From Iceland — Are Asylum Seeker Shelters Really Like Prisons?

Are Asylum Seeker Shelters Really Like Prisons?

Published July 22, 2016

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

During our visit to the asylum seeker shelter at Grensásvegur, many of the residents there compared the place to a prison. This naturally raised the question: how does this shelter compare to Icelandic prisons, anyway? What about asylum seeker shelters in general?

Fortunately, the Icelandic prison administration outlines in detail on their official site just what kinds of rights and privileges Icelandic prisoners are afforded. We also confirmed these details with an official from the prison system. What we found is that, in fact, if these asylum seekers were convicts in an Icelandic prison, they would actually have more rights and privileges than they do in Grensásvegur, and many other shelters.

By way of a point-by-point comparison, here is what we found:

Receiving guests:
Prison: Family may visit weekly; friends no more than twice a month, unless special circumstances arise. Those in “open prisons” can receive weekly visits from friends and family if circumstances allow.
Asylum seeker shelters: No visitors allowed, whether friends or volunteers. Government officials may visit if granted express permission from the Directorate of Immigration.

Common areas:
Prison: Prisoners do their cooking in a common kitchen, where they can meet and socialise with one another.
Grensásvegur: There is no common area. Cooking is done in individual rooms. Asylum seekers who live on the same floor may visit each other, but those on different floors need a security guard’s escort. Other asylum seeker shelters do have common areas.

Daily activities:
Prison: All prisoners are entitled by law to take part in hobbies, exercise and sports as a part of their daily lives.
Asylum seeker shelters: No such services are provided by these shelters. In fact, asylum seeker dorms that have opened at Bífröst University grant asylum seekers access to the library, but prohibit them from using the gym, hot pots or laundry rooms there.

Work and education:
Prison: Prisoners may attend classes or actively work, sometimes even outside prison grounds, provided they meet the necessary requirements to do so.
Asylum seeker shelters: Asylum seekers are prohibited by law from working, as they are not issued an Icelandic identity number (kennitala). No classes are provided by immigration authorities.

Health care:
Prison: All prisoners are granted access to health care workers, including psychologists and addiction specialists, may see a prison chaplain, and may be visited by the Red Cross and prison authorities.
Asylum seeker shelters: Personal testimony The Grapevine has received from asylum seekers, and the personal testimony of Icelandic health care workers, has shown that asylum seeker access to health care is complicated and spotty at best.

Naturally, the one big difference is that asylum seekers may leave their shelters during the day with little obstruction save for possible curfews, but Icelandic prisoners may, under special conditions and circumstances, also leave the grounds if they qualify to do so. At the same time, Icelandic prisoners have considerably more services and privileges afforded to them than asylum seekers.

UPDATE: An alert reader pointed out to the Grapevine that the residency conditions for asylum seekers in Iceland may be in violation of international law; specifically, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. As per Article 21:

“As regards housing, the Contracting States, in so far as the matter is regulated by laws or regulations or is subject to the control of public authorities, shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances.”

And Article 26:

“Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances.”

Shown above: A security guard at Grensásvegur greets The Grapevine and guests. Face obscured by request.

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