Sema Erla Serdar, a Social Democrat who has been very active on the subject of foreigners in Iceland, was distraught by news reports that, at some residence centres for asylum seekers in Iceland, the people who live there are missing basic household needs. This includes things such as furniture, clothing, kitchen utensils, lamps, and books. Not content to wait for authorities to take action, Sema decided to take matters into her own hands. We caught up with her to ask what her next move is, and why the right wing has hijacked the discussion on asylum seekers.
What made you decide to take it upon yourself to start collecting furniture, books and the like for asylum seekers? Isn’t this something the government is supposed to provide?
To answer your second question first, yes, this is something the government and the institutions working in this field, like the Directorate of Immigration (UTL), are supposed to provide. But to the first question, I was reading the news one evening in [Icelandic media outlet] Stundin about the living conditions of asylum seekers here in Reykjavík. From what was reported and shown, they’re living in terrible conditions: no tables and chairs, sitting on the floor to eat, missing closets, shelves, lamps, even curtains for their windows. So I thought to myself, “I would never accept living like this. Why should anyone else, regardless of their legal status in society?” Well, I had four extra chairs, so I took to Facebook and sent out an emergency call to others to donate. Plus, when we’re talking about asylum seekers and refugees, we’re talking about people who’ve lost everything they have: their homes, their friends and family, their country, and maybe the only thing they have left is their dignity. Who are we to take that away from them?
The response to the Facebook post was overwhelming, with people ready to donate all kinds of household goods. The only problem is, as you know, that journalists and volunteers are forbidden from visiting these shelters.
So how did you get around that rule?
Basically just by going there, and breaking this rule. When I visited, I thought, so this is why visits are forbidden: if anyone would see how they’re living there, they would have responded as I did. After seeing for myself how they’re living [at the asylum seeker shelter on Skeggjagata], I didn’t sleep for three days and cried more than I have probably in my entire life. It was horrible. Basically, there was nothing there. They had bunk beds with sheets, but that was it. They hung their clothes on nails, the curtains had been removed, they didn’t even have any shelves; they were stacking their belongings on the floor. Windows were broken, appliances were broken, there was one washing machine for 30 guys, and they used an old mattress as a common “hangout area” in lieu of a couch. I could go on.
The fact that you broke this rule was pretty extensively covered. Did UTL get in touch with you about this?
Actually, it was the other way around. Eventually, I did manage to get in touch with one woman who worked there. I wanted to know why things were like this. They didn’t seem to particularly care that I broke this rule. After a few days of work, we managed to make Skeggjagata at least bearable. Myself and a friend met a ew days later with people from UTL and the Red Cross about this, in a meeting that lasted about two hours. While they weren’t really celebrating what we did, they did acknowledge that this is a good thing. They contended that everyone who arrives to these shelters is given a package containing dishes, flatware, and other goods. That really didn’t seem like the case to me. I’m not saying that not everyone is getting these packages; but the things these packages contain were definitely missing. Plus, when you have people constantly being moved around, things get lost.
This is especially striking as this is the same office that prohibits asylum seekers from working. And it’s my understanding that they get a weekly stipend of about 10,000 krónur per week; 8,000 of which is specifically earmarked for food. So they can’t even buy this stuff if they wanted to.
Exactly. Which is another thing I don’t understand. Most people would like to work and provide for themselves, asylum seekers are no different. We all need a purpose to get up in the morning and people who can work should be allowed to work. Asylum seekers get a very low amount of money every month like you say and there is nothing left for anything extra except for food. These are things you need just to survive in this country. Also, they’re only allowed to the Red Cross shop every two months for clothes.
So on the one hand, asylum seekers are prevented from working—even though all the ones Grapevine has spoken to very much want to work—and are given a trifling stipend, while on the other hand, the institutions responsible for their care aren’t providing the necessities they need to live.
Yes. And I should stress that the Red Cross has been doing a lot of great things. But it’s true that the system is broken, and is so slow to change, that you start asking yourself, “How long are we going to wait?” I can’t wait anymore. I just have to react. But while it’s great that there are volunteers ready to step up, this is the work that these institutions are supposed to be doing. It’d be nice to be able to work with them, in some cooperative effort, but to say it politely, I’m not asking permission. We will go anyway, because we can’t accept that people are living like this.
So what other reasons did UTL give for these living conditions?
In a word: excuses. There’s not enough money, not enough staff, nobody wants to work, and so on. While the situation is understandable to an extent, we are talking about the living conditions of people and I don’t care about excuses. The system and the people working in it just need to adopt to a change in circumstances and do better. And this is before we even get into how socially isolated they are: how far away many of them live from the city centre, how they can’t have friends over, how they can’t work, how their swimming cards were taken away and they have trouble getting a bus card. They have such poor access to information as well. These are human beings we’re talking about.
This is why it bothers me when Icelandic politicians talk about “a state of emergency” in the country when we talk about asylum seekers. Proportionately speaking, Iceland accepts far fewer asylum seekers than other Nordic countries. Have you seen conditions in Aleppo? That’s what a real “state of emergency” looks like.
What will an NGO be able to do that a volunteer organisation cannot?
The reason why I wanted the next step to be an NGO is because there is clearly a lot more to be done. Skeggjagata was just one example and this isn’t a job for just one or two people. You need to be able to assess conditions in the different shelters, make sure that everyone gets what they need, and so forth. People also are willing to donate more than just things; they want to make financial donations as well. Being an NGO lets you do that, and also puts you in a stronger position to be able to push for changes. We also need a place to store these donations; my apartment is already full.
Maybe you can answer something for me that our readers ask me all the time: how can it be that, in poll after poll, the vast majority of Icelanders say they want more refugees and more progressive asylum seeker policies, and yet the government seems to be moving in the opposite direction?
I think it’s a lack of will. You’ve seen what’s been happening here over the past days and weeks with regards to asylum seekers. The cases get more difficult and tragic every week. Where is the Minister of the Interior in all this? We can’t find her. It took me three phone calls the other day just to find out who was the working Interior Minister. It’s very frustrating. These are the people who could change something, yet you hear almost nothing from members of Parliament or government ministers. They are missing from this discussion, and it’s tragic.
As you point out, it’s a loud minority who oppose changing our asylum seeker policy for the better, almost entirely from the right wing. Do you think centre-left or left-wing politicians are afraid of committing political suicide if they take up the cause of the asylum seeker?
People on the right wing are very open about their position on foreigners. People like [Independence Party MP] Ásmundur [Friðríksson] will tell you we should turn them back at the airport. He has no problem saying this, and his supporters stand strongly behind him. He is just one example and we have a political party now that focuses mainly on xenophobia, extremism and hate. The other politicians and political parties need to be much more clear in opposing such ideologies. It would help us a lot.
It’s interesting that you say that, because what I see is that the right wing has monopolised the entire discussion about asylum seekers, and I keep holding my breath waiting for a left-wing politician to refute them, and it never happens, despite a huge level of popular support for a more progressive asylum seeker policy.
To be fair, the left wing does have progressive policies regarding foreigners. The Social Democrats [where Sema hails from] submitted a proposal last year that Iceland accept more refugees. But this is just something you can read about online; it has absolutely no effect on the discussion. Nobody cares about that now, nobody is looking up the policies of the parties, we just need our politicians to stand up for more human rights and just care of other human beings, in this case asylum seekers. We who are actually working in this area… Well, you know how it is. The reaction is not always very pretty. I think that might be why not everyone is ready to jump into this pool because it means constant harassment. But in my view there is nothing more important than human rights, so I just have to deal with that. I hope more people will do the same.
Even though the vast majority of Icelanders will be on your side, it’s still a very loud minority that you’ll have to deal with then.
Yes. And I am afraid that this minority is getting bigger. New names and faces keep coming up. And they will use any chance they can to break you down, push you out of the discussion, and keep you from working on these matters. If this is the group that’s getting upset and angry, in my view, it means you must be doing something right. I understand that not everyone is ready to go in this direction, because of this ugliness, but at the same time, if you don’t do anything, then nothing is going to change.