Iceland Violated Right to Free Elections, ECHR Finds

Alþingishúsið

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found this morning that Iceland violated the right to free elections and the right to an effective remedy in a case that concerned the 2021 elections to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Iceland will have to pay the two applicants in the case €13,000 each in respect of non-pecuniary damages.

Recount irregularities

The case concerned irregularities in the recount of votes in the Northwest constituency that changed the allocation of seats in Alþingi after the 2021 elections. The applicants in the case, Guðmundur Gunnarsson of the Reform Party and Magnús Davíð Norðdahl of the Pirate Party, were both unsuccessful candidates in the constituency, the smallest of Iceland’s six constituencies.

“When the results came in, there was only a thin margin of votes in the Northwest and South constituencies, which could have affected the allocation of levelling seats,”  the ECHR’s press release reads. Levelling seats are distributed nationally between parties that receive at least 5% of the total vote. “A recount was ordered and it changed the standings in the Northwest constituency, leading to Mr Gunnarsson losing his levelling seat.”

Lacked impartiality safeguards

Certain irregularities were found to have taken place during the recount, including the unsecured and unsupervised storage of ballots between the first count and the recount.

The ECHR found that Alþingi’s handling of the applicants’ complaints “had lacked necessary impartiality safeguards and had been characterised by virtually unrestrained discretion”. The procedure meant that the applicants did not have an effective domestic remedy, which violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

Icelandic Government Invites Immigrants to Shape Policy

Iceland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour is inviting immigrants to participate in shaping policy on integration and inclusion. The ministry is inviting immigrants in Iceland to an open consultation meeting in Reykjavík this Wednesday, February 28. Polish and English interpretation will be provided at the meeting.

Last November, the government of Iceland published its first-ever “green paper” on immigrant issues. The document is a status assessment on immigrant and refugee issues in Iceland and identifies opportunities and challenges for the future. The green paper has been published in Icelandic, English, and Polish, a first for the Icelandic government.

First-ever comprehensive integration policy in the works

As a follow up to the green paper, the Icelandic government will work on a white paper on immigrant issues. This will serve as the first draft of the country’s first-ever comprehensive policy on immigrant and refugee issues. The white paper will be developed into a parliamentary resolution on immigration and refugee policy.

Immigration brings large economic benefits

The most recent OECD Economic Survey of Iceland found 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 survey emphasised that Iceland should step up its efforts to help immigrants integrate, such as through better access to services, addressing housing needs, and establishing more effective language training courses.

To gather data for the white paper, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has already held focus group meetings around the country, and the discussions from this Wednesday’s meeting will be integrated into the paper as well.

This Wednesday’s meeting in Reykjavík will take place at 5:00 PM at Hotel Reykjavík Grand.

Human Rights Groups Criticise Draft Bill on Detention Centres

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

The Icelandic Red Cross, UNICEF Iceland, Save the Children Iceland, and the Icelandic Human Rights Centre strongly criticise a draft bill that would establish detention centres for asylum seekers in Iceland. In its current form, the bill allows for the detention of children for up to nine days and permits staff to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary.” Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir plans to introduce the bill in Parliament by the end of this month.

Oppose the bill on human rights grounds

The draft bill was published in the government’s consultation portal last month, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it. A total of 19 comments were submitted through the platform, only one of which supported the bill. Several human rights organisations in Iceland have submitted formal criticism of the bill through the platform.

The Red Cross criticised the permissions the bill would grant police to detain individuals, asserting that they are unclear and subjective. The Icelandic Human Rights Centre echoed that criticism, asserting that the bill’s measures go further than the European Union’s Return Directive, a document outlining regulations on the deportation of asylum seekers.

Children’s rights at risk

Save the Children Iceland firmly opposed that the bill would permit the detention of children, which they say conflicts with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Detention in closed facilities has a negative impact on children’s development, the organisation stated, and children should not and cannot bear responsibility for their parents or relatives’ actions.

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The bill comes on the heels of other new legislation that left dozens of asylum seekers in Iceland homeless and without services last year. 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. It was also strongly criticised by human rights organisations in Iceland.

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.

More Measures Against Human Trafficking Needed in Iceland

Icelandic authorities should take more steps to tackle human trafficking according to a new report. These measures include improving the identification of victims, stepping up investigations and protections, and ensuringe that victims are not forcibly returned to countries where they risk being re-trafficked. These are the conclusions of a newly-published report from the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) on human trafficking victims’ access to justice and effective remedies in Iceland.

This is GRETA’s third evaluation report on Iceland and assesses the developments since its second report was published in 2019. GRETA welcomes the progress Iceland has made in tackling human trafficking in several areas, including the amendment of the provision criminalising human trafficking, the adoption of the third National Action Plan for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, and the setting up of a police advisory group on human trafficking.

Should pay increased attention to asylum seekers

However, GRETA also “urges Iceland to take further steps to improve the identification of victims of trafficking by setting up a formalised National Referral Mechanism which defines the procedures and roles of all frontline actors who may come into contact with victims of trafficking,” according to a press release. “The authorities should pay increased attention to the identification of victims of trafficking among asylum seekers and ensure that victims are not forcibly returned to countries where they risk being re-trafficked.”

New legislation strips asylum seekers of services

New legislation on immigration passed in Iceland’s Parliament last spring states that asylum seekers whose asylum applications have received a final rejection will be stripped of essential services unless they consent to deportation. As a result, dozens of asylum seekers unable to leave Iceland for reasons personal or political are being stripped of housing and services, leaving many of them on the streets. Authorities disagree about who is responsible for providing for the group’s basic needs.

One asylum seeker impacted by the legislation is Blessing Newton, who came to Iceland five years ago to escape sex trafficking in Italy. Her spokespeople say that she is at risk of becoming a victim of sex trafficking again if she is deported from Iceland.

GRETA’s full report on Iceland’s combating of human trafficking is available online.

Justice Minister Proposes Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

Asylum seekers in Iceland whose applications have been rejected will be placed in detention centres if Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir’s proposal is approved by Iceland’s Parliament. In an interview on Kastljós, Guðrún stated she would introduce a bill this autumn to set up detention centres for asylum seekers who have been stripped of housing and services due to new legislation that went into effect last month. Humanitarian organisations have harshly criticised the legislation, which has left many asylum seekers living on the streets.

Guðrún is an MP for the Independence Party and took over the post of Minister of Justice from Jón Gunnarsson two months ago. In the Kastljós interview, she stated that her policy on asylum seekers would emphasise adapting Iceland’s reception of asylum seekers to that of other Schengen countries, which she asserted all had detention centres for asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected.

The centres would “have restrictions,” Guðrún stated, and would constitute housing where “people don’t have full freedom of movement.” She stated that no discussions have yet begun on how Iceland would implement such detention centres and that she could not answer when they would become operational, as “it has to go through Parliament.”

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.

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.”

Amnesty Report: Iceland “Vastly Overusing” Solitary Confinement

police station reykjavík

Iceland is “vastly overusing” solitary confinement in pre-trial detention a new report released by Amnesty International finds. The Director of the Icelandic Association of Betterment agrees with the report’s findings.

825 individuals placed in pre-trial solitary over past decade

On Tuesday, Amnesty International – an international non-governmental organisation focused on human rights – released a report on the harmful and unjustified use of pre-trial solitary confinement in Iceland.

The report, which is based on research and interviews with experts from across the justice system, along with individuals who have been subjected to solitary confinement, finds that “Iceland routinely applies solitary confinement for prolonged periods and even to people with pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as children and people with disabilities that would be exacerbated by solitary confinement.”

“Data obtained by Amnesty International shows that over the 10 years between 2012 and 2021, 825 individuals were placed in pre-trial solitary confinement in Iceland. Of these, 10 were aged between 15 and 17. In a small country with low rates of imprisonment generally, and pre-trial detention specifically, these figures are troubling,” the report notes.

The authors of the report state that solitary confinement is inherently problematic as far as the potential for human rights violations is concerned. International standards dictate that solitary confinement should be used only in the most exceptional cases and should always be subject to rigorous scrutiny. “Any use of solitary confinement can amount to torture,” the report notes.

Devastating effects of solitary confinement

Guðmundur Ingi Þóroddsson, chairman of Afstaða, the Icelandic Association of Betterment, agrees with the reports’ assessment. “We’ve seen devastating examples of how this affects people, even for a short period of time; some people don’t recover,” Guðmundur told RÚV this week.

Guðmundur, who has himself spent time in solitary confinement, stated that isolation amounted to nothing less than torture and that people often break on the first day.

“And it’s used on people who are mentally disabled or impaired, who face different kinds of problems, where this kind of detention only serves to exacerbate these problems, until they become completely out of control, and that’s what we’re seeing today. We have individuals in the system today who are worse off from being placed in isolation. But it is also because there are no other resources available in this country,” Guðmundur added.

A call for government action

One of the aims of Amnesty’s report is to catalyse a revision to the current legislation. The report concludes with a series of recommendations that the organisation urges the government to take.

These include:

  • Revising the Code of Criminal Procedure to remove the possibility of applying solitary confinement solely to prevent interference with, or protect the integrity of, a police investigation.
  • Identifying and introducing measures that would provide less restrictive alternatives to solitary confinement.
  • Prioritising urgent action to ensure that the application of solitary confinement is explicitly
    Prohibited on children; on persons with disabilities caused by physical, mental health or neurodiverse conditions that would be exacerbated by solitary confinement; for any longer than 15 days.
  • Introducing stronger safeguards to ensure that where solitary confinement is imposed, it is in line with human rights standards, including the prohibition of torture and the rights to fair trial and non-discrimination.