The Icelandic government is preparing to deport some 300 people from the country who applied for international protection in Iceland over two years ago. A great many of these of these people will be sent to Greece on spurious grounds and with questionable legality. The plan is being strongly objected to by the Red Cross, the parliamentary opposition, and others.
Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has defended the move, saying that these people are in the country illegally; their cases were rejected by the Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL) and would have been deported sooner, but the pandemic prevented this from happening. He added that many of these asylum seekers prevented their deportations by refusing to submit to a coronavirus screening.
The parliamentary opposition, amongst others, have pointed out flaws in the Minister’s argument.
Conditions in Greece
“They are pulling up people by the roots and sending them out onto the streets in Greece,” Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson, an MP for the Social Democrats, said in Parliament yesterday, referring to the fact that many of these people have made lives for themselves in Iceland. “This is just completely unacceptable and we must not allow it to happen, that’s just how it is.”
Many have pointed out that Iceland is already facing a drastic labour shortage, needing 9,000 people just for the tourism market alone, making deporting hundreds who have established lives in the country seem questionable. Documented cases of conditions that refugees face in Greece is another matter.
Conditions in Greece, for asylum seekers and refugees alike, are well-documented. For one example of many, a report from November 2020, ‘Report on the Living Conditions of Beneficiaries of International Protection in Greece’, paints a damning picture of conditions in that country, stating in part: “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’ under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 4 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, or Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and therefore prevent the return of persons to the country in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement.”
As such, these deportations to Greece may be in contravention to Icelandic law and international agreements alike. Personal testimonies of the experience of being a refugee in Greece have shed more light on conditions there, with one lawyer characterising refugee treatment in Greece as “protection without protection”.
Questions of how the cases were judged
ÚTL has responded to the prevalent public outcry against deportations to Greece by telling the press that their hands are tied; that the law actually prevents them from examining the asylum applications of anyone coming from a country where they were already granted international protection, barring special circumstances. This refers to Chapter 4 Article 36 of the Law on Foreigners, which concerns international protection.
However, refugees arriving in Greece are forced to apply for asylum there, even if they have no intention of stating in the country. Furthermore, there are exceptions to Chapter 4 Article 36. The second to last paragraph of this very same article also says: “If the application of [the first paragraph of Article 36] would lead to a violation of Article 42, e.g. due to circumstances in the country to which the applicant is to be sent, the application shall be considered.” Article 42 expressly states: “According to this Act, it is not permitted to send a foreigner or a stateless person to an area where he has reason to fear persecution … or due to circumstances similar to those in the refugee concept, are in imminent danger of dying or being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The Red Cross strongly objects
Apart from the parliamentary opposition, the Icelandic Red Cross has also objected to the mass deportation plan, primarily on two grounds.
First of all, as Red Cross director Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir pointed out, the Icelandic government is effectively engaging in discrimination based on nationality, which contradicts the country’s constitution. She also pointed out that the Icelandic government is not properly applying the so-called Dublin Agreement, an international agreement which gives signatory states the right–although not the obligation–to return asylum seekers back to their previous point of departure.
“It was established to ensure that applicants for international protection received substantial review of their cases,” she said. “We use it to send people back to the first country [they departed from] because we have the right, but not the obligation.”
Secondly, as Red Cross spokesperson Brynhildur Bolladóttir pointed out, conditions for refugees in Greece are still far from satisfactory. Furthermore, Þórunn Ólafsdóttir, who has worked in Greece with refugees, has added that they are made to live in inhumane conditions.
“It is well known that people who received international protection there live on the street,” she said. “They are last in line when it comes to housing and employment. Even children are raised on the street and in tent camps. There is exactly nothing safe about being in Greece [as a refugee].”
Whether the government will go through these deportations still remains to be seen.
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