In light of recent reports on the treatment of refugees in Iceland, the Red Cross has offered harsh criticisms of the Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL) and contends that some of their practices may even be illegal. For their part, ÚTL says they are bound by current law and regulations, but some of their contentions raise serious questions.
As reported, 14 refugees, most of them from Palestine, have been evicted from refugee housing for not assisting in their own deportations to Greece from Iceland by taking a pre-deportation COVID screening. They have furthermore been stripped of their pre-paid grocery store cards and denied medical care.
These refugees are not legally allowed to work, and as they have no Icelandic identity number, they cannot admit themselves to a homeless shelter nor book their own doctor’s appointments. The matter has sparked concerted criticism in the general public that has reached all the way to the halls of Parliament as being unethical at best, and possibly illegal.
One of those of the opinion that ÚTL is possibly breaking the law with these practices are the Icelandic Red Cross. Áshilldur Linnet, a team leader at the Red Cross, told reporters that there is no law that gives authorities the power to force someone to take a PCR test. She contends furthermore that conditions in Greece—even for those granted protection in that country—are inhumane, as the refugee system in that country is overfilled and resources are scant at best. Áshilldur further confirmed that they have filed at least one appeal to the Immigration Appeals Board, and are now exploring whether or not it is legal to evict refugees from housing.
Does the pandemic matter or not?
Íris Kristinsdóttir, division manager of the protections division of ÚTL, told reporters that “It is the position of the Directorate that COVID on its own is not grounds for taking someone’s case up for substantial review,” referring to the fact that many of these applications for international protection in Iceland are not examined on their merits.
However, lawyer Albert Björn Lúðvígsson pointed out to the Grapevine that ÚTL had ceased all deportations to Greece in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic situation in that country. As can be seen in coronavirus data on Greece, daily new coronavirus cases have increased dramatically since the spring of 2020.
Íris also contended that those granted protection in Greece do enjoy certain rights, such as the ability to look for work and travel in Europe. However, unemployment in Greece is currently 16% for January 2021. Further, Albert has pointed out that “protection” in Greece is all but negligible.
“Individuals coming from Greece who are still in the asylum process and fall under the Dublin Regulation have some support in Greece,” he told us. “The UN and the EU have programmes for them. When you get protection in Greece, you lose all that support. So what is very common for individuals coming from Greece is that they were receiving some assistance as asylum seekers. They received some allowance and could live in crowded refugee camps. At least they had a tent or a roof over their heads and could seek some basic medical assistance. But when they receive protection, they lose these few services they had. All the documents and reports we have, and have submitted to the Icelandic authorities, show that most recognised refugees with protection in Greece live on the streets. We call it ‘protection without protection’.”
What the law says
That said, Íris was correct in pointing out that ÚTL is bound by law—specifically, Chapter 4 Article 36 of the Law on Foreigners—that applications for international protection are not examined if the applicant has received international protection in another country. However, this article also says that a case should be examined on the basis of Article 42, which states that if the country where an applicant would be deported to would subject the applicant to “overwhelming danger of loss of life or inhumane or degrading treatment”, then the applicants case should be examined.
On that note, the atrocities and hardships in Greek refugee camps are well-documented. The fact that those granted protection are cut off from services, and more often than not end up homeless and subjected to violence is also a matter of public record. In fact, that second report, published in November 2020, expressly states: “A number of international and national courts have already held that the living conditions of asylum-seekers and recognised refugees alike in Greece are so dire that they are capable of amounting to ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.”
How this matter will play out, whether in Parliament or at the Immigration Appeals Board, as yet remains to be seen.
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