By Lowana Veal
REYKJAVIK, Iceland. 19 September 2023 (IDN) — Facing a shortage of workers in the hospitality and construction sectors, Iceland has started importing foreign labour while at the same time refusing to give employment permits to asylum seekers.
Since early August 2023, at least 58 asylum seekers have been deprived of accommodation, food vouchers, medical assistance, and similar benefits due to changes to the law on foreign nationals, which were hotly protested while the legislation was being debated in Iceland’s parliament Althingi.
The new law says that when asylum seekers have had their application and appeal refused by the authorities, they are no longer considered asylum seekers and have 30 days to leave the country voluntarily via the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration scheme, with government financial assistance to pay for flights to their home country. This was supposed to be an incentive for people to leave. Those from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Palestine, and Pakistan are entitled to higher grants than those from other countries.
They spend these 30 days in a deportation hotel. Suppose asylum seekers have not returned voluntarily to either their home country or a third country—where they are entitled to permanent residence—at the end of 30 days. In that case, they will be evicted by the Special Police and left without essential services.
However, many asylum seekers do not want to return home, and in some cases, the Icelandic government does not have an agreement with the asylum seeker’s home country about repatriation, or the person does not have the correct documentation. These people are at risk of being homeless.
When amendments to the Act were being debated, Welfare Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson said that the law on social services provided by municipalities would help these people. But municipalities say they do not have the resources or accommodation to help them.
In the meantime, an Icelandic humanitarian aid organization, Solaris, has been finding accommodation for at least some people threatened with deportation. But they are overwhelmed with requests.
At the end of August, 28 organizations in Iceland involved with refugees and asylum seekers discussed the urgent situation caused by the new legislation. They said that refugees were “sleeping on the street, vulnerable people (are) being sentenced by the government to poverty and hunger”.
The statement also included a plea from three Nigerian women who arrived from Italy after being the victims of human trafficking and were evicted from the deportation hotel on 11 August. Because Iceland does not have a reciprocal arrangement with Nigeria to send back asylum seekers, they are liable to be deported to Italy. But they say: “You want to send us to the country where we were forced into prostitution?” But they also added: “We can’t survive on the street in Iceland. All we ask for is peace and protection.”
French national Morgane Priet-Mahéo of the ‘Rights of Children on the Move’ says currently, several families are at a deportation hotel in Hafnarfjördur, just outside of Reykjavik. A Palestinian mother with eight children, some with health problems, is due to be deported to Spain, where they transited on their way to Iceland despite having no connections there. Two other families from Iraq are due to be deported to Greece, where they had been subjected to violence at the hands of the police.
Greece is renowned for its hostile treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Iceland stopped sending asylum seekers with children back to Greece for a while because of the conditions there, but they resumed it in November last year.
Priet-Mahéo calls the deportation hotel a place for “storing the families”, where the children do not have access to any services such as schools and leisure activities, and hardly any other family community facilities because it’s in an industrial zone.
Those who do not leave the country voluntarily after leaving the deportation hotel have become homeless. “Some people sleep in a car, or on the streets, or in a tent. There are people hiding families, but these people face up to six years in prison if found,” says Priet-Mahéo.
However, “If asylum seekers can survive for ten months after their final rejection for asylum, they can apply again for international protection, even if they have been in hiding”, she adds.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Iceland in August was 2.9%. At the same time as Iceland is trying to get rid of asylum seekers, various employment sectors in Iceland have been facing a shortage of workers as the economy rebounded faster than expected after COVID, and so workers have been brought in from overseas, particularly in the tourism, catering, and building sectors.
Ukrainian refugees receive special treatment because of the war there. They get an Icelandic social security number within two days, and the Directorate of Labour says it is easy to find work for them.
Until last December, Venezuela asylum seekers also received automatic refugee status, but then the Directorate of Immigration froze all applications and decided to review the situation there. In April, they decided that the situation had improved and that Venezuelans would be treated like other asylum seekers.
“But the situation in Venezuela is deteriorating day by day,” says Ali Farhat, who arrived in Iceland two months ago. Farhat is a psychologist and cook and has also managed businesses. He keeps himself busy by volunteering with the Red Cross and Salvation Army and giving English lessons, “but I want to find work,” he told IDN. As an asylum seeker, he can get a temporary work permit from the Directorate of Immigration, but says “Not everyone gets a permit due to lack of housing”.
Many asylum seekers and refugees turn to the Salvation Army in Reykjavik for help and support. Venezuelans are in the majority, though there are also Africans, people from the Middle East…
Farhat has a wife and four-year-old daughter and says he was frequently threatened in Venezuela. “I can’t go back to my country. If I did, I would be dead within a month,“ he claims.
Like Farhat, Ahmed* from Somalia would like to work here. “Everyone comes here to work, not to be supported,” he says. He came via Spain eight months ago after using a variety of transport routes. He says Africans are in the minority in Iceland, and he feels that their treatment is not as good as that offered to other nationalities. Ahmed has not been given a national ID number, so he cannot work.
Many asylum seekers and refugees turn to the Salvation Army in Reykjavik for help and support. Venezuelans are in the majority, though there are also Africans, people from the Middle East, “and a few Ukrainians, though they are generally in a better situation than others, as they get automatic refugee status,” says Ingvi Kristinn Skjaldarson, Church Minister with the Salvation Army.
He told IDN that some asylum seekers live on the streets and do not have access to homeless shelters because they are not registered as living in Reykjavik and often do not have a national ID number. “The situation is desperate and is not going to improve,” he adds.
The Directorate of Immigration says that between January and July 2023, applications for international protection mostly came from Venezuela (1208), Ukraine (980), Palestine (139), Syria, and Somalia (59 and 57 respectively). Those who were accepted after appealing to the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board were mostly from Palestine (91), while those rejected after appealing were mostly from Venezuela (405).
Skjaldlarson says there is one question that keeps cropping up: “Why don’t they let these people get an ID number and a work permit straight away so they can fend for themselves and not be supported by the State? Then they wouldn’t have to import foreign workers.” [IDN-InDepthNews]
*This is not his real name.
Collage: (left) Asylum seeker Ali Farhat in front of the Salvation Army building in Reykjavik. Credit: Lowana Veal. (right) Activist protest in Reykjavik against deportation of asylum seekers. Credit: ‘Refugees in Iceland’ Facebook site.
This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 19 September 2023.
IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.