Finding Refuge (ZR)


Zoë Robert's picture

The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is very much in the center of media focus and political discussion following the drowning of up to 900 migrants on one boat last weekend—the highest number of deaths in a single incident.

More than 35,000 migrants are thought to have crossed from Africa to Europe this year and all in all, 1,750 have died while attempting the journey. For comparison, around 3,500 people perished in the waters off Europe in all of 2014. A record 218,000 successfully made the journey, up from 60,000 in 2013.

European leaders have been holding emergency meetings this week, drawing up an action plan to tackle the crisis. Among the pledges, is a tripling of funds and increase in resources for border control in the Mediterranean as well as destroying the vessels used by people smugglers.

Experts and NGOs, however, have criticized the plan for not being wide-reaching enough and for not addressing the real roots of the problem. Amnesty International, for example, argued that the Triton operation patrols only within 30 miles of the Italian and Maltese coasts while drownings often occur closer to Libya, where the bulk of the boats set off from.

The UN had also criticized the plan as “minimalist.”

As the main entry points into the EU, Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the crisis over the years and have long been asking for more help from the rest of Europe. After all, it’s an issue which affects all of Europe—Iceland too.

Touched by Global Crisis

Many of the record numbers of refugees and asylum seekers which arrived in Europe in 2014 were from Syria and Eritrea—and the trend is expected to continue, with numbers forecast to far exceed that number.

An increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers have also sought refuge in Iceland in recent years—arrivals were up by 50 percent from 2012 to 2013 and 130 percent from 2011 to 2014—and in line with trends elsewhere in Europe, this year is set to be a record.

Despite the relatively small number of arrivals, the system in Iceland is straining to cope and few applications are given the green light.

Apart from the increase in asylum seeker arrivals to Iceland, since 2010, an Icelandic Coast Guard ship and surveillance aircraft are on assignment in the Mediterranean to carry out short-term assignments for Frontex, the European Union’s external borders agency, patrolling the seas.

So far this year, Icelandic Coast Guard ship Týr has helped rescue hundreds of migrants and refugees from the Mediterranean.

Once on shore, few migrants and refugees wish to stay in southern Europe; instead they mostly head to Germany or the Nordic countries. Of the thousands of arrivals each year, a small number end up in Iceland.

While some individuals look for asylum in Europe, others seek protection further afield and attempt to take a flight from Europe to Canada. This is how the vast majority of asylum seekers are thought to end up here, i.e. Iceland was not their chosen end destination but rather a country they happened to pass through on their way from Europe to North America.

When flights make a stopover in Iceland, it’s here that they are picked up by customs authorities. “Iceland is what is called a Schengen outpost so when passengers pass through Keflavík International Airport they have to go through passport control. It’s there that people are stopped if they are found to have a false passport or are without a visa to North America,” explains Áshildur Linnet, project manager for asylum seekers at the Icelandic Red Cross.

Cool Reception

In 2014, Iceland received 175 applications for asylum from individuals of 45 nationalities. As far as Iceland’s track record on granting asylum is concerned, though, asylum seekers face a cool reception on arrival.

In 2014, a total of 33 individuals (including five who received humanitarian protection) were granted protection in Iceland, up from 12 in 2013.

Germany granted the highest number of positive decisions in Europe in 2014 with around 40,000 followed by Sweden with 33,721. The proportion of positive decisions among all cases totaled 28 percent in Iceland in 2014, compared to 58 percent in Sweden.

“It’s no secret that among the Nordic countries, Iceland grants protection to by far the lowest number of asylum seekers,” Red Cross spokesperson Björn Teitsson says.

Speaking at ‘GO AWAY: Conference on the Status of Refugees,’ held in Reykjavík in November last year, MP for the Pirate Party Birgitta Jónsdóttir said that while asylum seekers aren’t the main concern of politicians, they are on the agenda of some.

The low number of positive decisions by Icelandic authorities can partly be attributed to the fact that it’s not possible to travel directly from most other countries, including conflict zones, to Iceland without passing through another European Union (EU) member state.

The Dublin Regulation states that the EU member state (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have also signed the agreement) that played the largest part in an individual’s entry or residence in the EU—usually the EU country they reached first—is responsible for processing their case.

It is often cited as a reason for rejecting applications. In other words, if an individual has been registered by the authorities in another European country but travels onwards from their first point of arrival and seeks asylum elsewhere in Europe, that country is able—but not obliged—to send that person back.

The Dublin Regulation aims to ensure that only one state is responsible for each application. However, there has been widespread concern that the system puts excessive pressure on border areas, in particular Greece and Italy, leading to the inability of the countries to offer support or protection.

Head of the Asylum Department at the Directorate of Immigration Þorsteinn Gunnarsson confirms that many cases in Iceland are so-called Dublin cases, around 47 percent in 2014, and that Iceland follows the rules on returning individuals, including not sending people back to countries deemed unsafe.

The Long Wait

The application processing time varies greatly from a few weeks up to four years.

Acutely aware of the strain on the system, the government and the Icelandic Red Cross signed an agreement last year on the Red Cross becoming the main partner with the Ministry of the Interior in asylum issues with the aim of shortening the processing of applications to a maximum of 90 days with a further 90 days for the appeal process.

“The idea is that people can get on with their lives,” Áshildur says of the 90-day guideline. During the waiting time, asylum seekers are able to study, as well as apply for work. However, few asylum seekers manage to find work in part because neither the asylum seeker nor the potential employer knows how long they will be in Iceland, Björn says.

Allowing asylum seekers to work is fundamentally important, Áshildur says. “It relieves some of the pressure and allows them to keep their human dignity during the process. Then, if they are granted permission to stay, they already have work, which helps them during their first steps in integration. If, on the other hand, their applications are rejected, then their time here is not wasted. It’s also important for Icelandic society that asylum seekers are able to participate in the labor market. It helps create tolerance as people learn that these are just normal people like the rest of us.”

Responding to the Increasing Numbers

A dedicated reception center, based on centers in other European countries, is also being planned where accommodation, as well as all the facilities and expertise needed to deal effectively with asylum seekers, will be located.

The actions being taken in Europe are focused first and foremost on saving lives and destroying the boats. One smuggler, a 34-year-old from Libya, quoted in The Times this week, hit the nail on the head when he said that people will always find a way to cross.

“The migrants themselves are desperate to cross. Some of them, particularly the Syrians, have started buying their own boats and making the journey alone without help. You can’t stop them,” he said.

“The coastline is nearly 2,000 km long. If you target one small section, people will find another patch of beach and more boats to launch. Tell me how they plan to patrol the whole of Libya and stop us?” he asked.

More concrete steps on how Europe will more effectively process and distribute asylum claims, as well as how member countries will receive and accommodate asylum seekers during the application process waiting period, is dearly needed.

Zoë Robert – zoe(at)

Part of the column is an extract from the article ‘Finding Home’ in the April-May issue of Iceland Review magazine. Visit to subscribe.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.