The history of asylum seekers in Iceland is short. So short that only a decade ago one could count those who were granted asylum on the fingers of one hand. In 1992, Ragnheiður Elfa Þorsteinsdóttir published an article about asylum in Iceland in Úlfljótur, a journal for law students, where she revealed that not a single person had been granted asylum in Iceland.
She guessed that the reason was fear, on behalf of the Icelandic authorities, of creating precedence which could lead to an increase in applications for international protection. Iceland’s refugee policy was isolationist in the sense that it aimed to deter people from seeking international protection in the country.
Although much has changed in the past 30 years, this isolationist policy is still in effect, albeit in another form. The policy is not solely aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching the country, but also to isolate those who live in Iceland from their local community. In this article, I trace a few recent manifestations of this policy, such as measures that seem taken in good faith, but all have the same purpose, to make it as easy as possible to deport asylum seekers.
There are various reasons for this change of tactics. There are more people seeking international protection than before. The abolishment of border control within Europe has made it easier for applicants for international protection to travel to Iceland, usually via a third country. Iceland’s geographical location makes it hard to reach as there are usually no direct flights from countries outside Europe or North America.
The Icelandic authorities have relied heavily on the Dublin Regulation which states that the first European country that asylum seekers arrive in is obliged to process their application. These provisions are meant to ensure that all applicants receive due process in one European country, not necessarily the country of entry as other states can choose to process applications in its place.
It has been pointed out that Iceland chooses to interpret the Dublin Regulation literally, but nowhere does the regulation state a ban for a secondary European country to process asylum applications, but Iceland chooses only to do so in very few cases.
The Icelandic authorities’ strict asylum policy has, understandably, caused dissatisfaction among applicants for international protection and their families, especially when people in a vulnerable position bear the brunt of its consequences. The deportation of school-aged children has caused conflicts between the authorities and the children’s schoolmates, teachers, and other school staff, who have protested the deportation and advocated for their friends and students.
In the summer of 2019, the schoolmates of a child who was to be deported marched to a crowded protest rally where they spoke out against the authorities’ refusal to give the child international protection and the decision to deny the child a refugee status in Iceland. They pointed out that their friend’s deportation would go against Article 3 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, which states that the best interests of the child shall be of primary concern in all actions concerning children.
There is a positive ending to this particular story. The child and its family were allowed to stay in Iceland, like a few other children that have had advocates within the school system, NGOs, or elsewhere. It was therefore ironic that in the spring of 2019, at the same time children were fighting against the deportation of their classmate, it became clear that city authorities in Reykjavík were establishing a support department for the children among applicants for international protection.
Today, all primary school-aged applicants are gathered in this institution, under the assumption that they are being provided with extra services. At the same time, these provisions serve to cut their ties to their local communities, but it has precisely been people from the local schools that have advocated for these children. The support department is supposed to be a temporary solution until the children can join their local schools, but at the same time, the city assumes, correctly, that most of the children do not stay in Iceland for long.
It makes one wonder if many of the children will be deported before their local communities have had a chance to step in and use their resources to influence the national authorities’ decisions about their international protection. That by removing children who are applicants for international protection from their local schools, they are made invisible to the people who are most likely to advocate for them.
The support department for school-aged children is far from the only provision to isolate applicants for international protection in recent years. The Directorate of Immigration has, for instance, done all it can to marginalize the applicants both geographically and socially by housing them in reception centres, either outside or on the outskirts of the capital area. From 2010 the applicants lived in the guesthouse Fit in Reykjanesbær but from around 2015 they have been housed in Arnarholt in Kjalarnes, Víðines on the outskirts of Mosfellsbær or in Ásbrú in Reykjanesbær.
Everywhere the story is the same. The asylum seekers complain about isolation, sporadic public transport, and distance from their social networks. Additionally, there has been an absolute ban on all visits to these centres.
A similar ban in Hungary has been declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. Here we have one more example of how Icelandic public institutions try to ensure that members of this sensitive social group are marginalized by providing housing in inaccessible places and banning all visits.
In the past year, the Icelandic authorities have gone even further in their marginalizing efforts. Here I would like to introduce the so-called 19th -article cases, which are a series of indictments against seven young individuals who have been active in protests against the hostile treatment of asylum seekers in Iceland.
The people in question are both Icelandic and of foreign origin but have a voice in society, through the activist group No Borders Iceland for example, and can reach both the public and authorities when advocating for applicants for international protection. The seven were arrested during protest rallies in March and April 2019 for the violation of article 19 of the police code which states that members of the public are obliged to comply with police commands when directing traffic or maintaining law and order in public.
The article does not include any provisions about the fairness, lawfulness, or legitimacy of the commands. In reality, it provides an open licence for the authorities to prosecute people for standing on a curb, or sitting on a floor as they did in the case of the seven protesters discussed here.
What is unusual about the 19th article cases, in comparison with other similar cases, is that the protesters are prosecuted on an individual basis, but not as a group, which has hitherto been more common. It means that the legal process takes more time, they take more of an emotional toll on the prosecuted and that legal fees increase sevenfold.
By trying each person individually, the prosecutor obviously wants the legal process to have both individual and social consequences, especially for young adults who have persistently advocated for refugees in Iceland. The seven are kept occupied with defending themselves in a court of law, spending the energy they usually have to fight for others. The prosecutions further send a clear message to young people, that they shall not dare advocate for those most marginalized in our society.
We have here seen many different examples of how Icelandic authorities, both the state and municipalities have taken steps to marginalize and isolate applicants for international protection, both socially and geographically. Literally, by housing the applicants in isolated places, and figuratively, by severing ties with other community members with separate institutions for school-aged applicants or lawsuits against supporters.
It does not matter if these marginalizing measures are deliberate or intended as increased support, like the Reykjavík support department for children. The consequences are the same. Marginalization places people at a higher risk of violence, social isolation can be detrimental to mental health and the list goes on. Despite the risk, authorities in Iceland have taken deliberate measures to isolate applicants for international support from their local communities and sever already existing ties to other community members, in an effort to make deportations as easy as possible.
Because who advocates for you when no one knows that you exist.