Iceland to Tighten Asylum Regulations

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

The Icelandic government aims to reduce the number of applications for international protection and asylum with a new series of measures presented today. The processing time for applications for international protection will be shortened to 90 days on average and “efficient deportation” will be implemented, according to a government press release. A special team will review around 1,400 pending applications from Venezuelan citizens, and most will be rejected, the Minister of Justice stated.

Tightening legislation on asylum seekers

The measures could, in part, be seen as a follow-up to legislation on immigration passed earlier this year, which tightened regulations on asylum seekers and has been criticised by human rights groups. Seven ministries are involved in the implementation of the new measures: the Ministries of Justice, Social Affairs and Labour, Universities and Innovation, Health, Infrastructure, Culture and Trade, and Education and Children.

The measures include shortening the processing time of applications for international protection to an average of 90 days at each administrative level. They also include establishing “residences” for applicants for international protection, ostensibly the detention centres that Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir introduced in a draft parliamentary bill last month.

Aim to cut costs, redirect funding

“The authorities intend to reduce expenses and better prioritise the funds that go toward the issue,” the government press release states. “By reducing the number of applications that do not meet the criteria for protection and increasing the efficiency of processing applications, money is saved, which will partly be used to increase contributions to ensure Icelandic language teaching, increased assistance to children in schools, and social education that helps people actively participate in Icelandic society.”

Some of the educational measures outlined in the press release include increased access to affordable and work-related Icelandic language education, increasing the number of Icelandic language teaching specialists, and increased support for children of foreign origin during their first three years in Iceland.

Other measures include better utilisation of human resources among immigrants, including by establishing a system that more efficiently recognises their education from abroad, as well as facilitating residence and work permits for those who are self-employed and come from outside the European Economic Area.

Venezuelan applications processed in six months

A special team will be established to speed up the processing of applications for international protection from Venezuelans. The aim is to process some 1,400 pending applications within six months.

“The vast majority, almost all, of these applications, will receive a rejection,” Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir told RÚV. She asserts that the changes to asylum seeker regulations will bring them closer in line with legislation in other Nordic countries.

Palestinian Family Deported To Greece

Palestine protest Feb 5 2024

A Palestinian family comprised of a married couple and their 23-year-old son was taken into police custody early Saturday morning and deported to Greece yesterday, Vísir reports. RÚV reports that Icelanders protested in front of police headquarters en masse upon receiving news of the arrest, which was reportedly conducted by armed special forces.

The family had applied for international protection in Iceland, but were denied, and as such were told they had to leave the country or be deported to Greece.

Point of entry

Greece is a major point of entry for refugees fleeing Middle Eastern countries. Greek authorities will more often than not require these people to apply for international protection in Greece in order to enter the country, or be turned away. For this reason, asylum seekers who want to enter Europe through Greece will usually opt to apply for protection there, even if they have no intentions of staying in the country. Conditions in Greece for asylum seekers have been repeatedly criticised by international organisations.

Icelandic immigration authorities will typically not examine applications for international protection if the applicants have been granted protection elsewhere, and so those granted protection in Greece are very often deported to that country–even if the applicant only applied in order to enter Europe.

Special forces involved

The arrest itself was, according to an Icelander close to the family, conducted violently. Special forces reportedly burst into the family’s home in the early morning hours, ordered them to remain still, and then handcuffed the son, who was remanded into custody. The mother was allowed to pack a bag of some belongings but the couple were also escorted out by police.

The family remained in police custody until Sunday morning, when they were taken to Keflavík International Airport. Within hours, they were put on a plane to Greece. Meanwhile, the Icelandic Foreign Ministry has sent representatives to Egypt regarding Icelandic residence permit holders currently in Gaza.

Opposition Proposes Changes to Asylum Seeker Bill

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

MPs in Iceland’s Parliament have not reached an agreement on several bills, and it has become clear that Alþingi will not be prorogued at the end of this week, as planned. Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson’s immigration bill has been one of the most controversial, and three opposition parties have submitted proposed changes to the bill.

The proposed changes submitted by the Social-Democratic Alliance, People’s Party, and Reform Party are in six parts and their aim is to reach an agreement before the end of this parliamentary session. The first change proposed is for asylum seekers whose applications have been denied continue to be provided with services until they leave the country, instead of being cut off from basic services like housing and food allowances after 30 days, as the bill currently outlines.

Read More: “Everyone Loses” in New Legal Scheme for Asylum Seekers

Other proposed amendments to the bill include continuing to grant applicants for international protection the minimum protection of the Administrative Procedure Act on reopening a case due to new data and information. The parties also propose that quota refugees (those invited to settle in Iceland via international agreements) would have the same rights regarding family reunification in Iceland as others who have received protection here through other routes. These proposals are now being reviewed by the Ministry of Justice.

Criticised by human rights organisations

The first version of this controversial bill was introduced in Alþingi in 2018 but was not passed at the time. This is 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 tweeted. “The bill especially targets children and other people in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

150 Offer Housing to Ukrainian Refugees in Iceland

hallgrímskirkja reykjavík

Icelandic residents can now offer housing to Ukrainian refugees arriving in the country via an online portal the government has set up. RÚV reports that around 150 offers have been submitted since the portal was opened yesterday. One of Iceland’s largest unions, VR, has offered four of its summer houses as temporary accommodation for refugees.

Icelandic authorities expect to receive up to 2,000 refugees from Ukraine, but have underlined that the number is only an estimate. Over 100 have already applied for international protection since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began two weeks ago. The chairman of Alþingi’s Refugee Committee has stated that finding housing will be one of the biggest challenges of the project. In addition to the 150 offers made through the online portal, the government is in dialogue with municipalities across the country that have declared interest in receiving refugees.

VR Union has announced that they will offer four summer houses near Hveragerði, South Iceland, as temporary housing for refugees, along with making a monetary donation of ISK 42,500 [$42,500; €38,300] to charities responding to the crisis. The union has urged the government to address housing issues in Iceland and encouraged other unions to lend a helping hand to refugees.

MP Demands Work Permits for Ukrainian Refugees

107 refugees from Ukraine have applied for international protection in Iceland since Russia invaded the country, RÚV reports. Iceland’s Civil Protection and Emergency Response Department has increased its preparedness at the border to its alert phase, which enables authorities to open a dedicated response centre for refugees, if necessary. Iceland’s Minister of Justice has triggered an article of law to facilitate the reception of Ukrainian refugees, but the decision will limit their rights, one MP argues.

Government criticised for triggering temporary protection measure

Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir criticised the government for its reception of Ukrainian refugees yesterday, particularly the Minister of Justice’s decision to trigger an article in Icelandic law providing temporary international protection in the event of mass exodus, which she argues gives refugees fewer rights than if the article had not been triggered.

“The government has decided that they get a residence permit for humanitarian reasons which, as I say, provides inferior legal protection, does not include a work permit, and means that they will have to depend on financial aid from municipalities and will have to somehow find housing on their own once they’ve received this protection. This is a political decision and it does not show that our arms are particularly open, at least not for this year [that the residence permits are valid].”

Icelandic authorities expect between 1,000-1,500 refugees from Ukraine to arrive in the country in the coming weeks.

76 Ukrainians Have Applied For Asylum in Iceland

Protest

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 76 Ukrainians have applied for asylum in Iceland, Border Division Police Chief Jón Pétur Jónsson told MBL.is.

However, an even higher number of Ukrainian nationals arriving in Iceland recently could indicate that many are exercising their right to reside in the country for up to three months before officially applying for protection. Jón Pétur said border police could not rule out that scenario.

He said authorities are considering increasing the preparedness level at the border to better handle the stress of arrivals from Ukraine on the immigration system. Iceland’s Social Affairs Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson will appoint a special response team to coordinate the reception of refugees from Ukraine.

“We are looking holistically at the reception system, from the time an individual arrives in the country until they receive services,” Jón Pétur said. “The reception system is resetting itself now that Article 44 of the Foreign Nationals Act is active.”

Article 44 of the Foreign Nationals Act provides for the collective protection of foreign nationals in the event of mass exodus. Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson triggered the article on March 3.

Including the recent applicants from Ukraine, 320 individuals have applied for asylum in Iceland so far this year — a seven-year high.

 

Iceland Appoints Response Team to Assist Ukrainian Refugees

Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources

Up to 2,000 Ukrainian refugees might come to Iceland to apply for international protection, according to estimates from the country’s Refugee Committee. Iceland’s Social Affairs Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson will appoint a special response team to coordinate the reception of refugees from Ukraine. Iceland’s Minister of Justice triggered Article 44 of the Foreign Nationals Act last week to provide immediate, though temporary, protection for Ukrainians fleeing as a result of the Russian invasion.

One of the biggest challenges will be finding housing for the refugees, according to the chairman of Alþingi’s Refugee Committee, Stefán Vagn Stefánsson. “That’s one of the big projects, to find housing for the people, and the problem is that we don’t know how much will be needed. Finding housing has gone better than we assumed it would. Private parties have contacted us and offered housing. That’s incredibly important and helps a lot. It’s also a cause for celebration that the Icelandic Confederation of Labour’s central committee encouraged labour unions to join the effort last week.”

Stefán also expressed his hope that municipal authorities would help in finding housing. While there are currently three municipalities in the country with active government contracts for the reception and resettlement of refugees, he says more will have to be added in order for the project to be successful.

A notice from the Icelandic government stated that an electronic portal would be set up as early as today where institutions and others could offer housing for refugees, both shorter and longer term.

“Everyone Loses” in New Legal Assistance Scheme for Asylum Seekers

The Justice Ministry and Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL)’s new legal assistance scheme for applicants for international protection will lead to higher costs, longer processing times, and inferior service, a lawyer at the Icelandic Red Cross has stated. Last month, the Justice Ministry decided not to renew its contract with the Red Cross, which had provided legal assistance to asylum seekers for nearly seven years. According to Red Cross lawyer Guðríður Lára Þrastardóttir, the new scheme laid out by ÚTL is worse for asylum seekers, the government, and the lawyers providing the service. Vísir reported first.

The Directorate of Immigration published an advertisement last week calling on applications from those who would provide legal assistance to applicants for international protection. In a post on Facebook, Guðríður stated that the scheme outlined in the advertisement is “really the same as scheme that was in place before the Icelandic Red Cross took over and was considered not good at all.” She adds that the hourly rate proposed for lawyers has only been raised by ISK 1,000 [$7.48; €6.88] since 2014, and is “still the lowest rate the state pays for lawyers’ services.”

According to Guðríður, the proposed maximum hours in the scheme “do not in any way reflect the reality, and the Red Cross, which has done this work for nearly 7 years was not contacted when this aforementioned maximum time was calculated.” The scheme also does not appear to take into account the cost of interpreting services, Guðríður stated.

“This is a sad turning point,” Guðríður wrote. “In my opinion, this scheme will lead to worse quality, much higher costs, worse service, and longer case processing times. Everyone loses here.”

The changes are implemented as asylum seeker applications reach a seven-year high in Iceland. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has stated that more changes to Immigration Law are in the works. The Red Cross and other human rights organisations have criticised a proposed amendment to the Immigration Act from the Minister.

Iceland Prepares to Receive Refugees from Ukraine

Iceland will receive refugees from Ukraine, as other European countries are doing, stated the chairman of the Icelandic Parliament’s Refugee Committee. The Directorate of Immigration has removed Ukraine from its list of safe countries, making it possible for Ukrainians to apply for international protection in Iceland, and several dozens have already done so. Authorities have yet to determine how many refugees from the country will be accepted, but preparations to receive them are already underway.

Municipalities want to take part

“We have begun the preparations for the project but strongly emphasise monitoring and observing how European countries will assist the tremendous number of people that are now seeking refuge,” Stefán Vagn Stefánsson, chairman of the Refugee Committee, told Vísir. “We will try to the best of our ability to be in step with what other European nations are doing. We have initiated dialogue with municipalities to try to find out how much housing is available in the country.”

Stefán stated that a number of municipalities in Iceland had already declared that they would like to participate in the resettlement of refugees. He expects more municipalities to do so. “It’s very gratifying to see the solidarity and the willingness from municipalities to take part in the project.”

Number of refugees to be determined

The committee has not yet determined how many refugees will be taken in from Ukraine. “I won’t give you a number because it doesn’t exist. We don’t have one yet. It’s very bad to give a number then not be able to honour it. The situation is such that this is very unlike the projects we have had so far,” Stefán stated.

“This is a European country and residents of Ukraine are free to come here and be here for 90 days. Ukraine has been taken off the Directorate of Immigration’s list of safe countries, so people can apply for international protection. That has already begun, some dozens have applied for it, so the project has begun in some respect.”

The Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Friday.

Human Rights Organisations Criticise Immigration Bill

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Several human rights organisations, including the Icelandic Red Cross, Unicef Iceland, and the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, have submitted formal letters criticising an immigration bill that was recently introduced in Parliament for the fourth time. Activist Sema Erla Serdar of the humanitarian aid organisation Solaris states the bill is “a manifestation of systemic racism in Iceland” that aims to “grant protection to as few refugees as possible.”

The bill in question was originally drafted in the Ministry of Justice and first introduced in Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, in 2018, but was not passed at that time. It 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,” Sema Erla Tweeted. “The bill especially targets children and other people in a particularly vulnerable situation.”

Bill would allow forced physical exams

The bill proposes several changes to Iceland’s current legislation governing asylum seekers, including granting police the authority to force physical examinations of asylum seekers. “This is a major encroachment of people’s privacy that does not conform with the law, Iceland’s constitution, or the Icelandic government’s international commitments,” Sema wrote.

Along with the above-mentioned organisations, several others have submitted comments on the bill, including No Borders Iceland, the Icelandic division of Amnesty International, the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, the Teachers’ Association of Iceland, and more. In their criticism of the bill, No Borders Iceland point out that the demographic that would be most impacted by the proposed changes does not have the opportunity to read them, as most asylum seekers do not read Icelandic, the only language in which the draft bill has been published.

Permits withdrawal of basic services following refusal

The bill also proposes that the rights of asylum seekers to basic services in Iceland would expire 30 days after a final refusal of international protection is published in their case. The Red Cross criticised this proposal, in particular, stating that it would put asylum seekers in Iceland at increased risk of abuse, human trafficking, and violence. This in turn would increase the burden on police and municipalities, the Red Cross statement asserts. In 2021, Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration withdrew housing and food allowances from a group of asylum seekers for refusing to undergo COVID-19 testing, a prerequisite for their deportation. The action was later ruled to be illegal.