A Visit To Grensásvegur - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A Visit To Grensásvegur

Published July 15, 2016

Photos by
Art Bicnick

The Grapevine paid a visit to one of Reykjavík’s shelters for asylum seekers yesterday, speaking with some of the residents there about their daily lives.

Last week, Iraqi asylum seeker Raisan Al-shihmani was moved into one of Reykjavík’s shelters for asylum seekers, located on Grensásvegur. The Grapevine tagged along with about a dozen people hoping to pay him a visit, now that he is on the 17th day of his hunger strike, to check on his physical and mental state.

While residents on the same floor are free to visit each other, a security guard is the only person allowed to let people visit each other between floors.

We were greeted at the door by a security guard, who asked that neither his name nor face appear in this article. As expected, we were denied entry, as this is a part of the Directorate of Immigration’s larger policy of forbidding journalists, volunteers or even friends from visiting asylum seekers where they live. The guard told us that Raisan was, however, free to step outside and speak with us.

When guests expressed concern for Raisan’s health, the guard told us that he “checks on him regularly”, which we learned means a guard checks on him with each shift change, or about every eight hours. Guests also asked if it is true that residents at Grensásvegur cannot even visit each other between floors. While the guard said he could not comment on specific matters within the house, residents we would later speak to told us that while residents on the same floor are free to visit each other, a security guard is the only person allowed to let people visit each other between floors.

“It is strictly forbidden to bring visitors to the premises,” a sign inside the front door of Grensásvegur reads, in English. “Those who violate these rules will immediately be expelled from the house!”

In asking other residents about this policy, we learned that it is strictly enforced. Residents have been kicked out of Grensásvegur, sometimes for days at a time. With nowhere else to go, some of these asylum seekers find themselves having to sleep outside until they are allowed back in.

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Raisan soon emerged, and came outside to greet his guests. Other residents soon followed, chatting freely and openly with the guests, although most declined to be photographed or to have their names mentioned for fear of jeopardising their applications for asylum.

Raisan told us he was holding up fine enough, having lost a lot of weight, but that the medical attention he has received has been lacking. An ambulance that came to check on him merely measured his blood pressure before declaring him in fine health and departing.

A common theme that emerged in talking with the residents is the deep sense of social isolation they feel. Likening Grensásvegur to a prison was not an uncommon comparison.

In fact, The Grapevine learned that if a resident requests medical attention, the guard on duty does not call for an ambulance or a doctor directly. Rather, the guard must contact the Directorate of Immigration, and they in turn are responsible for contacting medical personnel. This has led to problems: one resident informed us that one time he had fallen down in the facility, injuring his head. He requested an ambulance, and the guard on duty at that time alerted the Directorate of Immigration. However, for whatever reason no ambulance was called. After waiting two hours, the resident was forced to call his friend to come fetch him and take him to the hospital. Furthermore, as the Directorate of Immigration alone had the authority to provide him with painkillers for his injury, he could not get them directly, and ended up waiting five days for his tablets.

Another resident The Grapevine spoke with informed us that when he arrived in Iceland, the police had demanded his mobile phone. He surrendered his phone to authorities, but in the four months since then he has yet to get it back. Police reportedly did not tell this asylum seeker what they were looking for on his phone, nor what crime he was suspected of committing to warrant searching his phone.

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Every resident expressed the desire to work, if for no other reason than to have something to do. However, asylum seekers are not issued an official Icelandic identity number (kennitala), and so are not legally permitted to work.

A common theme that emerged in talking with the residents is the deep sense of social isolation they feel. Likening Grensásvegur to a prison was not an uncommon comparison. The residents have no common area in the facility to gather and talk together, nor a kitchen to cook their food. There is no television, nor even books to read. Instead, they live two to a room (with the exception of Raisan, due to his hunger strike), and do their cooking on hobs in their rooms.

Without anything to do all day, being forbidden from receiving guests, and having restricted access even to each other within Grensásvegur, these residents are often troubled by anxiety, fear, isolation, and mind-numbing boredom.

After about two hours, the visitors said their goodbyes to the residents. The residents thanked us profusely for coming to chat. We left reluctantly, to return to our daily lives in Iceland.


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