Bill on Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers Published

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

A draft bill proposed by Iceland’s Justice Minister would permit authorities to hold asylum seekers in detention centres, including families and children. Setting up such detention centres could cost between ISK 420 and 600 million [$3.1 million-4.4 million, €2.8 million-4 million]. Humanitarian organisations have harshly criticised the establishment of such centres in Iceland.

The bill, which comes from Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, was published in the government’s consultation portal last week, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it.

According to the summary on the consultation portal, the bill proposes permitting authorities to keep “foreign citizens who have to or may have to leave the country” in “a closed residence” when they have received a deportation order or “when a case that may lead to such a decision is being processed by the government.” According to the bill, the measure would “only be used as a last resort, when an adequate assessment has been carried out and it is clear that milder measures will not be effective.”

Children detained for up to nine days

The bill would permit authorities to detain children in such centres, if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian, but would not permit the detention of unaccompanied children. The detention of children would have to conform to “stricter requirements” than that of adults.

The bill proposes permitting the detention of children in such facilities for up to three days at a time and up to nine days in total. Adults could be detained in the centres for up to eight weeks.

If the bill is approved, the legislation would take effect at the beginning of 2026.

Restricted press access and use of force

While the bill distinguishes detention centres for asylum seekers from prisons, many of the restrictions proposed for such centres resemble that of traditional prisons, including separation between the sexes, restrictions on visits, and room searches. Staff would be permitted to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary,” including physical restraints or “the use of appropriate means of force.”

The bill stipulates that the National Police Commissioner would decide whether to allow detained individuals to give interviews to media and that interviews “would not be permitted if they are contrary to the public interest.”

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The detention centre bill is the latest of several measures Iceland’s current government has taken to tighten regulations on asylum seekers. Last year, dozens of asylum seekers who were unable to leave the country for personal or political reasons were stripped of housing and services after new legislation took effect. The legislation strips asylum seekers in the country of access to state housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and received strong pushback from human rights organisations in Iceland, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. It was revised several times and passed following its fourth introduction to Parliament.

The detractors of the detention centre draft bill assert that it violates the United Nations Convention on Refugees, the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iceland is a party.

Foreign Citizens in Iceland Face More Difficulties Finding Jobs

Reykjavík restaurant workers

Foreign citizens make up nearly 50% of those currently unemployed in Iceland, while they only make up 15-20% of the population, RÚV reports. This overrepresentation shows that foreign citizens in Iceland face additional obstacles when it comes to finding work, says Katrín Ólafsdóttir, assistant professor of economics at Reykjavík University.

Language skills not the only explanation

The overrepresentation of immigrants on the unemployment register is not new. It was also the case throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Gundega Jaunlinina of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ), stated it is often more difficult for unemployed foreigners to find work than for Icelanders. “Because people may not be as active in their job search and don’t know exactly where they should look and employers are unfortunately less likely to hire foreign workers,” she stated.

“It seems that Icelanders have priority, to some extent, when it comes to jobs,” Katrín Ólafsdóttir observes. “But why that is, I don’t know. This is something that I think we need to take a closer look at, what is going on there. Possibly it has to do with Icelandic language skills, or something like that. But that can’t be the only reason.”

High participation rates but little support

While foreign citizens are overrepresented on the unemployment register, immigrants in Iceland have very high economic participation rates. The latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland found that of all OECD countries, immigrants in Iceland had the highest participation rate, at over 85%. The survey emphasises that Iceland should step up its efforts to better integrate migrants and their children, including through more effective language courses, skills recognition, teacher training, and meeting immigrants’ housing needs. Other recent labour market studies have also called on authorities to ensure immigrants’ job security and mental health.

The OECD survey also found that immigration brought large economic benefits to Iceland’s economy, something Katrín underlines as well. She asserts that Iceland would not have experienced as much economic growth in recent years if it had to been for the influx of foreign workers onto the labour market. “We would never have been able to support the increased service to tourists without more helping hands,” she stated.

Unemployment low in general

Unemployment in Iceland is relatively low, with the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate standing at 3.3% in August 2023 according to figures from Statistics Iceland. The unemployment rate decreased by 0.2% between months while the employment rate increased by 0.9% and the activity rate by 0.8%. In total, some 7,600 people were unemployed in August of this year. Iceland’s population is 387,758.

Municipalities Insist State is Responsible for Asylum Seekers

Reykjavík City Hall ráðhús

It is up to state authorities to find a solution for the group of asylum seekers who have been stripped of housing and all social services in Iceland, municipal authorities insist. On July 1, new legislation took effect in Iceland that strips asylum seekers of housing and all social services 30 days after their applications have been rejected. Before the legislation took effect, Iceland’s Social Affairs Minister asserted that these individuals could seek services from municipalities, but municipal authorities now assert they are neither permitted nor required by law to provide services to the group.

Representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities met with Iceland’s Justice Minister and Social Affairs Minister last Friday to discuss the situation of asylum seekers who have been evicted from state housing due to the new legislation. Over 10 individuals from this group have been living on the streets, some for up to three weeks. Since the legislation took effect, 53 asylum seekers have been stripped of services and housing.

At last week’s meeting, municipal representatives underlined to state authorities that they believe it is the state’s responsibility to provide services to the group, and not that of municipalities. According to a notice from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, both state and municipal representatives “agreed that it is now urgent to find a solution to the people’s problem.”

A group of activists protested the government’s actions towards asylum seekers at the opening of Culture Night festival last Saturday.

Asylum Seekers on the Streets Due to New Law

homelessness in reykjavík

Over 10 asylum seekers who have been evicted from state housing are living on the streets, RÚV reports. Some have been sleeping outside without shelter for up to three weeks and have been forced to rummage for food in dumpsters. Iceland’s Parliament passed legislation this spring that strips asylum seekers of all basic services 30 days after their applications have been rejected.

“People seem to be in hollows, for example. They’re in glades. They’re in public parks. Just somewhere where they find shelter during the night. Some are in small tents. Others don’t have a single thing to cover themselves with other than maybe a garbage bag or something else they find on the street,” says Sema Erla Serdar, founder of aid organisation Solaris, who has been combing the streets alongside volunteers in recent days in an attempt to find and assist those asylum seekers who have been evicted from housing.

Legislation criticised by human rights organisations

In March of this year, Iceland’s Parliament passed a highly-criticised immigration bill that strips asylum seekers in the country of access to housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and received strong pushback from human rights organisations, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. It was passed following its fourth introduction to Parliament.

While people impacted by the new legislation are denied basic services, they also do not have work permits enabling them to provide for themselves. They are not forcefully deported from Iceland, but they are left in a limbo where they do not have a social security number (kennitala) and cannot legally work in the country. Since the new law took effect at the beginning of July, 53 asylum seekers have been stripped of services and housing. Some have sought out homeless shelters, where services are normally targeted towards unhoused people with addiction and/or mental health struggles.

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 would be able to seek services from municipalities. However, now that the bill has been made law and resulted in the eviction of some 30 or more asylum seekers from state housing, municipalities have argued that it is the state’s responsibility to provide services for the group. Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has stated that the ultimate responsibility lies with the asylum seekers themselves.

The Minister of Justice and Minister of Social Affairs and Labour are scheduled to meet with municipal representatives tomorrow to discuss the issue.

One in Four Preschool Children Has Foreign Background

school children

Of the nearly 20,000 children attending preschools in Iceland, 26% have a foreign background. This includes children who were born outside of Iceland but also children born in Iceland who have one or two parents that were born abroad. The data, released by Statistics Iceland today, also shows vastly different rates of preschool attendance between regions.

In December 2022, the number of children attending preschools in Iceland had increased by 3.3.% (635 children) from the previous year. A total of 11% were born in Iceland but had one parent born abroad, 9% were born in Iceland and had both parents born abroad, while over 3% were immigrants and over 3% had a foreign background by some other definition. A total of 73.4% of preschool students had no foreign background.


Record percentages with foreign mother tongue and foreign citizenship

The data shows that 16.8% of all preschool children had a foreign mother tongue, more than ever before. As in recent years, Polish was the most common of the foreign mother tongues, with 1,063 children speaking Polish. The second most common mother tongue was English (356 children) followed by Spanish (166 children). The greatest increase was in the number of children speaking Ukrainian, from 16 to 58. The number of children with foreign citizenship has increased to 9.9%, more than ever before. The largest increase was in the number of children from Asia and South America.

Only 19% of one-year-olds attend preschool in southwest region

The proportion of 1- to 5-year-old children attending preschools decreased by one percentage point from the previous year, from 88% to 87%, as the number of children in preschools did not increase at the same rate as the number of children in that age group in the country. When one-year-olds are considered, attendance varies greatly between regions. While overall, 54% of one-year-olds attended preschools in December 2022, in the east that figure was 82% and it was 74% in the Westfjords. The proportion was by far the lowest in the Southwest region, with just 19% of one-year-olds attending preschool. Incidentally, the southwest region has a higher rate of foreign residents than most other regions.

The OECD Economic Survey of Iceland released earlier this month recommended Iceland’s policy focus on helping migrants integrate, including increasing support for students with immigrant backgrounds and more teacher training in multicultural education. The survey pointed out that immigration has brought significant economic benefits to Iceland with an influx of young people with high participation rates in the labour market.

Iceland Must Tackle Inflation and Make the Most of Immigration

Iceland’s economy is currently one of the fastest growing in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Foreign tourism and strong domestic demand are the reasons for this growth, but it is expected to slow, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland. The OECD recommends that Iceland’s policy continue to focus on bringing down inflation, strengthening productivity growth by improving the business climate, and helping migrants integrate.

“Iceland has rebounded strongly from the pandemic and has proven resilient in the face of the economic impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine across Europe and globally,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said when he presented the survey in Reykjavík alongside Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson. “Continued monetary policy and fiscal policy tightening remain necessary to return inflation to target and properly anchor inflation expectations. Establishing a one-stop to simplify access to migrant integration services, including skills recognition and Icelandic language literacy, will help to optimise the beneficial impact of the increased number of migrants on long-term growth.”

Inflation to decline but persist

Inflation has remained persistent in Iceland despite efforts to tackle it, including consistent interest rate hikes by the Central Bank. According to the OECD survey, it is projected to decline but still exceed 3% by late 2024. Economic growth is expected to moderate from 6.4% in 2022 to 4.4% in 2023 and 2.6% in 2024, according to the OECD. There are indications that Iceland is reaching its capacity for tourism, and as the industry levels off, household consumption is expected to slow and real wages to continue to weaken.

Reforms to business climate recommended

The OECD survey found barriers to entry for domestic and foreign companies to be relatively high in Iceland, despite progress in tourism and construction. It suggested structural reforms to improve the business climate, such as easing the overreaching system of licences and permits and investing in skills relevant to the labour market. Such reforms would reinvigorate productivity, which has been trending upward by only about 1% yearly, and would help with the fight against inflation, according to the OECD.

Aging population a risk to debt sustainability

When it comes to public expenditure, the survey emphasises that spending on health and long-term care is expected to rise considerably as the population ages, although from a lower base than in almost any other OECD country. The survey recommended reforms such as lifting the retirement age and reducing tax expenditures to slow the build-up of debt.

Better integration of migrants required

Figures from the OECD survey show that immigration in Iceland is rising faster than in other Nordic countries and that it brings large economic benefits. The median age of immigrants in Iceland is lower than in any other OECD country, at between 30-35 years, and their participation rate is higher than in any other country, at over 85%.

The OECD survey emphasises that Iceland should step up its efforts to better integrate migrants and their children, such as by establishing a one-stop shop for services, which would make language training courses more effective and would ease skills recognition. More support is needed for students with immigrant background, including more teacher training in multicultural education.

“Successful integration also requires meeting the housing needs of the immigrant population, including through increasing the supply of social and affordable housing,” the OECD press release on the survey states.

An overview of the survey including findings and charts is available on the OECD website.

Venezuelan Asylum Seekers Challenge Directorate of Immigration Rulings

deportation iceland


Some 2,000 people from Venezuela have applied for asylum in Iceland since the beginning of last year. Last summer, Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration ruled that applicants from Venezuela should be given asylum, but this ruling was overturned last month after the Directorate of Immigration reevaluated conditions in Venezuela and came to the conclusion that they had changed. Five applications from the country that the Directorate has rejected are being appealed to the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board, which has yet to take a stance regarding this change. RÚV reported on the issue.

Crimes against humanity in Venezuela

Jón Sigurðsson, chairman of the Association of Asylum Seeker Representatives (Félag talsmanna umsækjenda um alþjóðlega vernd) says the association disagrees with the Directorate’s assessment and that conditions in Venezuela have certainly not changed for the better. “People’s situation in relation to the government, how the government treats protesters and political opponents, and the fear towards authorities that people live with, that’s a big part of why people need protection,” Jón stated. He points out that a United Nations report stated that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela. “And it’s at the behest of the government.”

Residents of Venezuela face shortages of basic necessities, such as water, electricity, food, and healthcare. “There’s a shortage of all necessities, so people can’t live a decent life.” Some 1,600 residents of Venezuela are currently waiting for a ruling from the Directorate of Immigration. Some have already been denied asylum, and five had appealed the decision. A ruling on the appeal is expected within the next three months. Jón says it is contradictory to deny people asylum based on new data and reports written this year, many months after the people arrived in Iceland.

220 asylum seekers, 45 children, to be deported

Deportation of asylum seekers to Venezuela has not begun, but staff of the Police Commissioner’s Office are scheduled to deport 220 people from Iceland in the near future, including 45 children. Most of those who are awaiting deportation are from Nigeria, Iraq, and Palestine, and the largest group (around 60 people) will be deported to Greece, a practice that has been criticised by human rights organisations in Iceland for years.

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson recently stated the Icelandic government needs to “go further” in encouraging asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected to leave the country. He has proposed legislation that would offer applicants increased financial incentive to leave the country in the case of rejected asylum applications. The Directorate of Immigration operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice.

Highly-Criticised Immigration Bill Passed in Iceland

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Iceland’s Parliament, Alþingi, passed a highly controversial immigration bill last night, bringing a contentious five-year process to a close, RÚV reports. The newly passed legislation strips asylum seekers of their rights, including access to housing and healthcare, 30 days after their applications have been rejected. Human rights organisations in Iceland have strongly opposed the bill, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International.

Government voted unanimously in favour

The bill was passed with 38 votes against 15. All MPs in the three-party coalition government voted in favour of the bill, as well as members of the People’s Party and a deputy MP of the Centre Party. MPs in the Social Democratic Party, Pirate Party, and Reform Party voted against the bill. One amendment to the bill concerning unaccompanied children submitted by the Social-Democratic Alliance was approved. Over twenty other amendments proposed by the Pirate Party were rejected.

“This issue confirms the stance I’ve held for a long time, which is that this government is hostile to refugees,” Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir stated. “This is supposed to send a message, it’s supposed to send the message that people need to leave the country, otherwise they will be put on the street, without support and without access to minimum services.” Protesters opposing the bill gathered outside the parliament building yesterday afternoon, including asylum seekers who will lose their housing and access to services now that the bill has been passed.

Icelandic authorities carried out illegal deportation

Icelandic authorities have faced legal backlash for several recent deportations and actions concerning asylum seekers in the country, including withdrawal of services, an action that the bill has now legalised. In 2021, the Directorate of Immigration withdrew housing and food allowances from around 20 men who were set to be deported, an action that the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board later ruled as prohibited.

Last December, the Reykjavík District Court ruled that the deportation of Iraqi refugee Hussein Hussein and his family in November 2022 had no legal basis. Their deportation caused widespread outrage when footage surfaced on social media of authorities forcefully removing Hussein from his wheelchair. The incident also caused controversy as airport authorities attempted to suppress media coverage of the deportations.

Last year, the Icelandic state paid damages to an Albanian asylum seeker who was deported in 2019 in her ninth month of pregnancy, despite having a medical certificate stating that a long flight would be difficult for her.

Criticised by human rights organisations

The first version of the newly passed bill was introduced in Alþingi in 2018 but was not passed at the time. This is at least the fourth version of the bill, which has been criticised by human rights organisations each time it has been introduced.

“This is an attempt by the government to establish a policy that involves significantly constricting refugees, curtailing their human rights, and reducing their possibilities for receiving protection in Iceland,” Activist Sema Erla Serdar of the aid organisation Solaris previously tweeted about the bill. “The bill especially targets children and other people in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

Iceland to Relax Work Permit Regulations for Foreigners

Iceland’s government will make sweeping changes to its work permit system for foreigners from outside the European Economic Area. The changes are intended to attract foreign workers from outside the EEA, including entrepreneurs, and retain students from outside the EEA who have completed studies in Iceland. The proposed changes were presented by three government ministers in a press conference yesterday.

Current system inefficient and restrictive, government says

“There is a need for a new approach for people from outside the EEA who want to move to Iceland, live, and work here,” a government press release on the initiative states. “Iceland is well behind the leading countries in international comparisons when it comes to attracting immigrants and making it possible for them to become full participants in society. The current arrangement is complicated and built on inefficient processes, decision-making within it is random as it is based on an unclear evaluation of the labour market and the restrictions for the granting of work permits are too narrow.”

In order to streamline and improve the current system, a working group proposed loosening regulations on residence and work permits, simplifying and digitising the application process for residency permits, combining residence and work permit applications, and ensuring predictability with projections of labour needs.

Permits attached to the individual, not their employer

Under the current system, foreign specialists from outside the EEA need to have a contract with an Icelandic employer in order to receive a work permit. If they lose their job, they also lose their permit to work in Iceland. The proposed system would still require non-EEA specialists to have a work contract in order to be granted a permit, but they would not lose their work permit if they stopped working for that initial employer.

Students granted three-year work permits

Students from outside the EEA who have completed studies in Iceland would also be granted a work permit for up to three years after leaving their studies. “We are educating foreign university students in our universities for our tax money, but we only allow them to be here for six months to settle in, find work, and have the possibility of some sort of work permit,” stated Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Universities, Industry, and Innovation. “We are changing this and I am especially pleased that we will extend that time to three years.” Áslaug added that this three-year permit would also be granted to entrepreneurs starting their own businesses.

In addition to increasing the opportunities for students and specialists from outside the EEA to work in Iceland, the new regulations would provide opportunities for artists and people in other fields as well. Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated that the changes should help reduce social dumping and that additional analysis of the labour market will help identify where there are labour shortages.

Iceland needs foreign workers

Recent analyses have shown that Iceland will need 15,000 workers in the coming years to maintain economic stability and quality of life. Only 3,000 local residents are expected to age into the labour market during that period, meaning that the country will need some 12,000 workers from abroad to fill vacancies. Foreign workers have been a driver of economic growth and prosperity in Iceland in recent decades. Integrating and ensuring the rights of immigrant workers does pose challenges, however, including providing accessible Icelandic language education.

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.”