If you’ve been following the news from Iceland lately, you’ve probably noticed the Directorate of Immigration has been coming up frequently. While their decisions are often contested, taking a closer look at the institution – both past and present – show an office that is dysfunctional, unnecessary, and diametrically opposed to the will of the people. The time has come to shut it down.
When I first moved to Iceland, it was still called Útlendingaeftirlitið (roughly translated as “The Immigration Supervisory Authority”). This institution has a questionable past, to put it mildly. It’s a matter of public record that in 1939, then-Aviation Chief Agnar Kofoed-Hansen went to Nazi-controlled Denmark to attend a special summer class being held by the SS. There, Agnar learned a thing or two about spying on people and weeding out undesirable foreigners. On his return to Iceland, he was made Police Commissioner, and gave the Immigration Supervisory Authority the task of doing exactly this. In fact, it seems the main objective of the office was to keep foreigners out of Iceland.
Although the office changed its name to the Directorate of Immigration in 2002, one could be forgiven for thinking this policy is still in place. Current Directorate of Immigration Director Kristín Völundardóttir is on record stating, with zero evidence for this assertion, that asylum seekers include people who engage in “asylum shopping”, bopping from country to country looking for the sweetest benefits they can soak up from government coffers. These remarks were met with great resistance, even from the Ministry of the Interior (which oversees the Directorate), but these are remarks that she has nonetheless never retracted.
One of the things that struck me most about the Directorate during my immigration process was how little its involvement played a part. My work permit came from the Directorate of Labour. My background check was done by the police. My kennitala was done by the National Registry. My health check was done at a local clinic. Having a place to live was done by me, with the help of my Icelandic friends. The only part the Directorate of Immigration plays in immigration, in other words, is saying Yes or No to whether or not someone can move or stay here. And they’re not even very good at that.
The Directorate of Immigration has been very vocal about how swamped they are and how much more money they need to keep up with their caseload. This presumably overwhelming amount of cases this year? 154 applications for asylum. Whether this caseload demands a budget increase of 200 million ISK is questionable at best. And even though international law (in this case, Article 19 of Dublin Regulation II) sets a deadline of a whole year for an application to be processed, asylum seekers still very often wait far longer than this for any kind of answer.
Rev. Toshiki Toma, the Pastor for Immigrants in Iceland, astutely pointed out that perhaps one reason why the Directorate wastes so much time and money is because they reject asylum applications almost automatically, prompting the parties affected to file an appeal with the Immigration Appeals Board. Often times, the Board comes to the conclusion that it disagrees with the Directorate, prompting the Directorate to actually examine the asylum application. Effectively, they spend twice as much time and money than they would need to if they had bothered examining these applications in the first place.
All this is before we even touch upon recent decisions from the Directorate that have sparked public outcry. This includes the rejection of asylum for an Albanian family, which prompted a petition that has nearly 10,000 signatures at the time of this writing, calling upon the Directorate to reverse this decision. Even more bizarrely, at a time when Iceland is enjoying international positive attention for a grassroots movement that is calling upon the Icelandic government to accept more Syrian refugees – a call the government appears to be listening to – the Directorate has also denied a Syrian family asylum in Iceland, on the grounds that the family has been granted asylum in Greece. Greece is, by the way, one of the countries the Minister of the Interior has said is an unsafe place to live for refugees and asylum seekers.
If the immigration process is primarily handled by institutions that are not the Directorate, if the Directorate’s own head has demonstrated an unfounded suspicion of asylum seekers, if the Directorate is run with all the efficiency of a Soviet-style bureaucracy, and if the Directorate often operates in direct opposition to the wishes of the Ministry that oversees it and, more often than not, in opposition to the will of the people, what then is the Directorate for?
It’s time to close the Directorate of Immigration. Reformists might argue that it may be time to clean house, and restructure the institution from the ground up. As someone who has had to deal with the Directorate (although, fortunately, not as an asylum seeker), I can attest that the Directorate of Immigration is a perfectly unnecessary institution. We can do better. Let’s put the past behind us, once and for all.
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