Intense debate is still ongoing in Parliament following recent news that Iceland plans to deport some 300 people from the country. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has repeatedly stated that the government is only following the law but, as many have pointed out, the law also does not compel these planned deportations, and in fact gives the government the power to grant international protection to those who apply for it.
As reported, a great many of these people who applied for international protection in Iceland have been in the country for two years or longer. Although their cases had been rejected by the Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL), their deportations were delayed due to the pandemic, and due to many of them refusing to submit to COVID testing prior to deportation. This is because of the deplorable conditions for refugees in Greece–even for those granted international protection there.
For many seeking international protection in Europe, Greece is the first point of arrival on the continent, and Greek authorities offer these arrivals a choice: apply for international protection in Greece, or be denied entry. For this reason, many people opt to apply for protection in Greece, even if they have no intention of staying in the country.
Upon arrival in Iceland, ÚTL more often than not judges applications for international protection on the grounds of whether or not the applicant has been granted international protection elsewhere; if so, their cases are usually summarily rejected without examination. ÚTL and the Ministry of Justice often refer to 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, as the justification for doing so.
Which part of the law do we follow?
However, as Red Cross director Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir pointed out, the Icelandic government does not apply the Dublin Agreement properly in focusing solely on the ability to deport people. In fact, the Dublin Regulation outlines numerous rights that are supposed to be afforded to asylum seekers, including but not limited to “guarantees for minors (including a detailed description of the factors that should lay at the basis of assessing a child’s best interests) and extended possibilities of reunifying them with their relatives” and “an obligation to guarantee the right to appeal a transfer decision before a court or tribunal”.
Within Icelandic law, there is the Law on Foreigners. In Chapter 4 Article 36 of this law, the second to last paragraph of this article 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.”
“Inhuman or degrading treatment” could arguably apply to what awaits these asylum seekers in Greece, as numerous international bodies have attested.
How bad is it in Greece?
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.”
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”.
The government can, in fact, let them stay
As those seeking international protection in Iceland are compelled to apply for asylum in Greece upon arrival in Europe–and so their applications in Greece are effectively made under duress–and because of the conditions that await them in Greece, the deportations themselves are dubious and possibly in contravention to Icelandic and international law.
Iceland has also granted people asylum on humanitarian grounds. This has been pointed out by the Icelandic Red Cross, the parliamentary opposition, and the Icelandic Councilors Association, all of whom have asked the government to reconsider these deportations.
Sema Erla Sedar, the chair of the human rights group Solaris, also told Vísir that there is nothing stopping the Minister of Justice from stopping these deportations and granting all of these people protection.
“It is in fact a political decision to not [grant them protection],” she told reporters. “We have seen that it is possible to act with the stroke of a pen, as the Minister of Justice did when war broke out in Europe, and it is very possible to do it today.”
For the time being, the matter is still being hotly debated in Parliament. Whether the deportations will go forward remains to be seen.
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