Why would people who have escaped their homelands to seek asylum in Iceland want to leave again? Didn’t they come to live the good life? To enjoy Western freedom and the Nordic welfare system? In the last six months, a number of refugees have been arrested after illegally trying to leave the country by secretly boarding ships at Reykjavík’s harbour and, in one case, an airplane at the Keflavík International Airport.
To better understand their situation, I took the bus to Reykjanesbær where 95 asylum seekers are currently waiting, not far from the aforementioned airport. Though Fit Hostel hosts both tourists and asylum seekers under the same roof, these two groups of visitors are clearly segregated in terms of political hospitality.
Don’t Come To Iceland
In the shadow of expensive advertising campaigns encouraging foreigners to “come and be inspired by Iceland,” the state operates a strict border policy when it comes to asylum seekers. Between 1996 and 2009, 13 people were granted asylum, 194 were denied asylum and 247 were deported. Under the current government, which took over in 2009, the same number—13 people—have been granted asylum in 2011 alone. Still, a greater average number of people are being deported each year. In 2011, 37 people were deported, compared to an average 19 people per year between 1996 and 2009.
The Icelandic state deports asylum seekers based on the Dublin Regulation, which allows Schengen states to deport refugees to the country they were in before seeking asylum. Lawyer Kári Hólmar Ragnarsson, whose Iraqi client Ahmed Kamil was recently deported to and denied asylum in Norway, criticises the policy. “The Icelandic authorities did not look into the situation in Baghdad, despite the international non-refoulement rule and Article 45 of Iceland’s Act On Foreigners,” he says. That article states that a foreign national may not be sent to a region where they face persecution or be sent to another country, which may send them back to aforementioned region.
Kári stresses the importance of the last point, as most of the states that refugees are deported to are either unable to cope with the large number of asylum seekers or have already denied the seeker’s request for asylum. In both cases, refugees are likely to be sent back to the country from which they escaped.
Playing The Waiting Game
The refugees I meet at Fit Hostel this time around say the likelihood of being denied asylum is not, however, the worst part. Over a cup of tea in their living room, they explain to me that the long and seemingly never-ending wait is what drains their energy, leaving some of them feeling that they have no other choice than to attempt an escape.
Without an Icelandic ID number—and sometimes without any official documents—they are unable to get a job, which means that they pass their days in idleness. What’s more, they don’t know how long the wait will be as their application goes through the Directorate of Immigration (UTL). Some have been here for seven or eight months, others up to a whole year. Finally, when a decision is delivered, the police immediately show up and arrest those who are to be deported. They then spend their last night at the police station, often denied a chance to properly bid their friends and partners farewell.
This was the case in mid September, when a Nigerian refugee was to be deported. “My client was allowed to see his girlfriend for three or four minutes under police surveillance,” explains his lawyer Katrín Oddsdóttir, who took his case a few hours before the planned deportation. “It was a major problem for his girlfriend to get permission to meet him so that he could sign a paper stating that I would be his lawyer from that point on.” At the last minute, Katrín appealed the deportation decision and today he is still waiting.
This combination of a long wait and the short notice of leaving is what the refugees find most disturbing. “If they don’t want to grant me asylum, they should let me know as soon as possible. I need to be able to make plans for my future,” says one of them, a Ugandan who now has since been deported to Switzerland. “If they just give me my documents, I will leave on my own.” UTL justifies this lengthy process by citing a lack of manpower, an argument that frustrates my interviewees. “They should go ahead and hire people,” another Nigerian, who fled assassination attempts in his home country, says. “While justice is delayed, justice is denied.”
At UTL, lawyer Þorsteinn Gunnarsson tells me that the agency is about to hire two extra lawyers, which is still two less than what they say they need. Even so, it’s not clear if UTL will receive money to keep the two lawyers employed for more than a couple of months. Additionally, UTL’s director Kristín Völundardóttir recently told newspaper Fréttablaðið that Dublin cases are now a priority, suggesting that more deportations will be seen in the near future.
Subject To Harassment
At one point during our conversation, my interviewees tell me that the local bus drivers don’t always stop for refugees and sometimes take alternate routes to avoid driving past them. Later during my visit, I take the bus into town with a few of them who now live at another house due to the overcrowded situation at Fit Hostel.
When the bus stops, they suggest it’s because I am there. As we get in and take a seat, there is a sudden silence from our fellow passengers. On my way out I ask the driver if the story I had just heard was true. He says “no.” As we continue walking from the bus stop, I ask them if they’ve told anybody about the bus drivers. “Tell whom,” one responds. “The Social Services,” I suggest, but they just laugh.
“Many of the inhabitants of Keflavík think that everyone at Fit is a criminal, a stereotype imposed upon refugees by the state,” one of my Nigerian interviewees explains, referring to the judicial tradition of imprisoning refugees for using forged passports. Such sentencing goes against the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that refugees can be excluded from penalties for forgery. “Most asylum seekers have never been to jail before,” he continues, “but Iceland uses the opportunity to criminalise them.” They also tell me that they are harassed at local bars and accused of staring at Icelandic men’s girlfriends at the gym.
After a wave of criticism late last year, Kristín stated on the UTL’s website that the municipality of Reykjanesbær is “well prepared to accommodate asylum seekers,” being a “multicultural” as well as a “versatile society, which protects the minority groups living there.”
No Borders activist Jason Slade, who accompanied me to Fit, disagrees. While waiting for the bus back to Reykjavík, he tells me about his experience of walking around town with the refugees. “It’s always different,” he explains, “from staring to shouting and honking. But almost always, I witness some sort of harassment.” Only a few minutes later, one of my interviewees, a Ghanaian, comes running. “The bus just passed by me,” he says.