Hussein’s Stay in Iceland Extended, Family to be Deported Tomorrow

Útlendingastofnun directorate of immigration iceland

Following a decision from the European Court of Human Rights, the ban on deporting Iraqi asylum seeker Hussein Hussein has been extended. However, the same ban was not extended to his family, who are scheduled to be deported to Greece tomorrow, November 28. 

The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled against the deportation of Hussein, who uses a wheelchair. According to RÚV, his family, which includes his brother, mother, and two sisters, intends to cooperate with authorities and to leave “voluntarily.” RÚV reports that this decision was made following a message from the Directorate of Immigration, instructing the family to leave the country, either willingly or under police escort.

Refugee Man and Family Previously Deported Wins Case

This is not the first time Hussein and his family have come into national focus in Iceland. Authorities faced widespread critique last year when he was forcibly removed from his wheelchair during his deportation. He has since fought for his right to remain in Iceland alongside his family, claiming that conditions in Greece for asylum seekers with disabilities are especially dangerous.

Þórhildur Ósk Hagalín, a spokesperson for the Directorate of Immigration, stated that the family’s rejection was in line with procedure. She stated to RÚV: “In this case, the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board has ruled that these individuals must leave the country. The Directorate of Immigration, as a subordinate authority, cannot alter the decision of the board, and therefore, we have to adhere to that ruling.”

Essential care

Albert Björn Lúðvígsson, Hussein’s lawyer, stated to RÚV that Hussein’s needs were never formally assessed, and his health condition has only been minimally diagnosed. He stated that Hussein requires substantial assistance in daily life and that, until now, his family has been his primary caretaker.

Albert expressed concern that Hussein will remain here for a long time while the European Court of Human Rights addresses his case. A request for a review of the decision has been submitted, but it is unlikely that a conclusion will be reached before the intended departure date of the family, November 28.

Asked whether adequate care has been ensured for Hussein after his family leaves the country, Þórhildur stated that it is the responsibility of the Directorate of Labour to ensure that service. She continued: “There is an exception to this rule where it is allowed to consider the circumstances of the family as a whole. However, these measures are intended for spouses and children under eighteen. So, even though they are individuals bound by family ties, and one of them certainly needs ongoing care, that alone is not sufficient to delay the decision.”

Regarding the role of the Directorate of Labour in providing asylum seekers with services, Þórhildur also stated: “This should be done in line with their service needs. So, as soon as people arrive in the country, an assessment needs to be made regarding the service they require. In other words, when people seek assistance from the authorities, an assessment of their service needs should be conducted.”

Inhumane treatment

The decision to extend Hussein’s deportation ban and not his family’s has occasioned critique.

One critic is Árni Múli Jónasson, the director of the Disability Alliance, who has called the treatment of Hussein “inhumane.”

“It’s so evident that Hussein, a disabled individual, is heavily reliant on various forms of support from his family, ” Árni stated to RÚV.  “Socially, emotionally, physically—to separate the family in this way is tremendously inhumane towards him, and that’s what we are particularly concerned about at the Disability Rights Association. We are of the opinion that if this proceeds as it is, it’s in complete contradiction to what the government states in its policy declaration, that humanity should be the guiding light in these matters. ”

Árni continued: “In our view, there’s no doubt that human rights are being violated here. This is not in line with the obligations resting on the Icelandic state according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. So, we implore the authorities not to let this injustice proceed.”

Iceland Receives Unexpectedly High Proportion of Deaf Refugees

A screenshot from RÚV. Deaf and hard of hearing children at Hlíðarskóli

More than 500 refugees have come to Iceland since the beginning of this year, and an unexpectedly high proportion of them are deaf or hard of hearing, especially among those coming from Ukraine. Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, Director of Refugee Reception at the Icelandic Red Cross says it is a challenge to find Ukrainian sign language interpreters. One of the challenges faced by deaf children who come to Iceland is the difference between Icelandic sign language and their own sign language.

Five Sign Languages Spoken at Hlíðarskóli

RÚV reported last weekend that a significant number of deaf and hard of hearing refugees had arrived in Iceland from Ukraine as well as other countries. Hlíðarskóli school in Reykjavík receives deaf and hard of hearing children of foreign origin.

“Here at Hlíðarskóli we have seven from Ukraine and we’re expecting more,” Berglind Stefánsdóttir, the school principal, told reporters. Hlíðarskóli has 602 students in total, 28 of whom are refugees. Eight of those 28 children are deaf or hard of hearing, and five of the deaf or hard of hearing children are from Ukraine.

Eyrún Ólafsdóttir, a teacher in Hlíðarskóli’s sign language department says that Icelandic and Ukrainian sign language differ from each other greatly, with the Ukrainian sign language alphabet being “hugely different” from the Icelandic sign language alphabet. Ukrainian and Icelandic sign languages are not the only ones spoken among the children in Hlíðarskóli, however: they also speak Arabic sign language, Russian sign language, and Lithuanian sign language. “And we’re expecting some Spanish children,” Berglind added.

Berglind does not know of an explanation as to why such a high rate of deaf and hard of hearing children are arriving in Iceland as compared to other Nordic countries, for example, but speculated that the quality of education at Hlíðarskóli, as well as good job opportunities in Iceland, could be some reasons.

Emergency shelter at capacity

Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, Director of Refugee Reception at the Icelandic Red Cross also did not know why a higher proportion of deaf and hard of hearing refugees appeared to be coming to Iceland than neighbouring countries, but told RÚV that they included adults as well as children. While he did not know their total number, he stated they had become around 10% of the deaf community in Iceland. For reference, the number of Icelandic sign language speakers in Iceland is around 1,500, according to the Icelandic Association of the Deaf.

Refugees from Ukraine and Venezuela make up around 80% of all refugees that have arrived in Iceland this year. The Icelandic Red Cross opened an emergency shelter last October to receive refugees upon arrival, and Gylfi says the shelter is operating at capacity. In an interview last November, Gylfi stated that he expected the number of refugees coming to Iceland to continue rising. “The actions we have taken this year have gone well in every way, but we need to stop approaching this like some sort of temporary emergency campaign, rather approach it as the general situation.”

Funding for Municipal Services for People with Disabilities to Increase by ISK 5 Billion

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

Local municipalities will now receive a permanent increase in funding for legally required services for people with disabilities. RÚV reports that this increase will amount to ISK 5 billion [$35.028 million; €33.043 million] a year.

Per an announcement on the government’s website, the agreement was c0signed by the chair and executive director of the Association of Local Authorities and the Ministers of Finance and Economic Affairs, Infrastructure, and Social Affairs and the Labour Market on Saturday. It is aimed at helping local municipalities “achieve established performance and debt targets according to the current financial plan for the years 2023 – 2027.”

Under the terms of the agreement, local taxes will increase by .22% against a corresponding reduction of state income tax. The tax burden on individuals will not change, however. Rather, the agreement deals with the specific transfer of funds from the state to local municipalities.

Local municipalities have long called for increased funds to provide services for people with disabilities and are still calling for higher contributions. Per Saturday’s agreement, both local authorities and the three undersigning ministries agree to conduct expense analyses for services provided with the aim of renegotiating the agreement next year.

People With Disabilities Will Receive Additional Financial Support

Why is Iceland so expensive?

People with disabilities will receive additional financial support from the government in December, the Budget Committee has decided. The support is a tax-free one-time payment of 53,000 ISK [€357, $403]. The total cost of the measures is 1,2 billion ISK [€ 8 million, $9.1 million].

The proposal came from the opposition, whose members argued that disabled people were still experiencing financial hardship due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, disabled people received additional financial support for the same reasons.

The proposal met some opposition from the leaders of the government. Bjarni Benediktsson, Iceland’s Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs said in an interview with RÚV that he believed that bonuses and other “pleasant surprises” should not be embedded in the benefits system in Iceland.

However, Þuríður Harpa Sigurðardóttir, the Chairperson of the Icelandic Disability Alliance, had stressed that the state of the pandemic had not improved and was still impacting disabled people in much the same way as last year. It would therefore be imperative to improve the financial situation of these people.

Kristrún Frostadóttir, an MP for Samfylkingin and a member of the Budget Committee said in an interview with RÚV that she was very pleased with the proposal being accepted.

“This group of people is very susceptible to changes in society. Tougher economic conditions and higher prices will affect these people.”

Ramping Up Reykjavík Ahead of Schedule

ramps downtown Reykjavík

A project to install 100 ramps in Reykjavík to make the city more accessible will be completed four months ahead of schedule, its instigator Haraldur Þorleifsson announced. While Haraldur says the Reykjavík ramps will be completed by the end of October, the group’s next step will be to install 1,000 ramps across Iceland in collaboration with local municipalities.

Haraldur is the founder of design company Ueno and now works at Twitter, which recently purchased Ueno. Haraldur is a wheelchair user himself and recently moved back to Iceland from San Francisco. Though he says there have been many changes to Reykjavík’s downtown since he last lived in Iceland, he noticed that accessibility was lacking. He established a fund to help businesses install ramps and donated ISK 50 million [$385,000, €319,000] to the project. The City of Reykjavík later matched his donation.

Ramping up Iceland will aim to install 250 ramps per year around the country over the next four years, Haraldur told Vísir. The next step is to reach out to municipal authorities and ask whether they want to take part. “Hopefully there will be interest across the board and if everyone wants to take part then we can get started,” he stated. “Of course it’s a little bit easier to work in bigger municipalities but it is very important that this be spread across the country.”

Report Sparks Investigation Into Iceland’s Institutions for Adults With Disabilities

Recent reports of the mistreatment of adults with physical and developmental disabilities and mental illnesses housed at the Arnarholt Institution until the 1970’s are cause for an investigation of not only Arnarholt but all such institutions operating for the past 80 years. Members of Parliament’s Welfare Committee debate whether to entrust the Prime Ministry with the investigation or if an independent committee would be better suited for the job. They have requested information on the number of institutions and their residents through the years before making the decision.

In the past few years, the government has paid several people reparations for mistreatment as children at institutions such as Breiðavík or Kópavogshæli. Currently, the law awards reparations only to people housed at such institutions as children. No institutions with adult inhabitants have been investigated, despite a report on Kópavogshæli urging authorities to look into institutions for adults with physical or developmental disabilities as well as mental illnesses. Arnarholt in Kjalarnes in the vicinity of Reykjavík was one of those institutions.

Mistreatment of adults with disabilities at Arnarholt Institution

The City of Reykjavík opened Arnarholt Institution in 1945 as a beggars’ home. A Reykjavík District Physician’s report describes it as a home for the people of Reykjavík who can’t take care of themselves and don’t fit in with the rest of the city’s inhabitants, for a variety of reasons. The institution housed people with epilepsy or mental illnesses, alcoholics, deaf and mute people, senile people and people with disabilities, developmental and physical. It was not classified as a medical facility and was under the authority of the city’s welfare department. In 1972, the institution housed 60 people, aged 22-80+ and a doctor visited at least once a week.

In 1970, Steinunn Finnbogadóttir, midwife and city council member started suspecting that affairs in Arnarholt weren’t in order. She raised the issue with the city council, which ordered an investigation. In February of 1971, they appointed a committee of three doctors who met nine times and interviewed 24 people, who either had worked or were working at Arnarholt. The committee found that accusations of ill treatment were unfounded, but Steinunn disagreed with their conclusion. She read from the reports at closed city council meetings. Subsequently, the council decided to turn the institution into a medical facility and place it under the jurisdiction of the city hospital’s mental ward.

The report details the ill treatment and severe punishments of the institution’s inmates. The staff used an isolation cell as punishment, often and for extended periods. They also withheld meals and locked residents out in all weathers as punishment for sometimes minor infractions. Medical care was lacking, the institution was understaffed, and medication was mishandled. Some of the most troubling stories of the Arnarholt institution concerned frequent residents deaths. It seems that little care was taken to ensure sick people received medical attention. Sometimes, fatal illness could be traced to mistreatment, such as sick people forced to spend time outside with the other patients. Mistreatment aside, the building was in terrible condition, with one staff member comparing it to a concentration camp.

In September 1971, the city council intervened, and the institution became a part of the City Hospital’s mental ward. In 1972, it was first recognised as a nursing home, according to hospital laws. It was run as a medical institution until 2005 when it was closed down and patients transferred to other institutions. For a while, The Directorate of Immigration rented the building to house asylum seekers, but today, the building is rented as apartments.

The report was kept under wraps since the early seventies, presumably because it contained names of residents and staff members alike. Since RÚV revealed the accounts for the first time, several people have discussed the need to investigate the treatment of adults with disabilities and mental illnesses in years gone by.

An investigation is in order

City and state authorities all agree that an investigation is in order. Both the Icelandic Mental Health Alliance and the National Association of Intellectual Disabilities have called for an investigation, not just of the Arnarholt Institution but all institutions housing adults with disabilities and mental illnesses for the past 80 years. Therefore, even though Arnarholt was under the jurisdiction of the city of Reykjavík, Parliament will organise the investigation.

Vice-Chairman of Parliament’s Welfare Committee and Left-Green MP Ólafur Þór Gunnarsson suggested the Prime Ministry would be best suited to conduct the investigation as they have experience of a similar investigation focused on children in institutions. The committee’s Chair Helga Vala Helgadóttir considers an independent investigative committee to be the best option as it would be above party politics. The committee has given the Prime ministry until February 1 to gather the information and will subsequently plan its investigation.


Foster Application Rejection on Basis of Disability Illegal, Says Court

Judge's gavel

The Child Protection Agency was wrong to reject an application submitted by Freyja Haraldsdóttir to foster a child without even giving her the opportunity to attend a course for people interested in fostering children, RÚV reports. This was the ruling of the Court of Appeals, or Landsréttur, and overturned the previous ruling made by the District Court.

The decision to reject Freyja’s application was based, among other things, on the agency’s assessment that she did not fulfill the requirement of being in overall good health. (Freyja, who is a former Bright Future MP and disability rights activist, has a genetic disorder called Osteogenesis imperfecta.) The agency also stated that there is no information or research available on how foster situations work out when the foster parent utilizes user-led personal assistance services, as Freyja does.

According to Landsréttur, laws related to people with disabilities state that in relevant situations, a person’s general health should be assessed without reference to their disability. User-led personal assistance services are, moreover, aimed at helping the recipient overcome limitations in their daily lives to whatever extent is possible and to better allow them to participate in society to the fullest extent.

Landsréttur determined that Freyja’s application had been rejected on the basis of her disability and was, therefore, illegal. This then renders the Child Protection Agency’s decision invalid.

Man in Wheelchair Attacked at Home

missing woman

A man in his twenties has been arrested on suspicion of taking part in an attack on a man in a wheelchair at the victim’s own home, RÚV reports.

Per Assistant Chief Constable Guðmundur Páll Jónsson, the attack took place on Thursday morning in an apartment building in downtown Reykjavík. Two men and a woman knocked on the victim’s back window and so the man opened his back door and went out onto the deck to see what they wanted. “As soon as he opened the door, two assailants came running in and turned over his wheelchair so that the man was left lying on the deck outside of his apartment,” reported Guðmundur Páll. The assailants then stole the victim’s computer and other valuables.

Although the victim, who is in his fifties, was obviously suffering from some shock after the attack, he was not seriously injured physically. Police are still looking for the other man and woman who participated in the attack.

Disability Researchers Refuse to Work with Klaustur Scandal MP

Anna Kolbrún Árnadóttir.

The University of Iceland Centre for Disability Studies has refused to work with the Parliamentary Welfare Committee as long as Centre Party MP Anna Kolbrún Árnadóttir holds a seat on it, RÚV reports. Anna Kolbrún is one of six MPs caught on tape in a bar-room conversation rife with sexist, ableist, and homophobic remarks which has led to protest, international media attention, and an internal investigation.

“The profound prejudices, misanthropy, arrogance, and disrespect towards disabled people and other marginalised groups which comes forth [in the Klaustur recording] is such that we will not take part in collaboration with the Parliamentary Welfare Committee while Anna Kolbrún Árnadóttir holds a seat on the committee,” states a letter from the Centre for Disability Studies sent to Speaker of Parliament Steingrímur J. Sigfússon.

Steingrímur says the action is unprecedented, but parliament can do little else than respect the decision. “We need to review on our end what problems this creates in the parliamentary committee’s ongoing work,” he stated. Halldóra Mogensen, the Welfare Committee’s chair, said the Centre for Disability Studies’ decision has a “very serious” effect on the committee’s work. Anna Kolbrún declined RÚV’s request for an interview, but stated she would not resign from the committee.

Bára Halldórsdóttir is the individual responsible for recording the MPs’ conversation at Klaustur Bar. “I’m a disabled woman, I am queer, and I’m used to being talked about in this way, though maybe not with that choice of words exactly, and of course you take it personally,” Bára stated. “They’re obviously afraid of these strong women.”