UNHCR Flags Issues in Icelandic Immigration Law Amendments

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has voiced significant concerns about a proposed amendment to Iceland’s international protection laws, highlighting, among other things, issues with asylum caps and family reunification delays. The organisation warns that the draft amendment could violate international obligations by imposing an asylum seeker cap and delaying family reunions, potentially hindering refugees’ integration and violating their rights.

Six main areas of concern

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed several concerns about Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir’s draft bill to amend laws on international protection, in an opinion that has been published on the website of Parliament.

The document highlights six main areas of the amendment in need of review: defining Refugee in accordance with international and regional law, the proposed asylum ceiling, the proposed differentiation in rights depending on migration/protection status, short-term residence permits and mandatory review of protection needs, the concepts of First Country of Asylum and Safe Third Country in the amendment, and the introduction of a statutory waiting period for Family Reunification.

As noted by Vísir, the authorities have repeatedly stated that the aim of the amendments is to align the laws with immigration legislation in other Nordic countries. However, in its opinion, UNHCR points out that in some cases, there are significant issues.

Asylum cap

Among other things, the UNHCR emphasises that international protection must not be restricted by a maximum limit on the number of asylum seekers that can be admitted each year. The organisation argues that such a cap – suggesting Iceland cannot realistically handle more than 4,000 asylum applications annually – would contradict the universal right to seek asylum and the protection needs of those arriving.

Furthermore, implementing a ceiling that results in denying access to asylum procedures would breach Iceland’s commitments under the 1951 Convention and European refugee law. Additionally, using this limit as a basis for reducing standards could weaken European unity and shift, rather than share responsibilities for asylum seekers across states.

This approach may also conflict with the EU framework that dictates the responsibility sharing and reception conditions for asylum seekers.

Family reunification

In its opinion, the UNHCR also discusses proposed changes to provisions on family reunification, which the agency deems necessary to ensure the right to family life. Prolonged separation can have very detrimental effects on both the asylum seeker and their family.

The UNHCR highlights that reunification mechanisms for refugees are crucial not only for reuniting separated families but also for ensuring refugees can exercise their fundamental right to family life, as recognised by international and regional frameworks to which Iceland is a signatory. The negative effects of prolonged separation on the well-being of refugees and their families can significantly hinder their ability to integrate and contribute to society in their asylum countries.

UNHCR further stresses that Iceland is a member of ExCom, which has emphasised that countries must do everything to reunite families and that family reunifications should occur as quickly as possible. The agency, therefore, objects to changes that would prevent family reunification until an individual who has received subsidiary protection in the country has resided here for two years and had their residence permit renewed.

From the amendment: “It is proposed that relatives of foreigners who have received subsidiary protection or humanitarian residence permits in this country do not gain the right to family reunification until at least two years after the granting of subsidiary protection or a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, provided that the individual has had their residence permit renewed.”

Differentiation of rights depending on status

UNHCR further advises that individuals recognized as 1951 Convention refugees and those with subsidiary protection status should receive identical types and lengths of permits. This recommendation aims to prevent discrimination and ensure equal treatment under international and European laws, which only permit differentiated treatment when objectively and reasonably justified.

UNHCR notes that, from its experience, both categories of protection beneficiaries share similar needs for protection, face the same integration opportunities and challenges, and have comparable prospects for returning to their home countries. Typically, those with subsidiary protection are not able to return home any sooner than recognised refugees.

To read the UNHCR’s opinion in full, click here.

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Opposition Parties, Red Cross Criticise Proposed Changes to Asylum Seeker Legislation

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Iceland’s Minister of Justice has resubmitted proposed changes to legislation governing international protection that she says will help shorten wait times for asylum seekers. Opposition parties and the Red Cross have criticised the changes, saying they prevent the Directorate of Immigration and the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board from evaluating applicants on a case-by-case basis.

Critics of the amendments have focused on one article in particular concerning applicants that have been granted international protection in other countries, such as Greece or Hungary. Such applicants are most often sent back to those countries, despite living conditions for refugees that have been deemed inadequate by the Council of Europe and international rights watchdogs.

Read More: Asylum Seeker Deportations

“Exceptional individuals that have been in very special conditions, we’re talking about children with long-term illnesses, people with mental disorders and unaccompanied children as well, have had their cases processed and as a result received protection, but with this bill the Directorate of Immigration and Appeals Board’s permission to consider these factors is being removed,” Guðríður Lára Þrastardóttir, a lawyer at the Red Cross, told RÚV.

Opposition party members have also criticised this aspect of the bill, including Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir. “It means no hope for families that we have previously allowed to stay, precisely because there are special circumstances in their cases,” Þórhildur Sunna stated. “This is totally irresponsible. If we want to be considered a moral and responsible society in the international community then we don’t do this.” The Left-Green Movement, one of three parties in the government coalition, has stated it will not approve the bill without changes that make it possible to consider children’s applications on a case-by-case basis.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also submitted comments on the proposed changes. In a document submitted in August last year, the UNHCR stated it was “concerned” about some of the ways the proposal seeks to streamline asylum procedures. “In particular, the safe country concepts, and accelerated examination procedures, without sufficient procedural safeguards, as currently proposed, raise serious concerns.”