For years, hundreds of people with refugee protection in the EU who saw no future for themselves in their receiving member state found a second chance in Iceland. This is now changing.
"It feels like walking on the edge of the world." This is how Hiwa Kolichi describes his daily walks along a coastal road in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, where the sea and the sky usually appear grey. By going for long walks, Kolichi tries to cope with the immense anxiety he is having over the near future: "Iceland might be where the world will end for me," he says.
Kolichi, a 40-year-old Kurdish man, applied for asylum in Iceland last summer. Before that, he lived in Hungary as a refugee for 14 years. There, he says he had no prospect of being accepted as a part of society. He faced discrimination and constantly feared deportation. Like hundreds of other refugees last summer, Kolichi decided to try his luck in Iceland. The word of the mouth was that Iceland does not deport people to countries like Hungary and that there is a chance to stay there despite having refugee status in Hungary. But that was not the case anymore, Kolichi realized after his application in Iceland was rejected twice.
Iceland’s reputation for the acceptance of EU refugees
In the summer of 2020, despite travel restrictions and increased border controls, nearly 300 asylum seekers arrived in Iceland. This came as a bit of a shock for a country with an approximate population of 300,000 that normally receives about 600 asylum applications per year. Some Icelandic media reported a "record number of asylum seekers." According to the Icelandic Directorate of Migration, most applicants of 2020 were refugees like Kolichi who already had international protection elsewhere in the EU.
"It is not new that applicants for international protection in Iceland arrive here from other European countries, which is mainly due to Iceland’s geographical position," says Thorhildur Hagalin, the spokesperson of the Icelandic Directorate of Migration. "However, the number of people, with international protection from another European country who apply for asylum in Iceland, has been growing in the last years and months," she continues.
Having refugee status elsewhere in Europe automatically disqualifies people from applying for asylum again. According to the Dublin agreement, to which Iceland is a party, members have the right to return the individuals to the countries where their fingerprints were first collected. But the Icelandic immigration laws allows the officials to evade sending people back to countries where migrant’s situation is dire.
"We know the situation in countries such as Hungry and Greece. There have been many outcries," says Thorhildur Hagalin. "This is why we do not immediately return people to these countries, just because they have been registered there as refugees."
Those whose applications for asylum in Greece or Hungry are pending or rejected have the right to submit a new application in Iceland. "Their application will then be reviewed outside of Dublin regulation, on its own merit," says Thorhildur. But the ones like Kolichi, who already have protection, would have to convince the authorities that they have had "special circumstances".
Thorhildur outlines the examples of special circumstances as "if the applicant will face difficulties in the receiving state due to serious discrimination, i.e. with regard to access to health services, education, labor market, etc., or if he, for the same reasons, can expect his situation to be significantly worse than the general public’s in the receiving state."
Trapped in Hungary
Before arriving in Iceland Kolichi was confident that his case would convincingly fall into the “special circumstances” category. He believed that Hungary’s discriminatory policies and racism kept him excluded from society. "Exclusion started upon my arrival. The financial support from the state was next to nothing, so I desperately searched for a job, any job, to survive," Kolichi says. With no knowledge of the Hungarian language, his choices were limited to jobs such as kitchen helper or legman in restaurants. "My employers were migrants too; often owners of Kebab shops," Kolichi says. Such jobs, he says, always came with semi-official contracts or no contract at all and required working long and tiresome shifts in isolated environments. "For years, I had almost no viable contacts with the locals, not even a chance to learn the local language. I was trapped."
To Icelandic migration authorities, Kolichi presented the record of some hundred unanswered job applications to Hungarian businesses he had made few months before leaving Hungary -- as a sample of his efforts for integration. "If it wasn’t because of my refugee status, one of my job applications would have worked," he believes. On multiple occasions he says, the employers told him that it would be too complicated for them to hire a refugee.
Hungary has a record of mistreating asylum seekers. Its prime minister, Victor Orban, has publicly and repeatedly called refugees "Muslim invaders, on to destroy Europe’s cultural fabric." Kolichi says he has heard the words of the prime minister echoing from the local’s mouth: "One time my landlord asked me to move out a month after signing the contract. He had found out about my origins and told me he did not want to have a ‘Muslim invader’ living in his house." It has nothing to do with faith, Kolichi notes. "The state demonizes every refugee coming from a Muslim majority country, even convinced atheists, like me."
When the pandemic hit Hungary, Kolichi lost his last bit of hope in having a sustainable future in Hungary. Restaurants were closed and other semi-official service sector jobs went down, while the Hungarian officials were blaming the pandemic on migrants.
Once the airports were open again in June, with borrowed money, Kolichi flew to Iceland.
The government’s push for change in migration law
Kolichi’s application for asylum has been rejected twice. He says he feels like the authorities seek to deport him to signal a red light to others who are planning to come to Iceland.
"The Directorate of immigration is rejecting these applications with very thin arguments," his lawyer Anna Arndis says.
Arndis has been working with the Icelandic Red Cross since 2009. She provides legal assistance to asylum seekers. "Icelandic authorities have now started sending people back to Hungary, which they hadn’t done for three years," Arndis says. "In my opinion, it is because too many people [with a similar case] suddenly applied."
A couple of months before Hiwa arrived, the Icelandic minister of justice presented a bill on migration law to the parliament. If passed, the bill speeds up the processing of applications from people who have already received protection in other European countries. "The new law can make it easier for the government to deport people to Greece and Hungry," Arndis says.
The Red Cross lawyers' association and other Icelandic rights groups have expressed their concerns about the potential human rights abuses of the new law. Some Icelandic MPs have slammed the minister for pushing to send people back to Hungry and Greece in the middle of a pandemic.
These days Kolichi expects the verdict on his last appeal. "The thought of getting deported to Hungary scares me to death," he says. On the contrary, the prospect of staying in Iceland inspires him: "I want to study to become a teacher here," Kolichi says. "I can teach the children to appreciate a simple life; the simple life that I wished to have, but was taken away from me waiting for the official's decision over my future."