Incident Involving Refugee and Son Ejected from Bus Sparks Outrage

public bus Reykjavík

An account of a refugee and his son being prevented from boarding a Strætó bus from Reykjavík to Keflavík on Friday evening has invoked a public outcry and garnered a great deal of attention, both on social media and from community leaders, Vísir reports. Nichole Leigh Mosty, director of the Multicultural Information Centre, says the story isn’t surprising, and that cultural sensitivity training is important for people in service jobs who deal with diverse populations.

Refused to let another passenger pay fare

According to a public Facebook post published by Joana Diminiczak, a man and his young son boarded a Strætó 55 bus at the University of Iceland stop at 6:31 PM on Friday. The man attempted to use the payment card provided for him by the municipality of Reykjanesbær, but the card didn’t work. The driver told him he had to pay his fare out of pocket and began to berate him in front of the other passengers. The man called someone and handed the phone to the driver, who said that “‘these refugees’ never want to pay,” wrote Joana in her post, “they bring useless cards and he’s not a charity, he does his job, and wants to finally go home and have his dinner.” Joana continued, saying that the driver then turned to the man and said in English, “I live in Njarðvík [one of the towns that comprises Reykjanesbær]. I’ll find you.”

At this point, Joana said she attempted to intercede and pay the fare for the man and child, but the bus driver refused, saying he had called the police. “I ask him to call the police [back] and say the matter is resolved because I will pay for them, but he didn’t want to do it. When I say that I can call so he doesn’t have to, he still doesn’t want to let me pay!!! The man gives up, takes his son, and they get out. He looks up at the sky, near tears, but still with hope in his eyes of sparing the boy the humiliation, and says, ‘He watches us.’ We pull out and the bus driver proudly calls the police and says that he is no longer in need of assistance.”

Joana then concluded her post, writing, “Such drivers shouldn’t be driving buses. I hope that Strætó takes this matter seriously.” At time of writing, the post had received 202 largely sympathetic and outraged comments, many of which called on Strætó to address the situation. It had been also been shared around 1,400 times.

‘They need training in how to deal with this diverse group of customers’

When contacted for comment, Nichole Leigh Mosty, director of the Multicultural Information Centre, said the story did not surprise her. “I wasn’t surprised, because I know there have been difficulties implementing the Klappið app [Strætó’s payment app]. It isn’t designed for diverse members of society, for foreigners or senior citizens. And we’ve seen this behaviour from employees over and over. It’s a stressful job, but the fact that they are serving a diverse community means that they need training in how to deal with this diverse group of customers. But don’t make such prejudicial statements and [provide] poor service.”

Nichole says that cultural sensitivity training is vital. “Whenever we have people in a service position, cultural sensitivity is needed considering that there are all sorts of people who use public transportation. And those who are serving them need to be able to treat everyone who uses that service with respect.”

‘It’s very clear that we’ll be looking into what went on there’

Strætó’s director Jóhannes Svavar Rúnarsson told reporters that he wasn’t familiar with the situation himself, but that the case has been referred to the Icelandic Road Administration, which services bus lines that run outside of the capital area. However, at time of writing, Bergþóra Kristinsdóttir, manager of the Road Administration’s service department, said that she was not familiar with the situation either.

“It’s not a nice story. It’s not come across our desk, I’ve not received any other information about this incident. But it’s very clear that we’ll be looking into what went on there,” said Bergþóra.

Municipalities Struggle to Provide Housing, Employment for Refugees

Three municipalities are struggling to provide adequate services, housing, and job opportunities to recently arrived refugees as the number of individuals far exceeds initial agreements. RÚV reports that only three municipalities—Reykjavík, Hafnarfjörður, and Reykjanesbær—currently have arrangements with the government to receive and provide for refugees, although it’s hoped that more municipalities will soon participate in resettling schemes.

Reykjanesbær and Hafnarfjörður are particularly struggling to provide for the number of refugees now living in their municipalities. There are currently 243 refugees living in Reykjanesbær, where the original agreement was for 70. Meanwhile, 270 refugees currently live in in Hafnarfjörður, which only expected to receive 100. Reykjavík agreed to receive and provide for 220 refugees but is currently home to 356.

The Directorate of Labour took over service provisions for refugees on July 1. It now provides housing, a weekly allowance, necessary healthcare, and transportation for recently arrived refugees. Gísli Davíð Karlsson, the Directorate’s Manager of the Department of General Services, says the transfer of refugee services went off without any major problems. But even so, once these individuals have had their applications for asylum approved, they may face waits of up to eight weeks to complete the resettlement process with the Directorate of Labour. And Gísli Davíð says the general lack of housing is causing considerable delays and problems.

“The housing situation is difficult, and we’ve really felt it,” said Gísli Davíð. “Yes, we managed to sort out housing this spring when there was an increase, but the housing market has become a lot more difficult in terms of possible housing for these groups of people because not all accommodations are suitable. Now the challenge—for local municipalities, too—is what housing is available? Where can we accommodate people through the winter? I wouldn’t say we’re bursting at the seams yet, but there’s a decent strain on the system.”

The Directorate of Labour has a ‘Support for Refugees’ page on its website (in English), where it provides information both for refugees themselves regarding recruitment grants, job counselling, and education, as well as for local employers who are looking to hire refugees. Those with available work opportunities are encouraged to email the Directorate at flottamenn[at]vmst.is.

‘Of course they are lying’: Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Under Fire for Comments about LGBTQIA+ Asylum Seekers

Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Helgi Magnús Gunnarsson has come under fire for comments he made on his Facebook page concerning asylum seekers who apply for international protection in Iceland on the basis of their sexuality. Vísir reports that the comments were made in the wake of an interview with lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva, who said he believed the incident reflected consistent governmental bias, namely that the government routinely assumed that asylum seekers were lying about their sexuality in their applications.

‘Is there any shortage of gays in Iceland?’

In the interview, lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva revealed that the government accused his client of lying about his sexuality and had refused him asylum on that basis. Helgi asserted that the accusation was indicative of a pattern of unfounded accusations and asylum application rejections and indeed, the district court later reversed the government’s decision in his client’s favour. The interview, which was published by Vísir on Thursday, was shared on Facebook by Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Helgi Magnús.

“Of course they are lying,” wrote Helgi Magnús in a now-removed post on his Facebook page. “Most people come here in search of more money and a better life. Who wouldn’t lie to save themselves? Apart from that, is there any shortage of gays in Iceland?”

Screenshot of Helgi Magnus Gunnarsson’s Facebook post

It bears noting that this is not the first time Helgi Magnús has come under fire for inflammatory public statements. In 2019, he was investigated in Stundin after expressing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, both online and in a speech given at an international conference on human rights and migration in Berlin. In 2021, he was criticized for liking Facebook posts that call into question the testimony of women who say they’ve been the victim of domestic abuse.

Confirmation of systemic prejudice

Álfur Birkir Bjarnarson, chairman of Samtökin ’78, was quick to respond, emphasizing that Helgi Magnús’ comments were indicative of systemic prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people in Iceland’s judicial system.

“I don’t know that there’s a shortage or excess of redheads, gays, men, or women,” he wrote. “These are just people, and we take them into society as they come.”

Álfur Birkir continued by saying that the Deputy Director’s comments say more about him than asylum seekers, as well as underlining some painful realities about the justice system in general. “This is just confirmation of what we’ve experienced first-hand—that there is most assuredly prejudice within the system and [that] systemic prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, and other minority groups is quite evident within the system. This is yet one more confirmation for those of us who have experienced this and are moved to examine it.”

‘Really likes gay people’

In a follow-up interview after his initial post, Helgi Magnús repeated his position, saying that it was neither abnormal for people to lie about their sexuality in asylum applications, nor for the government to investigate their claims. He said he was not commenting on a specific case, but more generally. He also questioned whether a person’s sexuality should be a factor in their receiving asylum over someone else.

Asked to speak to his comments about there being “no shortage of gays in Iceland,” Helgi said he really liked gay people and had never had anything against them. (At time of writing, Helgi Magnús had added a ‘Pride 2022’ frame on his Facebook profile photo.) He said he didn’t want to comment further on the matter because there was no reason to. The fact that his comments had aroused significant comment and coverage in the media was simply a result of a series of slow news days in Iceland, he said, and could hardly be considered real news.

Álfur Birkir was circumspect about Helgi Magnús’ response, saying that it was all well and good to hear that the Deputy Director had nothing against gay people but that it was time to see that in action.

“It’s good to hear,” he remarked, “I only wish him well with that, but it would be good to see that in action, then. As an arm of the system, he has a great responsibility—not only to show ‘ahostility,’ but also literal affection as part of the system.”

Proving sexuality ‘something that heterosexual people would never have to do’

Left-Green PM Jódís Skúladóttir has since spoken out on the matter, not only against Helgi Magnús’ comments, but also against the injustice of making asylum seekers prove their sexuality.

 “These are extremely depressing comments that in reality, completely condemn themselves,” said Jódís. “It is, of course, a serious matter that people in positions of power, all the way from the bottom to the top in our system, give themselves permission to speak this way. I take this very seriously.”

“How unfortunately worded, that there’s no need for more gay people here,” she continued. “I don’t think we need any more white, heterosexual, middle-age men in management positions.”

In the interview that incited all this commentary, lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva also noted that LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers often have to go to great lengths to prove their sexuality, which is frequently called into question even if they are in a relationship or married.

Jódís spoke to this as well, saying, “It’s obviously crazy that people have to—at any time, for any reason—prove their sexuality, which is, of course, something that heterosexual people would never have to do.”

“I want to point out that here, in our society, which is considered progressive and tolerant in many respects, there are a lot of people who are reluctant to be open about their sexuality,” Jódís continued. “People are ostracized, rejected, subjected to violence—and that’s in this good, open society. Just imagine being a refugee, from a country where a death sentence might even await you. [Imagine] being in mortal danger if you are open about your sexuality. It’s obvious that you’re not going to advertise it on social media, that you haven’t publicly admitted it.”

Housing Shortage Won’t Prohibit Iceland Receiving Ukrainian Refugees

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said Monday that issues surrounding the Directorate of Immigration’s housing facilities will not deter or delay Iceland’s reception of refugees from Ukraine, and preparations are already underway, Vísir reports.

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson told Vísir last week that “there is a real state of emergency at the Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL),” exacerbated by the unwillingness of asylum seekers in Iceland to undergo PCR testing required as a condition of their deportation from the country. He said the Directorate’s difficulties in carrying out deportations of some refugees is resulting in less housing and fewer facilities available to welcome other refugees that the government is willing to welcome

During question period in Alþingi Monday, Social Democratic Alliance MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir called the Minister of Justice’s comments unacceptable and asked the Prime Minister if they were reflective of the government’s policy.

Katrín replied that many people are in very vulnerable positions and it matters how those groups are talked about.

Furthermore, she said the status of ÚTL’s housing will not hinder Iceland’s reception of Ukrainian refugees. Katrín noted that the Minister of Social Affairs had already met with the Refugee Committee and preparations had already begun to receive them.

The Prime Minister reminded Alþingi that half a million Ukrainians have already fled the country since the Russian armed forces began their invasion on Feb. 24, and that figure could increase to four to five million. She said a large proportion of those who have fled will likely want to return to their home country when the situation allows, so both short- and long-term arrangements need to be considered.

“I would like to note that it is not long since the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan and the Icelandic government initially decided to receive a certain number of people and then decided to receive a larger number of Afghan refugees because we felt it was important to take responsibility for the global community. In relative terms, we actually welcomed more people than other Nordic countries did on that occasion. So when we look at what has previously been done, we have not shied away from taking responsibility,” Katrín said.

Police Reject Allegations Of Excessive Force in Asylee Arrest

asylum seeker arrest refugees in iceland

The office of the National Commissioner of Police rejects the allegations that police used excessive force when arresting two men, both asylum seekers from Palestine, on Tuesday, Vísir reports.

The incident was brought to the public’s attention by the activist group Refugees in Iceland and pictures published by Vísir confirmed that one of the men, who was hospitalized after the incident, sustained injuries to his head and body. The National Commissioner had not previously issued an official statement on the incident but did so on Thursday evening.

See Also: Hospitalised for Injuries Sustained in Arrest

Both men have now been deported and sent back to Greece.

Witnesses assert that police used violent force against the men, who had been called to the Directorate of Immigration in Hafnarfjörður to pick up vaccination certificates. They also say that police used a taser on them. The National Commissioner’s Office stated on Wednesday that Icelandic police do not use tasers under any circumstances. Refugees in Iceland maintain that a video taken by a witness on their phone was deleted by police. Police were, however, wearing body cameras at the time and the arrest was also captured by security cameras in the building.

“A preliminary examination of footage of the incident has been carried out by this office and does not indicate that any unnecessary or excessive force was used given the circumstances that were created at the scene,” read the police statement. The statement also asserted that police only resort to the use of force when the situation urgently requires it, for instance, to ensure the safety of the person being arrested or others.

“In light of numerous inquiries, the office [of the National Commissioner of Police] can confirm that the individuals in question have left the country, in accordance with the decision of the relevant authorities regarding the dismissal [of their asylum applications].”

The incident will be referred to a police oversight committee.