Asylum seekers in Iceland continue to be caught in the middle of a dispute between the Icelandic state and municipalities on who should provide services to those whose applications have been rejected. Yesterday, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Labour Market announced a temporary agreement with the Icelandic Red Cross to provide emergency assistance to the group and legal changes that shift responsibility for rejected asylum seekers to municipalities. Municipal leaders have called the Ministry’s decision “one-sided” and “disappointing.”
New legislation that took effect in July strips asylum seekers in Iceland of housing and services 30 days after their application has received a final rejection. The legislation was harshly criticised by human rights associations in Iceland, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. By August, some 53 asylum seekers had been stripped of services, some ending up on the street. Asylum seekers are not stripped of services if they agree to deportation, but many in this position are unable to travel, for example due to lacking a travel document or being stateless.
State and municipalities in deadlock
While the new legislation was still being reviewed in Parliament, Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated that asylum seekers whose services and housing were withdrawn by the state would be able to seek services from municipalities according to the Social Services Act. In such cases, the municipalities can then send a bill to the state for the cost of providing the services.
Since the legislation took effect, however, municipalities in Iceland have argued that the Social Services Act does not apply to asylum seekers and that it is the state’s responsibility to provide services to the newly homeless group. Many detractors have also pointed out that requiring municipalities to provide services would cost taxpayers more than the system previously in place, with the state still footing the bill to a large extent.
Ministry makes changes to rules on reimbursements
In addition to the agreement with the Red Cross, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has also made changes to the rules on reimbursements to municipalities for services provided to asylum seekers. The changes clarify which services are eligible for reimbursement from the state treasury. According to the government notice, municipalities can receive state reimbursement for providing “accommodation and food in accordance with what is generally customary in facilities for the homeless in Iceland.”
The Icelandic Association of Local Authorities has issued a statement criticising the Ministry’s actions. “In the opinion of the Association of Local Authorities, this unilateral action by the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour is a huge disappointment, as it is taken with the Minister’s full knowledge of the municipalities’ complete opposition to this measure,” the statement reads in part. In its last board meeting, the association reiterated its position that municipalities were neither permitted nor obliged to provide financial assistance to foreign nationals who have been stripped of state services following the rejection of their application for international protection.