From Iceland — Just How "Safe" Are The "Safe Countries" People Seek Asylum From?

Just How “Safe” Are The “Safe Countries” People Seek Asylum From?

Published December 19, 2016

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Asylum seekers from Macedonia and Albania have become a flashpoint in the discussion about asylum seekers in Iceland. Some Icelandic politicians have talked of a “stream” of asylum seekers coming to Iceland, and Macedonians and Albanians comprise the largest shares of any nationalities seeking asylum in Iceland. The Minister of the Interior has said that there are “no conditions” for granting asylum to people from these countries, as they are considered “safe” countries, but this raises the question: just how safe are these countries?

Former politicians from the left and the right have talked about a “stream” of asylum seekers coming to Iceland from Macedonia and Albania. While it is true that Albanians and Macedonians are the largest individual nationalities seeking asylum in Iceland, context matters – as this graphic from Haukur Már Helgasson shows, these people comprise a tiny sliver of people coming to Iceland overall, so there is a strong argument that could be made that depicting this traffic as a “stream” of people might be overstating it.

Minister of the Interior Ólöf Nordal also told reporters furthermore that there were “no conditions” by which people from Macedonia or Albania could be granted asylum in Iceland, as these countries are both considered “safe”. However, recent history and the assessments of international human rights watchdogs suggest there is more nuance to the matter than the Minister suggests.

For example, there is last year’s story about two families from Albania, both with chronically ill young children, who were initially denied asylum in Iceland on the grounds that Albania is not a war-torn country. UTL director Kristín Völundardóttir – who has in the past compared asylum seekers to tourists looking for free lodging and food – discussed the matter in an interview with RÚV, saying that both families were deported on the grounds that the families could just as easily receive adequate health care in Albania. Ultimately, it was determined that the children did not, in fact, have adequate access to health care in their home countries. They were then granted asylum, and awarded citizenship.

More recently, an asylum seeker who set himself on fire and later died from his injuries, despite repeated calls for help from him and his associates, hailed from Macedonia. This is not a smoking gun in itself, but there are other indications that shed light on why someone might seek asylum from Macedonia or Albania.

Amnesty International has raised sharp criticism against both Macedonia and Albania for human rights abuses. Specifically, Macedonia is accused of having a deeply corrupt government which engages in widespread surveillance of its populace, with attacks against journalists and LGBT+ people especially noted. Albania is in even worse shape, as severe restrictions on freedom of expression, political disappearances, violence against women and girls, and torture are widespread.

In fact, Human Rights Watch has raised grave concerns about the western Balkans region in general, saying that freedom of expression is greatly curtailed in these countries, and government reprisals against political opponents are commonplace.

With all this mind, both the recent history of asylum seeker cases pertaining to Albania and Macedonia, as well as international reports on both these countries, show that there is more to the story of how “safe” these countries are. This also raises the possibility that people seeking asylum from these countries should have their individual cases examined, rather than be denied asylum automatically.


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