Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Helgi Magnús Gunnarsson has come under fire for comments he made on his Facebook page concerning asylum seekers who apply for international protection in Iceland on the basis of their sexuality. Vísir reports that the comments were made in the wake of an interview with lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva, who said he believed the incident reflected consistent governmental bias, namely that the government routinely assumed that asylum seekers were lying about their sexuality in their applications.
‘Is there any shortage of gays in Iceland?’
In the interview, lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva revealed that the government accused his client of lying about his sexuality and had refused him asylum on that basis. Helgi asserted that the accusation was indicative of a pattern of unfounded accusations and asylum application rejections and indeed, the district court later reversed the government’s decision in his client’s favour. The interview, which was published by Vísir on Thursday, was shared on Facebook by Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Helgi Magnús.
“Of course they are lying,” wrote Helgi Magnús in a now-removed post on his Facebook page. “Most people come here in search of more money and a better life. Who wouldn’t lie to save themselves? Apart from that, is there any shortage of gays in Iceland?”
It bears noting that this is not the first time Helgi Magnús has come under fire for inflammatory public statements. In 2019, he was investigated in Stundin after expressing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, both online and in a speech given at an international conference on human rights and migration in Berlin. In 2021, he was criticized for liking Facebook posts that call into question the testimony of women who say they’ve been the victim of domestic abuse.
Confirmation of systemic prejudice
Álfur Birkir Bjarnarson, chairman of Samtökin ’78, was quick to respond, emphasizing that Helgi Magnús’ comments were indicative of systemic prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people in Iceland’s judicial system.
“I don’t know that there’s a shortage or excess of redheads, gays, men, or women,” he wrote. “These are just people, and we take them into society as they come.”
Álfur Birkir continued by saying that the Deputy Director’s comments say more about him than asylum seekers, as well as underlining some painful realities about the justice system in general. “This is just confirmation of what we’ve experienced first-hand—that there is most assuredly prejudice within the system and [that] systemic prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, and other minority groups is quite evident within the system. This is yet one more confirmation for those of us who have experienced this and are moved to examine it.”
‘Really likes gay people’
In a follow-up interview after his initial post, Helgi Magnús repeated his position, saying that it was neither abnormal for people to lie about their sexuality in asylum applications, nor for the government to investigate their claims. He said he was not commenting on a specific case, but more generally. He also questioned whether a person’s sexuality should be a factor in their receiving asylum over someone else.
Asked to speak to his comments about there being “no shortage of gays in Iceland,” Helgi said he really liked gay people and had never had anything against them. (At time of writing, Helgi Magnús had added a ‘Pride 2022’ frame on his Facebook profile photo.) He said he didn’t want to comment further on the matter because there was no reason to. The fact that his comments had aroused significant comment and coverage in the media was simply a result of a series of slow news days in Iceland, he said, and could hardly be considered real news.
Álfur Birkir was circumspect about Helgi Magnús’ response, saying that it was all well and good to hear that the Deputy Director had nothing against gay people but that it was time to see that in action.
“It’s good to hear,” he remarked, “I only wish him well with that, but it would be good to see that in action, then. As an arm of the system, he has a great responsibility—not only to show ‘ahostility,’ but also literal affection as part of the system.”
Proving sexuality ‘something that heterosexual people would never have to do’
Left-Green PM Jódís Skúladóttir has since spoken out on the matter, not only against Helgi Magnús’ comments, but also against the injustice of making asylum seekers prove their sexuality.
“These are extremely depressing comments that in reality, completely condemn themselves,” said Jódís. “It is, of course, a serious matter that people in positions of power, all the way from the bottom to the top in our system, give themselves permission to speak this way. I take this very seriously.”
“How unfortunately worded, that there’s no need for more gay people here,” she continued. “I don’t think we need any more white, heterosexual, middle-age men in management positions.”
In the interview that incited all this commentary, lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva also noted that LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers often have to go to great lengths to prove their sexuality, which is frequently called into question even if they are in a relationship or married.
Jódís spoke to this as well, saying, “It’s obviously crazy that people have to—at any time, for any reason—prove their sexuality, which is, of course, something that heterosexual people would never have to do.”
“I want to point out that here, in our society, which is considered progressive and tolerant in many respects, there are a lot of people who are reluctant to be open about their sexuality,” Jódís continued. “People are ostracized, rejected, subjected to violence—and that’s in this good, open society. Just imagine being a refugee, from a country where a death sentence might even await you. [Imagine] being in mortal danger if you are open about your sexuality. It’s obvious that you’re not going to advertise it on social media, that you haven’t publicly admitted it.”