Words by Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson
The impending deportations of two Afghan families seeking asylum in Iceland have been heavily criticised in recent weeks. The families in question are the Sarwary and Safari families, who have been granted international protection status in Greece. Icelandic authorities intend to deport the families based on that status. In both cases, the families will be deported back to Greece, where the Red Cross has deemed living conditions unfit for refugees.
Icelandic authorities have twice denied reviewing the families’ cases as they’ve already received international protection in Greece. The families’ lawyer, Magnús Davíð Nordahl, has repeatedly called for due processing of the families’ applications for asylum. However, a new legal amendment implemented recently by Minister of Justice Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð gives both families some hope. The amendment requires the Directorate of Immigration to process asylum applications of children, even if they have already gained international protection status in another country, when 10 months have passed from the date the application was received by Icelandic authorities. The only caveat is that the cases will not be handled by the Directorate if the delays were caused by the applicants themselves. Both families fulfil these conditions: the Sarwari family has been living in Iceland for the last 11 months, and the Safari family for 10 months. The rule change from the Minister comes directly in the wake of public calls to give the families applications due processing, and not to deport the young children.
In the case of the Sarwary family, single father Asadullah is set to be deported with his ten- and nine-year-old sons, Mahdi and Ali. The Safari family consists of single mother Shahnaz, her 12-year-old son Amir, and her 14-year-old daughter, Zainab. In both cases, the deportations have been postponed due to the children suffering psychological breakdowns over the impending deportations. One of Asadullah’s sons experienced a psychological breakdown while Zainab Safari is believed to be on the verge of despondency should she suffer another setback.
The Safari family is originally from Afghanistan, but lived for some time in Iran after being forced to flee their home country. From Iran, the family crossed the mountains to Turkey before traversing the sea on a flimsy boat to Greece in 2016, where they endured a harsh life on the street. A psychologist has adjudged 14-year-old Zainab’s mental state to be too fragile to endure being sent back to Greece. It is believed that she suffers from severe stress disorder, severe depression, anxiety, and insomnia, all largely traced to her experiences in Greece. Her brother is also believed to be battling severe depression, stress disorder, anxiety, and problems sleeping.
Bleak in Greece
Conditions faced by refugees in Greece have been criticised by the Council of Europe, among others. International organisations such as the Red Cross have assessed that although children may have received international protection in the country, their living conditions are far from adequate. There’s a severe lack of basic services for refugees in the country, including healthcare, education, and housing. Greece is facing economic doldrums, making it even more difficult to handle the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. In fact, many international organisations believe that deporting the children back to Greece is in violation of the UN Convention for Children’s Rights. Therefore, it’s not in the children’s best interest to be sent back to Greece.
Zainab Safari is currently a 9th grade student at Hagaskóli school and has talked of her ambitions to become a doctor or a teacher in the future. She has received tremendous support from her fellow students, who organised a march to the Directorate of Immigration to protest her family’s deportation. The children delivered a petition with 6,000 signatures urging authorities to handle the family’s case humanely. When the Safari family received a deportation order shortly after, a large crowd gathered at Austurvöllur square in support of the families.
Authorities’ handling of the cases has been met with severe backlash from people from all walks of life. Surveys have repeatedly shown that the majority of Icelanders are in favour of receiving more refugees to the country. There is mounting pressure on authorities and government to stop the deportations, and to abide by international laws. UNICEF in Iceland released a statement reminding authorities that the deportations are in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iceland is party to. Along with this, Red Cross officials have called on the government to rescind the decision to deport the families, as well as the Office of the Ombudsman for Children asking to discuss the matter with authorities.
Quota refugees vs. asylum seekers
The Icelandic government has been criticised for the vast difference in their treatment of quota refugees on the one hand, and asylum seekers on the other. Asylum seekers who come to Iceland on their own initiative are regularly deported using the Dublin Regulation, while quota refugees who are invited to Iceland via the United Nations Refugee Program receive humane treatment, basic services, and support in their resettlement. So far this year, Icelandic authorities have denied 75 refugee children seeking asylum. On average, 12 children are denied asylum in Iceland every month.
Both Minister of Justice Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir have involved themselves in the cases and intend to provide additional funds towards the matter. Þórdís Kolbrún has already amended the rules for handling refugees and intends to reveal further initiatives in coming weeks in order to ensure swifter handling of cases. Applicants for asylum in Iceland find themselves in a precarious situation, and often in a fragile mental state. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to handle their cases swiftly and justly.
On the other hand, the government had prepared a bill earlier this year which would weaken the position of asylum seekers such as the Safari and Sarwari families. The legal amendments would prevent authorities from being able to handle cases where individuals have already received international protection in another country. If the amendment had been passed, the families would have long ago been deported to Greece. Instead, the deportation was postponed due to the precarious mental and physical conditions of family members. The law currently allows for due processing of the application if the applicant has a special connection to the country, or if special circumstances allow.
Status of children
Minister of Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason met with Bergsteinn Jónsson, director of UNICEF in Iceland, to discuss how to improve the handling of children seeking asylum in Iceland. Bergþór had previously criticised the government’s handling of these affairs and released a statement on behalf of UNICEF to remind the government to adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The new plans include a reception home for unaccompanied children which arrive in the country. Furthermore, authorities intend to improve the quality of healthcare, information, and support for the parents of young children.
As of now, authorities have yet to review the applications of the two families officially. However, the deportation of the two families has been delayed due to the fragile mental health of the children. People have called for authorities to handle applications on a case by case basis, rather than blindly sending children and families in a precarious position towards the unacceptable situation in Greece. The children’s mental health should allow for due process in this case.
This article appears in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.