“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.

Legal Services for Asylum Seekers Up in the Air

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

All 15 lawyers working for the Icelandic Red Cross were laid off after the Justice Ministry decided not to renew its contract with the organisation ensuring legal assistance to asylum seekers, Vísir reports. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has stated that many changes to services for foreigners in Iceland are in the works. No decision has been made on how such services will be provided after the contract expires on April 30.

The Icelandic Red Cross lawyers currently provide legal assistance and advocacy services for applicants for international protection in Iceland under the provisions of the contract with the Ministry of Justice. The services are intended to ensure that applicants’ cases “receive just and careful treatment,” according to the Red Cross website.

No decision on future services

Guðríður Lára Þrastardóttir, one of the Red Cross’ lawyers and leader of the organisation’s team on the issues of applicants for international protection, confirmed that the Justice Ministry has decided not to extend the contract past April 30. Guðríður stated she did not know the Ministry’s plans for providing such services after that date and stated that any future involvement of the Red Cross would depend on contract stipulations.

While the Minister of Justice stated that no decision has been made on whether the services will be put out to tender, Guðríður Lára stated that the Red Cross was informed a tender would be launched. She stated the Red Cross would participate “if we possibly can.”

Changes afoot in services for foreigners

The Minister of Justice stated that major changes are in the works in services connected to foreigners in Iceland, which is the reason the Ministry decided not to extend the contract. “Part of the projects in this contract are moving to another ministry. [The Red Cross] has both provided social services for asylum seekers, which now goes elsewhere, to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and also the advocacy services, which we are responsible for. So it was decided to reconsider the approach now.”

The Ministry recently reintroduced a bill that proposes amendments to immigration law, which has received criticism from human rights organisations, including the Red Cross. Members of Parliament have also levelled criticism at the Ministry of Justice for its recent decision to withhold citizenship applications from Parliament.