, in recent years, been the topic of many a discourse. People in that position are, at least in this country, spoken of much more than they are spoken with.

This weekend, asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Pakistan, Nigeria and Lybia announced that on Monday morning they would protest at the Ministry of the Interior’s. To my best knowledge, people in comparable situations—that is, people seeking asylum in Iceland—last protested on their own initiative in 2008, months before the bank collapse, which then hijacked everyone’s attention.

Some things have supposedly improved since then. One improvement, which the Directorate of Immigration takes pride in, is that the directorate now “processes” applications much faster than it used to. They claim that, compared with the years many had to wait before, processing now takes “on average no more than 90 days,” which must mean something.

Another improvement is that if the directorate’s swift process ends with anything else than a simple but rare “welcome, stranger, make yourself at home, stay as long as you like,” applicants may now appeal the verdict. Appeals were possible before, but they were then processed by the Interior Ministry itself, under whose jurisdiction the Directorate of Immigration operates anyway. After various international watchdogs commented on the overall potemkin-ness of that situation, a 2014 amendment to the “Law on Foreigners” formalised a special and supposedly independent Asylum Appeals Board.

The appeals board was established by law in May 2014. Last week, however, this medium reported that the board’s members were not actually appointed until last Monday, late January 2015. It thereby seems that asylum seekers who appealed a negative ruling after mid-2014 have since then been kept waiting by the door of an empty office. There was a sign on the door. Staff members had been hired and the board’s chair had been appointed. The only thing missing was the board itself. And thereby the appeals process. Which no one, it seems, told the applicants.

The people protesting in the Ministry this Monday have waited for a decision for months or, in some cases, years. Their cases are presumably going through different stages in what is habitually called a process. A mighty word, process. As long as something goes in, and something else, eventually, comes out, what happens in between is, by definition, a process. Even stalling can be part of a process. And, apparently, things don’t even have to exist to take part in a process.

If the people concerned were not among the most vulnerable in our society, if they were already acknowledged as existent, granted voices in public, it seems safe to assume that the board which didn’t exist would be considered an administrative scandal.

The myth of empathy, the reality of action

The journeys across the Mediterranean are the horrendous stuff of myth. For our sense of reality they seem too much to bear. This may be why migrants meet with such empathy as long as they remain at a proper distance.

To tell the truth to an authority that has your life in its hands, to face that authority and say: “I see what you are doing. Your neglect is abusive” takes courage. It is a parrhesiastic act. Listening is not enough. We must extend the respect we have for people at a mythical distance to those within our own periphery. And we must implement that respect in the demands we make of our republic.

Debates on Monday

Greece faces enormous challenges, among which is a debt burden considerably heavier than Iceland’s. The Greek public nevertheless voted to power a party that does not limit its vision to its constituency. Among the first changes announced by Syriza after its victory, is that all children born within Greece will from now on receive full Greek citizenship, regardless of the legal status of their parents. This alone does not solve the problem of refugees in Greece, let alone the world over. It indicates, however, that Syriza’s project is a universal one, applying to humans, not merely to those already carrying the right passport or the right to vote.

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Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


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