From Iceland — Why Does This Keep Happening? A Closer Look At The Directorate Of Immigration

Why Does This Keep Happening? A Closer Look At The Directorate Of Immigration

Published October 5, 2016

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Grapevine has reported on many asylum seeker deportation stories over the years. We’ve reported on how their treatment at the hands of the Directorate of Immigration (UTL) has often been in violation of international and domestic law, and how the Directorate has at times made decisions that went against the opinions of the authorities that are supposed to be supervising them. Time and again, the question our readers most often ask in response is, “How do they get away with it?”

As we delved deeper into the system, and spoke with the people who work within it, what we found is an institution that all involved — whether in the courts, in Parliament, or within UTL’s partner offices themselves — agree is at the very least in need of some serious reform. UTL’s policies and practices place an inordinate amount of emphasis on keeping people out or sending them away, and those who have to deal with UTL — including not just immigrants but also lawyers, volunteers and lawmakers — express both frustration and confusion with UTL and the system that enables them to act with near impunity.

So what exactly is wrong with UTL, and how can it be fixed?

It all starts with Dublin

To understand how UTL can deport someone without even opening their case for asylum, we need to start with the Dublin Regulation. As a person’s asylum application follows its path from UTL, the Immigration Appeals Board and then the courts, it is not uncommon to see this regulation evoked. This regulation is a complicated international agreement, but the interpretation frequently favoured by UTL is that the agreement gives signatory countries the authority to deport asylum seekers back to their previous point of departure within most of Europe. As such, the Dublin Regulation can be employed, and very frequently is, to reject cases and deport people without even examining if their cases have merit.


However, UTL’s use of the regulation is selective. Helga Vala Helgadóttir, a lawyer who worked on asylum seeker cases for five years, points out that even the Dublin Regulation itself states that governments must look into an asylum seeker application to see if there are special circumstances that merit further examination. Helga was at a loss to explain why UTL does not open these files, nor how they can get away with it.

Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, a member of Parliament for the Pirate Party, has been one of the few MPs vocally in favour of reforming UTL. He believes the tendency of UTL to lean more towards keeping people out, rather than trying to help people come in, can be attributed to a number of factors.

“It appears to me that different elements of the system have radically different views on how it actually works,” he told us. “Being in Parliament in particular, we often hear things in committee meetings which fit our understanding of the law, but then don’t seem to match the reality. In one way this is inevitable, because this is a system designed to take into account an extremely wide category of personal circumstances and there is really no hard limit on just how unique a case can be. In other words, I believe that it’s partly a reflection of the fact that it’s a system that tries to fit the concept of ‘people’ into a very small and strictly defined, neat little box. That’s bound to create problems in interpretation, especially because different institutions serve completely different roles and see these cases from wildly different points of view.”

“It seems like all parts of the system are absolutely terrified of establishing any kind of precedent that they perceive as a catalyst for some sort of flood of people.”

Adding to this, Helgi says, UTL is “not only underfunded but also understaffed, undertrained and undermanaged, which is a systemic problem.”

The system eats itself

The increasing workload of UTL is something the institution has been diligent in reporting. For those working inside the system, this can mean taking on tasks they were never meant to perform.

“We were originally supposed to help [asylum seekers] out with filling out various forms, making CVs, applying for jobs, checking out classes, using the bus, applying for a kennitala, opening up bank accounts and helping them with their Icelandic,” Icelandic Red Cross volunteer and former Grapevine staffer Hrefna Björg Gylfadóttir told us. “Everything that’s a bit harder for people living in Iceland who don’t speak Icelandic. After a few months of work though we found that almost all of our time was dedicated to helping them find housing. We of course hope that things in the rental market might get better but that might be a naive way of thinking.”

Indeed, the Icelandic Red Cross has their plates full when it comes to the work they do with UTL, and Helga Vala underlines a number of problems with this partnership.

“Two years ago, the Interior Minister decided to put all the legal assistance on the Red Cross,” she says. “That was a huge issue at the time, because it is very strange that an asylum seeker cannot have an independent lawyer. Red Cross branches in other countries actually forbid their employees from taking up individual cases, but they do it here.”

She and lawyer Ragnar Aðalsteinsson gave their opinion of the Ministry’s plan, but their advice against the move went unheeded. The Lawyers’ Association asked for notification if the Ministry planned on taking further steps; instead, the Ministry simply made this deal with the Red Cross. The Red Cross gets a significant amount of funding from the Ministry, and received “a huge sum” for this new deal, which she said could be accurately described as a conflict of interest. She likened the move to any government institution moving services over to another charity organisation, and asking them to bear the burden of the casework.

“I’m not saying the lawyers aren’t qualified,” Helga emphasised. “It has nothing to do with that. But from August 2014 to December 2015 we didn’t hear a word from the Red Cross about how bad the situation was. It seemed like the Red Cross lawyers weren’t allowed to talk because it was a huge difference from what it used to be. And as we know, the few cases we’ve been able to turn around have been because of how the lawyer fought.”

Helga underlines this point by saying that when lawyers do speak up and talk to the media about asylum seeker cases, it can make things “very uncomfortable” for the Minister. Nonetheless, attempting to appeal your case after the Directorate and the Appeals Board have rejected you can be very expensive, seriously curtailing an asylum seeker’s legal right to counsel—as outlined in Iceland’s agreement with the United Nations, and in immigration law.

Conflict of interest

Helga also points out that conflict of interest is a significant part of the process.

“First, asylum seekers don’t get a permit to stay in Iceland while their case is being taken to court,” she said. “Rather, we lawyers have to ask the Immigration Appeals Board [if the asylum seeker can stay in Iceland while the case is being heard]. That’s the same office that made the decision to deport the asylum seeker in the first place. It’s like if you wanted to sue me, but you had to ask my permission to sue me.”

When compared with global results, Icelanders as a whole were more likely to accept refugees living near or even with them.

In addition, the office which approves or rejects applications for legal funding assistance, Gjafsóknarnefnd, also operates under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior.

Lawyers are also caught in the crossfire, as they often feel reluctant to speak to the media about the asylum seeker cases they handle. As one lawyer, who did not want to be identified, had told us, these legal representatives still have to meet with UTL officials and related authorities, face to face, to try and make some kind of progress and get their clients asylum. As a result, lawyers are often unwilling to openly criticise UTL in the media.

UTL: out of step with the Icelandic public

One could be forgiven for thinking that UTL is just acting in accordance with what the Icelandic public wants. This, however, is not the case.

According to a survey conducted by Maskína on behalf of Amnesty International in Iceland last month, 85.5% of Icelanders said they welcomed more refugees coming here, with 74% saying they believe Icelandic authorities should do more to help those who are fleeing war and persecution.

In fact, in response to the statement, “Refugees who are fleeing war and persecution should be able to seek asylum in other countries,” 84.6% of Icelanders said they agreed, compared to the global average of 73%.

Most striking of all, however, was how Icelanders felt about living near or even with refugees.

According to the results, 12.7% said they were ready to let refugees live in their homes; 52.2% said they approved of the idea of refugees living in their neighbourhoods. When compared with global results, Icelanders as a whole were more likely to accept refugees living near or even with them, while elsewhere in the world, respondents viewed refugees living in their country more positively if the refugees in question lived far away from the respondents.

So if the Icelandic public wants Icelandic authorities to do more, but they continue to do less, what explains the disconnect?

Where does it all go wrong?

In the course of his work in Parliament, Helgi Hrafn has come to understand a number of other roadblocks to real progress where UTL is concerned.

“It seems like all parts of the system (including the Immigration Appeals Board) are absolutely terrified of establishing any kind of precedent that they perceive as a catalyst for some sort of a flood of people,” he told us. “That’s my general impression with the whole system, not just UTL. The system also needs more money, because of the circumstances of our present world, and the authorities need to face that fact instead of acting like they’re going to save money by just being more strict and difficult, or simply streamlining rejections. The process will continue to cost more money because there are more applications, not because too many applications are actually approved. The rejections also cost money; in fact, some argue that the Dublin cases are the most expensive ones even though they almost invariably result in deportation.”

To some extent, this attitude within UTL’s walls may be a reflection of populist sentiment stirred up by some members of Parliament against the spectre of refugees, or simply a lack of political will. The will to change is something Helgi believes is difficult to gauge.

“It would be easier for everyone, for the whole system, if they were just allowed to work. Instead of doing that, we import workers who don’t have any rights in Iceland, don’t pay taxes, and don’t stay in this country. It’s absurd.”

“It’s hard to see which points of view are more popular and which are simply expressed louder,” he says. “I think a lot of people fear ‘the flood’; a million people moving to Iceland the moment that we stop using every conceivable way to keep them out. But first and foremost, people generally have no idea about how the system actually works. People generally seem to think that the system is already very liberal, which it isn’t, and that any kind of liberalization will open up the floodgates to anyone and everyone in the world without limit. Neither is the case, although it is worthy to mention that 500 million people can already move here because of the EEA agreement. No one seems to have a problem with that, only with people from outside of EEA being allowed to. That said, I think political support for reform needs to be based on realism. We can’t just remove the borders, for example. We should definitely move to liberalize the law, but that’s a far cry from removing the borders. It seems that people have a tendency to think in extremes when it comes to the subject. One is expected to either want tougher borders or their complete removal. Those who oppose liberalization don’t seem to distinguish between ‘more people than we currently accept’ vs. ‘complete removal of border control and a flood of terrorists and losers.’ A lot of people seem to think that liberalization is a word for complete loss of control and the abolishment of law.”

So what kind of change do we need in UTL?

It might be relatively easy to point out the problems within the UTL and the system that surrounds it. But what kind of changes for the better does Iceland need?

Based on her experience working within the system, Helga put forward an idea echoed by countless asylum seekers: the right to work.

“We should allow more asylum applicants to work while we wait,” she says. “Why? Because it’s good for us. They would pay taxes. They wouldn’t have to get financial support from us. Their quality of life would be better. It would be easier for everyone, for the whole system, if they were just allowed to work. Instead of doing that, we import workers who don’t have any rights in Iceland, don’t pay taxes, and don’t stay in this country. It’s absurd.”

The notion is certainly backed up by all available data. The average age of the Icelandic population is getting older. About 10% of Icelanders are over the age of 70, and that number is projected to reach 20% by 2050. Someone has to pay those pensions. Business Iceland CEO Þorsteinn Víglundsson has gone so far as to say that an increase in immigration will be necessary for a growing economy.

When asked what kind of policy towards asylum seekers he would like to see in his “Ideal Iceland,” Helgi was candid.

“One that fundamentally recognizes human beings as valuable to society, with restrictions intended to prevent specific problems, as opposed to restrictions for the sake of restrictions,” he told us. “A system that has reasonable safeguards without a specific emphasis on rejecting as many as possible. A good welcoming mechanism which makes it as easy as possible for people to partake in the native society, not just linguistically but also economically and socially. A system that recognizes human freedom as an inherently good thing.”

Until such time as any of these changes come into play, the Grapevine and other media in Iceland will have to continue reporting on deportations. And the real human lives behind the decisions of bureaucrats will continue to be stripped of all hope; unfortunate victims of a system that is overworked, underdeveloped, and lacking in any form of effective oversight.

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