From Iceland — Justice Minister's Claims About Asylum Seekers In Iceland Questionable

Justice Minister’s Claims About Asylum Seekers In Iceland Questionable

Published October 12, 2022

Andie Sophia Fontaine
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Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson intends to submit a bill to Parliament that would make a number of changes to the Law on Foreigners, RÚV reports, in response to what he called an “out of control” asylum seeker system. In arguing for making stricter guidelines for asylum seekers, he made a number of contentions which, on further examination, do not entirely hold up to scrutiny.

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Who has the highest proportion of asylum seekers?

Jón argued that the acceptance system for asylum seekers is too open, that these people “sail into our legal environment, which means that the problem is as great as it actually is here.” Explaining further what he means by this, the Minister said: “we actually have more generous rules here for those people who are looking to the country for [international protection], which means that it draws more people here than proportionally come to other countries.”

According to data from the European Union, Iceland does not in fact draw more asylum seekers proportionally than other countries–Cyprus, Malta and Greece bear that distinction, as of 2020.

If the Minister was referring to asylum seekers from Ukraine–and there have been about 2,000 applications for asylum from Ukraine from the start of this year–the country with the greatest number of asylum seekers from that country, per capita, is Moldova.

Special allowances?

The Minister also contended that Iceland’s international protection system “grants far more rights” than other countries. While he did not specify what rights those were, to take one example, many European countries grant asylum seekers the right to work at some point while their applications are pending. Iceland does not (in most cases, see footnote below). In terms of monetary allowances for food, hygiene products and other necessities, Iceland grants about €56 per week. Other major asylum seeker destination countries grant less than this, but Iceland does have the third highest cost of living in Europe, and again, does not grant most asylum seekers the right to work while their applications are being processed.

Asylum seeker shelters

The Minister also asserted that “we do not have special welcoming centres where we accept people but rather people go right out into society”. It is not clear what is meant by this, as Iceland does indeed have numerous asylum seeker shelters that have very strict rules in terms of who may live there, what they can do there, and even who may visit. Many asylum seekers will spend months, or over a year, living in these shelters while their applications are being processed and reviewed.

In terms of solely Ukrainian asylum seekers, they as well have temporary shelters where they live while their applications are processed or housing is being sought.

Are false passports a major problem?

The Minister added that “there are people coming to the country with newly issued passports from countries that are in a whole other region than whether [the applicant] is from.”

While it is not illegal for an asylum seeker to arrive in Iceland with no identification or false papers, data from the National Commissioner of the Police shows that only 54 asylum seekers presented falsified ID documentation last year; 21 in 2020–and even then most of these people were on their way to other countries; not Iceland–and 47 in 2019. According to the Suðurnes police, only 14 arrivals have presented falsified ID documentation this year and 53 without any papers at all.

The Minister has said that he will submit a bill this month proposing stricter changes to the Law on Foreigners where asylum seekers are concerned, saying, “We have to respond to this in some way, we cannot let this continue out of control like it is today.”

On asylum seekers’ working: Most asylum seekers do not have the right to work in Iceland. However, there are exceptions. Asylum seekers whose cases are not subject to the Dublin Regulation are allowed to work if their cases are undergoing “substantive review”. However, to do so, they must work without an Icelandic identity number (kennitala), and only under the sponsorship of an Icelandic employer to provide a temporary work permit – and they cannot start working until that permit is approved. This means that even amongst those asylum seekers whose cases do not pertain to the Dublin Regulation – and many, if not most, do – their options are extremely limited, the process is time consuming, and the lack of a kennitala usually also means the inability to open an Icelandic bank account, while drastically lowers their chances of being hired in the first place.

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