Not Quite Prison - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Not Quite Prison

Not Quite Prison

Published September 26, 2008

Haukur S. Magnússon
Photos by
GAS

There is an up and coming “refugee camp” in Reykjanesbær. You probably haven’t heard about it.

September 11 2008, as morning slowly crept over Reykjanesbær, a total of 58 police officers and an unspecified number of police dogs rushed the living quarters of 42 asylum seekers. During that morning-long raid, the police reportedly broke down doors to the asylum seekers’ rooms, handcuffed some of them, went through their possessions and confiscated IDs, passports and 1.6 million ISK in cash.
    Later that day, police officials were quoted in saying that the raid had been a total success, and would help Útlendingastofnun (the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration) quickly close the cases of at least ten of the 42 asylum seekers. They stated that the raid had been spurred by suspicions that certain asylum seekers were involved in illegal activities, and some of them had willingly given out false information as to their purported refugee status.
    Meanwhile, several of the asylum seekers went on record stating their treatment at the hands of Icelandic officials stating had been unnecessary, inhumane and degrading. One asylum seeker – 35-year-old Iranian refugee Farzad Rahmanian – went further in protesting the raid and confiscation of his possessions, and sat outside the Keflavík police station in silent demonstration throughout the weekend.
    The raid got a lot of media attention in Iceland, and the public discourse around it quickly turned ugly – as it often does lately when matters concerning immigrants or refugees are discussed in public domain. The “illegal immigrants” – international asylum seekers that are made to live under drab conditions at a Njarðvík hostel while their pleas for asylum are in process – were condemned for “abusing the Icelandic welfare system”, amongst other things.
    The local authorities did not help when they, in a frankly ludicrous attempt to justify the raid, released statements saying that each asylum seeker cost the state 7.000 ISK per day, that they had “this one time” apprehended an asylum seeker that was wanted for murder (!), and that they had suspected some of them of working in the black market and/or distributing illegal drugs. Sure enough, not all asylum seekers are saints, but the same can be said about any group of humans. It certainly does not warrant the police’s actions that day.

Under process
A week after the raid, the Grapevine met up with three of the asylum seekers to get their seriously under-reported side of the story. Present were the aforementioned Farzad Rahmanian, 27 year old Afghani Elyas Sultani and 50 year old Iranian Mehdi Kavyanpour. Rahmanian and Kavyanpour’s cases have both been “in process” with authorities for an extended period of time, Rahmanian for just over three years and Kavyanpour for almost four. Sultani’s case has been “under process” in Iceland for five months. All of them live in Njarðvík’s FIT hostel, which houses the male contingent of the 40 or so asylum seekers that are in Iceland at present (women and children are kept at a separate location). The Red Cross supplies the asylum seekers with food, and they each get a stipend of 2.500 ISK per week to spend on anything else. They are not permitted to hold jobs while their asylum pleas are being processed, but they are provided with Internet access and a pass to the local swimming pool for recreation.
    Our conversation comes off to a hesitant start. The men are obviously agitated with their situation and they seem to have a lot of their mind, while they treat my questions with an initial suspicion. They tell me about the life at Fit hostel, how they wound up in Iceland and that they would like nothing more than to earn their keep here whilst awaiting resolution of their pleas. They also seem to think that no one in Iceland knows about the makeshift Reykjanesbær refugee camp they call home, and express a great disappointment when I tell them the Grapevine is an English-language magazine.
    “We want to tell our story in an Icelandic paper too. The Icelandic people don’t know about the asylum seekers staying at Fit hostel,” says Rahmanian. “Come with me, we’ll ask anyone sitting at this café. No one knows about us or our situation, I want to show you, 90% of the Icelandic people don’t even know where the camp in Iceland is.” I accompany him to several tables and we ask the patrons questions about the asylum seekers and their situation. Surprisingly, many of them have not heard anything about them, or last week’s police raid. Rahmanian seems pleased to have confirmed this as we sit down to further discuss.

The opportunity to move forward

*How is life at the Fit hostel?
“Very difficult,” says Kavyanpour, “like a prison. We haven’t got any ID cards, and thus can’t go anywhere or do anything. It is not a good life.” Rahmanian takes the lead. “Nobody invited us here, the Icelandic immigration will say, so if you came by yourself here you are not allowed to do anything you want, OK? We are here for three years, some for four years, they give us food every week, two plastic bags, but we are not allowed to touch anything. Just to sit inside and look at things. I ask you this, as a human being: If I allow you to stay in some house for three years, just watching TV and working with the Internet, eating food, do you want something more? Do you want the opportunity to move forward? To get a job? Exactly. That is what we want; to be able to live the same as other human beings, nothing else.”
    We discuss last week’s raid on the Fit hostel. Rahmanian is happy to report that the police have just returned the small sum of cash they confiscated from his room, after they had broken down his door. “I wasn’t there to give them the key,” he says, “and they didn’t ask the owner of the house for it. They just broke down my door and came inside my room, looking for an ID card and whatever else.”
    Sultani continues: “It was around seven o’clock that morning. I was working on the Internet and they barged in and said they wanted to search the house. They had something like 70 people and stayed three or four hours, and brought dogs in some of the rooms searching. They said in the news they had brought a translator and lawyer with them, and it’s not true. We didn’t see a lawyer or translator there. Just the police and the dogs.”  
    “It was a really bad day, I thought maybe they were going to deport a lot of people from Iceland to other countries, I was very worried.”
*But they are not?
“No. They have the right to search, and they did so that day, September 11. That’s why a lot of people got nervous, because of that operation on that day.”

Where is the freedom and democracy for us?
Rahmanian draws a deep breath and starts talking. “Even if they are in the right, and even if they aren’t sure about all the asylum seekers or all the people in the Fit hostel, it wasn’t the right way to go about it. Let’s take a look at another country. Let’s go to America, for example. They say they want to bring freedom and democracy to other countries, like my country and Afghanistan and Iraq. They say: “We just want to give people freedom and democracy” and we say, OK you are right. We’ll take it. But where is the freedom and democracy for us? Can you show me? “
    “We want to see where this democracy is, where everyone is free and can go wherever they want. We certainly can’t. We can’t go anywhere, do anything. And you are a Schengen country. Why are you not following the same rules as Schengen? It’s not right. It’s not the same. If we were in a country like Sweden or Germany or France or Italy, after a few weeks or months they will allow you to work there and live by your own way. Even if they want to decline your request for asylum. You get a kennitala [identity number]; you are the same as other humans living there. We have a right to ask this question. The 14th article of the human rights charter says that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This is not difficult to understand, is it?”

The Grapevine asked Atli Viðar Thorstensen, project manager working with refugee and asylum issues at the Red Cross HQ in Reykjavík, to answer some questions regarding asylum seekers.
1) How many individuals have officially sought asylum in Iceland since 2000? How many have been granted asylum?
2000=25, 2001=53, 2002=117, 2003=80, 2004=76, 2005=87, 2006=39, 2007=42, 2008=50
Out of these numbers, two asylum seekers have been granted “refugee status”, and nearly 40 residency permits have been granted for humanitarian reasons, including 5-6 this year.
2) How many asylum seekers are presently in Iceland?
There are currently 40-45 asylum seekers in Iceland.
3) Describe the process that asylum seekers must go through when they arrive in Iceland?
When an asylum seeker arrives in Iceland and requests asylum the police department is usually the first government agency to handle his application. They investigate the travel documents, and take his photo and finger prints. They also book an interview where the individual in question explains the reasons why he is seeking asylum in Iceland as a refugee.
    A Red Cross representative is present during the police debriefing and the asylum seeker has a right to confer with him in private before it starts.
An interpreter that speaks the asylum seeker’s mother tongue (or other language he is comfortable expressing himself in and understands) is also present. In the police interview, the asylum seeker is made to give detailed information on his background, family and why he fled his home country or previous country of residence.
    After the debriefing, his application is sent to the Directorate of Immigration [“Útlendingastofnun” – the government agency that oversees matters of immigrants and asylum seekers] for review. Most of the asylum seekers wait for the Directorate’s response in Reykjanesbær, where they are put up by the agency.
    The Directorate usually conducts another interview with those asylum seekers whose cases go under so-called “material review”, i.e. where their cases are resolved in Iceland instead of undergoing the so-called “Dublin-way”, which means that another state within the Dublin-pact could be responsible for handling the individuals plea for asylum.
4) Who makes the decision of whether to grant asylum in specific cases? What rules and regulations to they follow?
The Directorate of Immigration makes the decision. If they refuse the request, an asylum seeker can file a complaint to the Ministry of Justice. The deciding agencies go by Icelandic rules and regulations, as well as the UN charters on Human rights and Refugee matters. 
5) Is it right that those who seek asylum in Iceland are in fact “stuck” here until their cases have been processed?
Yes and no. Some bring their own passports and can withdraw their application for asylum and return home if the situation there changes or for other reasons. Many are here without ID, however, and could not leave the country if they wanted. But people are not being kept here by the government. If they are stuck here, it is because of their circumstances rather than the government.
6) Why has the Directorate of Immigration take up to four years to answer some applications?
Some cases are more complicated than others, and it is sometimes hard to verify relevant information and gather what’s missing. The process usually doesn’t take long, it is rather under special circumstances that they do. A long waiting period is bad for everyone, both the government and the asylum seekers, and the Red Cross has emphasised that the process period must be shortened as much as possible, without it affecting the quality of the process. But it’s best to seek answers to questions regarding the processing time with the Directorate of Immigration
7) What factors are taken into consideration when processing an asylum seeker’s application?
Primarily the reasons the asylum seeker cites for his situation. Humanitarian concerns are also taken into consideration when the applications are processed. The UN Refugee Agency has published a guidebook and instructions on how to interpret the UN Refugee treaty, which was translated and published by the Icelandic Human Rights agency and the Red Cross this summer. That guidebook is fundamental in interpreting the refugee “concept”, which is a closed one by nature. The number of asylum seekers that are granted refugee status is probably rarely lower than in Iceland.

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