Director of Immigration Kristín Völundardóttir sparked controversy last week when she said in an interview with state broadcaster RÚV that some asylum seekers come to Iceland to receive free board.
In 2012, the Directorate of Immigration received 115 applications for asylum, compared to 76 in 2011, 51 in 2010, and a record 118 in 2002. Neighboring countries have also experienced an increase in the number of applications in recent years.
According to the report on RÚV, the increase may be in part due to the increase in processing times. Subsequently, individuals’ stays in Iceland are longer, the cost of which is paid by the state. The cost to the state reportedly increased from ISK 108 million to ISK 220 million (USD 840,000-1.4 million, EUR 630,000-1.28 million) between 2011 and 2012.
Kristín was quoted as saying: “It can be rather attractive for those who are not exactly asylum seekers, who intend to work illegally or come here for other reasons, to come to Iceland. This could be an appealing option, to have free food and housing when the processing time is so terribly long.”
Kristín also suggested that there were indications that some individuals were practicing so-called asylum shopping or asylum tourism. “People just go abroad to get to know the country and people and enjoy the services which are offered to asylum seekers.”
A flood of articles and blog posts have been written in response to Kristín’s comments. In turn, Minister of the Interior Ögmundur Jónasson denounced the comments as inappropriate.
Kristín has since said that her comments were taken out of context, posting a statement on the webpage of the Directorate of Immigration saying that she was simply trying to highlight that the long processing times open the possibility to individuals taking advantage of the system and that the experience of neighboring countries shows that the best way to avoid such practices is to speed up the waiting times.
Kristín maintains that asylum tourism exists in Iceland: “These groups are often from countries which don’t need visas to come to Iceland or other European countries and therefore usually come legally as tourists. People in this group commonly are not escaping persecution but come for economic reasons but persons applying for asylum for economic reasons are clearly not covered by the UN Refugee Convention. Despite this, these groups are entitled to have their cases processed, adding to the burden on the system, which in turn increases the processing times for those who desperately need protection.”
Ögmundur and Kristín have since met to discuss the matter with Ögmundur commenting that he is satisfied with the director’s explanation and that the procedures would be reviewed.
These recent developments have opened the issue up to debate. Open debate is fine and necessary as long as it is based on the facts available. Labeling a group or part of a group as essentially illegal and dubious does nothing to solve the problem but rather unintentionally leads many to view them with extreme suspicion. I do wonder whether it is appropriate for the director to make such comments, specifically her comments which suggest that the free food and housing available to asylum seekers are so appealing.
Having said that, it should be recognized that the directorate is under a lot of pressure to improve processing times despite having little and insufficient resources to do so and Kristín may have a point.
Regardless of the scenario, there are always people who try to take advantage of the system. These issues should be addressed but what is most important is not for the directorate to get caught up in such heated discussions but that staff’s efforts and few resources available are used to speed up the procedure, hence decreasing waiting times.
Many recognize that this is a complex issue and there are no ‘quick fixes’ but as a country that prides itself on upholding human rights and high standards of living, Iceland has the responsibility to do more.
This is in everyone’s interest: the state, which is paying for the services, but also to the men, women and children who wait months and sometimes years for their applications to be processed, as well as for the communities in which they live. As Kristín said in her clarifying comments, this is also the best way to avoid abuse of the system.
One must remember that we are talking about the lives and futures of real people—many of which may be in real need of protection. As anyone who has spent any significant period of time out of work or on benefits will attest to, the fun of that quickly wears off.
What most people want is to make an honest living, build a life for themselves and integrate into society—not to spend endless months waiting idly, putting their lives on hold.
If we want to focus on the costs of processing asylum applications, we should also mention the long processing times’ effects on one’s psychological wellbeing and the costs involved in reintegrating people into society and the labor force.
I have worked with asylum seekers and refugees on a volunteer basis for several years in both Iceland and abroad.
As a volunteer it is not my role to judge whether the stories I hear are genuine or not but it is clear that, regardless of the circumstances, dramatically reducing the processing times is the only way to work towards improving the situation of asylum seekers. In the meantime, keeping people active through education and other activities is essential.
What I will say is that with a minimal weekly stipend (most of which comes in the form of a voucher for budget grocery store Bónus) and, in many cases, cramped living conditions, no possibility to work, and little opportunity to travel outside of Keflavík (where the majority of asylum seekers are housed), living as an asylum seeker in Iceland does not sound like much of a holiday.
Zoë Robert – email@example.com