From Iceland — Government Divided Over Mass Deportations, Bishop Publicly Opposes Them

Government Divided Over Mass Deportations, Bishop Publicly Opposes Them

Published May 25, 2022

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Timothée Lambrecq

The planned mass deportation of nearly 300 people, many of whom have been living in Iceland for two years or longer, is not only being criticised by human rights groups, activists, the parliamentary opposition and numerous others–it has also drawn criticism from the Bishop of Iceland, and some reservations from select members of the Leftist-Greens, who lead the government.

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As reported, a great many of these people are slated to be deported to Greece. This is because Greece is a first point of entry into Europe for many people seeking international protection in Iceland, and Greek authorities typically compel asylum seekers to apply for international protection in Greece or be denied entry. Upon later submitting an application for international protection in Iceland, more often than not the Directorate of Immigration [ÚTL] will cite the Dublin Regulation–an international treaty which gives signatory states the permission, although not the obligation, to deport people back to countries where they were previous granted protection. These cases are usually not examined, and so whether or not this previous protection was applied for under duress is not taken into account.

Laws “not interpreted with compassion”

Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir has condemned these deportations, saying in part that the government “interprets text [about laws and regulations] very narrowly and not with the compassion that we want to have in this country.”

The point about how the government chooses to interpret laws and regulations regarding immigrants has been raised by others. In some cases, whole parts of laws and regulations seem to be ignored.

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”.

In addition, in Chapter 4 Article 36 of the Law on Foreigners, 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.”

Left-Greens raising concerns

Minister of Social Affairs Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, a minister for the Left-Greens, has criticised Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson of the Independence Party over how these deportation cases are being handled, RÚV reports.

“We also need to consider [marginalised] groups. For example, whether there are extenuating circumstances, whether there are children who have been in Iceland for a while, possible disabled and ill. We need to especially look at the time and the special circumstances”

“I take very serious exception with the process which the minister is using in the government,” he said. “I point out that a considerable length of time has passed for some since their deportation decisions were approved. We also need to consider [marginalised] groups. For example, whether there are extenuating circumstances, whether there are children who have been in Iceland for a while, possibly disabled and ill. We need to especially look at the time and the special circumstances, and also of course the destination country. Greece has been especially mentioned.”

Conditions in Greece for those granted international protection 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”.

PM: cases could be examined

The public outcry against this mass deportation may already be having an effect. Gunnar Hörður Garðarsson, a spokesperson for the National Commissioner of the Police, told Vísir that some of the families slated for deportation have been informed over the past few weeks and even days that their cases are now going to be examined. Most recently, a woman who is eight months pregnant, and was slated for deportation has been amongst those spared.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir added that the government has intervened in deportation cases in the past, but would not comment on whether she believed it likely that the government would do so in this instance.

“We have at times intervened due to conditions of a place, there is precedent for this,” she said. “But it is always an independent assessment in each case. So this is in other words being examined.” She also repeated much of what Guðmundur Ingi said regarding how long some of these people have been in Iceland, “who have children in school and such. So we need to look at this from the position of the rights of the child as well.”

Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does specifically state: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Whether the mass deportation plan will go forward still remains to be seen.

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