From Iceland — Borderline: Empathy & Insanity In The Asylum Process

Borderline: Empathy & Insanity In The Asylum Process

Published September 18, 2015

Borderline: Empathy & Insanity In The Asylum Process
Photo by
Hrefna Sigurðardóttir

“They’re my friends! Let me speak to them!” he shouted as the door closed shut. Four days into his hunger strike, he had been admitted to an emergency psychiatric ward after attempting to burn himself alive.

It marked the third attempted self-immolation by a refugee in Iceland since 2005. Just like Mehdi in 2011, he pulled out the fuel at the Red Cross headquarters, making it Iceland’s most popular site for ethno-political suicide attempts. A hot spot, almost.

I pondered the irony of it taking place as a thousand new volunteers were being registered at the headquarters, up and ready to aid new refugees. Timing. A flood of empathy towards the drowning refugees drowned his actions.

I had gone with two fellow anti-racist activists to tell him of a planned pro-refugee demonstration, hoping that we could convince him to drink water. We never support self-harm, but always the right to stay.

His doctor isolated him after he gave an interview explaining his actions at the Red Cross. I sympathise with the decision, clinically speaking, but feel that it overlooks the nature of his intended self-harm; it did not happen without reason. It was politically charged, and intended to be heard. Confinement to isolation is therefore akin to censorship, diminishing the patient’s ability to defend and promote his cause.

The man had spent years on the run, half of one in Iceland. An answer to his application for asylum was a few months overdue. (During his stay at the hospital, the immigration office’s staff packed his belongings and moved them between houses without his knowledge or consent—losing a photo of his recently deceased father in the process). Many others like him have resorted to hunger strikes to oppose unlawful arrests, house raids, slander and deportations.


“Our privileged continent must wrap up its colonia-lism; its borders and racist institutions, before it can scratch the surface of the disaster it has made of history.”

These are just a few examples of our immigration authorities’ psychopathic approach to refugees. Of their absolute disregard for their privacy, dignity and well-being—not to mention the law. It has become familiar to the point that a numbness can set in. I, for one, had difficulties relating to an attempted self-incineration beyond taking in the information. That is, until I came face to face with him in the hospital.

I hear the human mind operates that way. Apparently we base our views and decisions on impression and feeling, then spend hours finding reasons, believing ourselves to be guided by them. Playing on emotions is thus a very desirable way of doing propaganda. One that, strange as it may seem, No Borders – Iceland typically avoids.

From one human catastrophe to the other, our organization tends to focus on the context in which they occur rather than their personal aspects. We wish to support individuals, while fixating on the revolutionary demand for a borderless Earth. Very few get it. Explaining it over and over again, nicely and simply, for many, many years, doesn’t appear to help.

We typically receive criticism for shunning institutions like the police during our protests against decisions made at the Ministry of the Interior. For talking about warfare and capitalism in the same breath as refugees. For attacking attempts by allegedly nice people to reform the establishment from within. For using angry language.

When they accept a new group of quota refugees, we grumble about closed borders. We haven’t said a single “thank you.” Ever.

We’ve been driven mad and bored to death by the discussion of our heartfelt cause. Five years after starting the first local No Borders collective, we are overwhelmed by a global shockwave of empathy for the people we fight for—and at the same time, an absolute absence of political context.


Like the only gay in the village, we remain isolated and lonely in our demand for open borders and attacks on the establishment. Rather than demanding freedom of movement (and thus safe passage) for the Syrian toddler who drowned by Greece, the public asks why he wasn’t accepted as a quota refugee. The question bypasses African, East-Asian and European toddlers dying at—and because of—some other borders.

This version of humanitarian thought borders on derangement, and accepts an extremely sinister ideology of Western supremacy. The notion that Europe can “unite in sharing the load,” while at the same maintaining institutions whose primary objective is to push back immigration is contradictory and ridiculous. Controlled immigration inevitably means that lives will be lost at the borders, regardless of how many happy faces end up on the eight o’clock news. Our privileged continent must wrap up its colonialism, its borders and racist institutions, before it can scratch the surface of the disaster it has made of history.

Borders ensure neither peace nor security. Rather, they tamper free movement, business, survival and happiness. They are man-made, and their maintenance requires the relentless effort of heavily funded institutions.
The pushbacks and deportations of refugees are intentional and carefully meditated acts of oppression. An all-out resistance to the entire establishment of border control is needed for the preservation of refugees lives. On these points there can be no negotiation. No room for opportunism.

This is our ideology in a nutshell. Simple and solid. Carved in reality and painted in blood across the globe. But the question remains: what marvels of literature must we produce to make it stick? And whom must we incinerate to get the message across?

Haukur Hilmarsson is an activist. He writes here on behalf of grassroots organization No Borders – Iceland, which you may find on Facebook.

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Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


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