In twenty years, Iceland has granted four persons asylum—out of 500 applicants. Under ten percent of asylum claims are solved with a residence permit for humanitarian reasons. The rest are declined. In comparison, Denmark solves 45% of its claims by providing asylum or residence permit.
Authorities refer to the European Dublin II regulation as the basis for their deadly deportation policy. The fact is no country rejects asylum claims as brutally as Iceland—except Greece.
Athens, city center, October 2009. In the church square Aghios Pantaleimonas some 300 people have gathered for an anti-racist concert, reclaiming the square occupied by fascists earlier in the year. The fascist gangs stabbed and injured immigrants who dared show up. They also beat up a priest for showing sympathy to the foreigners. In June 2009, “anarchists and people in solidarity unlocked the playground at Aghios Panteleimonas, which had been sealed so as not to be used by the children of immigrant residents” and were eventually gassed by the police. (1) One man who brought his child to the playground was arrested for refusing to leave, allegedly “to protect him from the fascists” who menaced the protestors from behind the police squads.
The anti-racist concert at the end of October felt as peaceful as life inside a condensed gas container —riot-police squads stayed ready on every street corner in a kilometre’s radius from the square. It was not far from here where a 15 year old activist was shot dead by police during demonstrations in December of 2008, sparking riots all around Greece. The police remained neutral this time, however, arresting young men ready with clubs and racist intentions already at noon. Activists were bewildered, hopeful that it might signal a change in policy after a left-wing government took office in early October. But only moderately hopeful. “With their tanks and their bombs, and their bombs and their guns, in your head, in your head, they are crying …” – the Cranberries’ Zombie was blasted in between acts, a song that never before had sent shivers down my spine.
Politics in the street
Greek politics take place on the street: the fascists are actual fascists, they go around in herds and beat up immigrants. Many of them vote for the Popular Orthodox Rally, which gathered more than 7% support and two seats in the 2009 election for the European Parliament. More are openly supportive of violence; however, it is the minor 0.5% ‘Golden Dawn’ party, which describes itself as “uncompromisingly nationalist.” Links between active members and the police are not only witnessed by activists, but acknowledged by ministers as a problem.(2) The current left-wing government consists of a large social-democrat party, the Communist Party, Coalition of the Radical Left and the Ecologist Green party.(3) The matter of division which unites various left-wing forces and anarchists against fascists, right-wing and central-right parties, and frequently against the police, is immigration.
In the first half of 2009, 140 thousand people applied for asylum in European countries.(4) Nearly half first arrive in Greece.(5) The Dublin II regulation, fully implemented in 2006, allows member-states of the Schengen-zone to transfer asylum seekers to the country they first arrived in within the zone. Some states, such as Iceland, apply this clause to transfer people back whenever possible, making it hard for any asylum seeker who sets foot in Greece to get any further. Since the pressure this creates on border states was fully foreseeable, Greece is subsidized by the EU to process these cases and provide people with shelter. The money, however, seems to go towards something else.
Local activists and the immigrants on whose behalf they fight are to a large extent separate communities. The situation of many immigrants is too precarious for most of them to take an active part in the struggle. Yet ties between the groups are created through language courses and other initiatives within the city’s social centres, hangouts created by activists, most dense in Exarkheia, a neighbourhood populated by immigrants and activist movements. Next to Exarkheia lies Omonia, home to many irregular, paperless immigrants who sleep on the street or share accommodation for as cheap as possible. “I know of a house where fifty people sleep in one room, on three eight hour shifts through every 24 hours,” one source tells me. “It’s not that unusual.”
The police presence in these two neighbourhoods is overwhelming—the days I was there, police hardly ever left my field of vision. Literally. “They say they’re fighting crime, but they’re mainly suppressing the activism.”
I am here to meet Nour Aldin Alazzawi, a 19 year old Iraqi who first arrived in Greece by boat in 2006, with his mother and sister. Just like his father, a translator, Nour worked for the US forces in Iraq.
In 2006 members of the Sahwa movement (6) killed Nour’s father for supporting the US. Shortly afterwards Nour was kidnapped by another group, but was spared as they collected a $12.000 ransom from his mother. After these incidents, Nour’s mother decided the family would emigrate. Nour was 16 when they went to Syria, where a total of 1.2 million displaced Iraqis currently reside.(7) His mother remains there, but in 2007 Nour travelled, with his brother and younger sister through Turkey to Greece. “I always wanted to go to Europe, since I was a child,” Nour tells me. “To live a simple and peaceful life. But when we arrived the Greek police caught us and took our fingerprints.” Part of the Dublin II system is a fingerprint database common to the member-states of Schengen, monitoring the travels of paperless immigrants.
The siblings intended to reunite with their oldest brother, who lives in Belgium. They travelled to Belgium and filed an application for asylum. The fingerprints database, however, did its job and the three were ‘Dublinned’ back to Greece. Back on the street in Athens, Nour’s sister went back to their mother in Syria, while the young men went on looking for more permanent shelter.
“I decided to go to Canada,” says Nour, “because they lie outside Schengen and don’t have my fingerprints.” Nour travelled by train, on the required false passport, to Norway. From Norway he booked a flight to Canada, with transit in Iceland. In August of 2008, Icelandic border patrol caught him. “The police discovered I had a false passport. They put me in a camp,”—Fit Hostel, in Njarðvík—where Icelandic authorities offer asylum seekers accommodation, close to the airport, far away from city life.
“The camp was not good. I had nothing to do but sleep. But my mother told me: if you want something you must wait and you must fight. So I waited. In March of 2009, the police picked me up and said they would ship me back to Greece. In the middle of the night, they changed their mind again. I don’t know why.” In fact, on many fronts people were putting pressure on the recently elected socialist government to change Iceland’s deportation policy. The Red Cross urged that asylum seekers would not be transferred to Greece in the name of the Dublin II regulation.(8) “So we remained in Iceland and this time I expected to stay there still. I started learning the language.”
“Then I found a job and applied for a work permit. And they gave me a six month work permit”— valid till the end of 2009. As Nour got work in two different cafés, he moved to the Reykjavík city centre. In the collectivist enterprise Café Hljómalind, Nour established close relations to many people. “Then in October, I got a negative answer from the Minister of Justice. I asked my lawyer why. She said: the reason is you don’t have any relation to Iceland, no friends, no work and you don’t speak Icelandic. But it’s not true! The only thing that makes me stay in Iceland is the good people there, the friends that I have now. There are many people who love me and I love them.
Two or three weeks later, the police called me where I was in my apartment and they told me: We are down by the door and want to speak with you. Please come and open up for us. I opened the door, and one of them told me: ‘Time to go.’ I said: ‘Are you joking? Go where?’ – ‘Time to go back to Greece.’ ‘No way!’ I said. After all this time, one year and two months in Iceland, they will send me back to Greece! Why? They replied: ‘Because Greece accepts you and will open your case. They will do everything for you’. And I said: ‘No. It’s not true. They’ll say anything but they do nothing.’”
The officers told Nour to go upstairs and pack his stuff. “I said ‘OK, but I want to call my lawyer, my girlfriend, or my friends, to tell them I would be deported, and say goodbye.’ And they told me: ‘No no, just pack your stuff and later you can call whoever you want.’ I said OK. They did not let me take my things. I had a television, table, computer and a bed. I could not even take all my clothes. They would not let me take my salary from my workplace. They told me that I would take my salary later.”
“I put my clothes in the bag, then they took me directly to the police station. I protested and asked to make phone calls again, and take my salary—I didn’t have any money! They kept saying: ‘later, later.’ After five minutes in the police station, they took me to the airport where I stayed the whole night. They deported me at six AM the next day. I had some Icelandic money on me and they did not let me change it in the airport. And still no phone calls.”
Four police officers escorted Nour and the two others being deported through their flight. “In Greece I was put in prison for one night.” Then Nour was interviewed, a required formality. “They gave me a piece of paper with a small empty space to fill, and told me: ‘You have to describe your situation and why you want to seek asylum here.’ The space was too small to write my full family name in it. I laughed: ‘Write my problems here? How?’ They said: ‘Just write whatever you want, just write something, in your language.’ So I wrote, in Arabic: ‘I do not seek asylum in Greece.’ I signed it and gave them the paper. OK, you are free, they then said. With no papers to prove my identity, nothing. I asked: ‘How am I free? I have no place to go.’ ‘It’s like that,’ they said. ‘You want to go free or you want to stay in jail?’”
Nour was left in the streets of Athens with Icelandic currency in his pocket. “I tried to change it at the airport but they were not allowed to accept Icelandic money because of the crisis. So I’m at the airport and can’t even go to the city centre. What should I do there anyway? Then I remembered a Greek I met in Iceland. I called him, he came to the airport and took me to his house.” Nour stayed there for one night. “Then he left Greece so I couldn’t stay there longer. So I was in the street again. I don’t know, it’s really hard to speak about; I don’t want to think about it. I’m still thinking positive. I will never give up.”
Ignored to death
Nour brings me to a tent outside Parliament, home to five men collectively on hunger strike. They represent a group of fifteen people: Iraqi, Iranian, and Afghan. They all carry UN refugee cards as former members of PMOI, M for Mujahedin. Western media sometimes called them freedom fighters, but they are now considered a terrorist organisation by the US. Since 2001, their struggle for free elections and gender equality in Iran is supposedly non-violent. It is strange to weigh these fragile figures, exhausted and skinny, against the idea of Mujahedin fighters. As ex-members their situation is extremely precarious, they explain to me, because not only would the Iranian government and Kurdish forces like to see them dead, but the PMOI as well. In Greece you may add fascists and police to their threats.
One of them shows me pictures of serious head injuries he suffered from police when caught on an Athens bus with no ticket. “Three of us are gone. We don’t know what happened to them, if they left or were kidnapped or killed—disappeared, that’s all.” Greek bureaucracy seems unaffected by UN acknowledgement of their refugee status, which they all have certificates for. One of them shows me a picture of himself 40 kg. heavier—a full-blown carpenter. He’s all skin and bones now.
Another, a professional mechanic, suffers an eye infection that gets worse the longer he sleeps in gardens, and is nearly blind. “You are a refugee, go away asshole,” a Greek doctor told him the last time he sought help. “Some of us did not see our family for twenty years,” they tell me. One managed to get to Bulgaria but was transferred back. “Give me a white card,” he asks Greek authorities, “so I can save my life, get away, when someone tries to kill me.”(9)
In an industrial suburb a few kilometres away from the centre we find the Directorate of Immigration. Cars are parked by the wall around the office building, and the hundred men who spent the night in the parking spaces now stand by the gate, waiting. The guard by the gate holds an automatic rifle in his hand, finger by the trigger, and hurls obscenities at those who approach him. The men are here to get stamps on papers. During the hour we spend there, no one is let through. They have to show up again and again. Since they have no money, and no legal access to transportation, and being caught on a bus with poses a real danger to immigrants, they sleep by the gate, in relative safety.
Icelandic authorities repeatedly claim that there is “nothing wrong” with Dublin transfers to Greece. The following disagree: UNHCR ‘advises Governments to refrain from returning asylum-seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation until further notice’(10). The Red Cross highlights that recent regulation changes mean ‘the vast majority of asylum seekers might not have the substance of their claims examined’(11). Human Rights Watch express worries about ‘the harsh and demeaning conditions in which detained migrants are often held’(12). Amnesty International gathers that ‘ill-treatment by police of detainees, particularly migrants and members of marginalized groups, was reported throughout the year’ in 2009(13), The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ‘reiterate that the conditions of detention of the vast majority of irregular migrants deprived of their liberty in Greece remain unacceptable’ and that they ‘run a considerable risk of being ill-treated by law enforcement officials’(14). The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance reports(15)‘that as at June 2008, the 11.273 cases examined both at first instance and on appeal resulted in 61 persons being recognized as refugees and 10 receiving humanitarian status’. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles called for the suspension of Dublin Transfers to Greece, in April 2008. Norway had then already decided not to transfer asylum seekers there, and Germany not to do so in cases of children or vulnerable people. On July 20, 2009 a court in Frankfurt, Germany, cancelled a deportation to Greece due to unfair processes there.(16)
When the supposedly left-wing government in Iceland committed their first Dublin transfer, in October 2009, one of four deportees, Wali Safi, managed to escape from police. He went into hiding long enough for the European Court to intervene and request that Icelandic authorities cancel the deportation and take his application into consideration. Still, Iceland maintains that there is nothing wrong with these transfers.
Mohammad Askarpour, from Iran, stayed in prison for a month after the October deportations, and is now on the street in Athens while appealing in Iceland. Henry Turay, from Sierra Leone, is currently hiding from Icelandic police for the same reason as Wali Safi did, fearing for his life. Mohammad Jabar, deported in October, is back in Iraq, finding war-ridden Iraq preferable to bare life in foreign streets.
The Dublin II regulation is part of Europe’s collective effort to make itself a gated community, and outrageous on its own. Statistically, however, no country implements it as ruthlessly as Iceland. In 2006-2008 10% of asylum claims in Iceland receive a positive outcome, 15 of 154 applicants.(19)
In 2008 the ratio was 45% in Denmark, 40% in Finland, in France 30%, Germany 38% – in Sweden 21% of a total 42 thousand applicants.(20)
Iceland’s asylum policy has never been stated in the political arena, but silently left to bureaucratic implementation. Accordingly, during the latest deportations, no minister defended them publicly, but merely apologized for them as being ‘not illegal’. The policy amounts to treating humans as trash. Mass-murder would be misleading, for death is never a certain outcome of deportations. People are systematically removed, like you take out the trash, and left in a place outside civil rights. ‘Disappeared’. Whether they will then be burned, buried or recycled is supposedly nobody’s business.
Nour Aldin has been given a temporary residency and work permit in Iceland. Many people fight on his behalf, and still as this is written, Nour has been stuck in Athens for six weeks, waiting for a signed letter, waiting for his passport, waiting for a visa, waiting, waiting …
Hopefully his wait will soon be over. A temporary permit, however, is not the end of this brave young man’s Odyssey, and certainly not the end of the scandal: Iceland quietly sustains an outright murderous policy towards asylum seekers that must be brought to an end.
Many thanks to Olga Laf, Giorgas Pittas and Nour Aldin Alazzawi for their help in writing this article.
1 ‘Clashes and arrests …’
Clashes and arrests around the Aghios Panteleimonas neighborhood in Athens…
2 ‘Chrysi Avyi’
3 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_Greece for a detailed list of Greek political parties
4 For detailed information, see: Asylum Levels and Trends …. UNHCR 2009.
5 Nick Squires and Paul Anast. ‘Greek immigration crisis …’ in The Daily Telegraph. Sept 7 2009.
6 Established in 2005 on U.S. payroll to establish security in certain areas, but then turned against the coalition forces and the government.
7 Iraqi refugees fear expulsion from Syria’ in The National. September 3, 2009.
http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090904/FOREIGN/709039884/1011/NEWS. See also: ‘Iraq’. Refugees International. http://www.refugeesinternational.org/where-we-work/middle-east/iraq
8 ‘Rauði krossinn ítrekar …’ April 8, 2009.
9 The hunger strike started on October 19th and was still ongoing November 26th.
See http://iranianrefugeesfromtipf.blogspot.com/ (Greek).
10 ‘UNHCR Position on the Return of Asylum-Seekers to Greece …’ April 15 2008.
11 ‘The situation of persons returned by Austria to Greece …’. http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,AUT_RC,,AFG,4562d8cf2,4a93fbbf2,0.html
12 No Refuge – Migrants in Greece. Human Rights Watch, 2009.
13 ‘Amnesty International Report 2009 – Greece’
14 ‘Report to the Government of Greece … September 2008.’ http://www.cpt.coe.int/documents/grc/2009-20-inf-eng.htm
15 ‘ECRI Report on Greece’. Published on 15 September 2009. http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/Country-by-country/Greece/GRC-CbC-IV-2009-031-ENG.pdf
16 See for example: Kaveh P. ‘A ray of hope’ in The Atlantic Times.
17 See for example: ‘Don’t send asylum seekers back to Greece: Dutch court’
18 For example: ‘German court ruling a severe blow for Greece’ Sept. 11 2009.
19 ISee the 2009 Governmental Report:
http://www.domsmalaraduneyti.is/wp-content/uploads/Skyrsla_nefndar_um_medferd_haelisumsokna.pdf – chapter 6.
20 And that’s not being really fair to Cyprus, which in cases of Iraq refugees had a 90% acceptance rate in 2008, a figure certainly far away from Iceland’s, but, must be noted, probably ignores Dublin transfers – that is measures only the outcome of cases taken for substantial consideration. See ECRE’s report on Iraqi refugees here http://www.cir-onlus.org/ECRE_RICERCA_IRAQ.pdf. Globally the positive recognition rate of asylum claims was 45% in 2007, rising from 38% in 2006. See the UNHCR 2007 Yearbook: