Borders, Boundaries, and Exclusion in the Icelandic Asylum System.

Author:Tryggvadottir, Helga


Grounded in theories of borders and boundaries, this article critically engages with the processes through which asylum seekers in Iceland are excluded from full participation in society. Immigration laws and bureaucratic barriers contribute to this exclusion, which is a result of restrictions on labour market participation, lack of housing, temporality, and lack of meaningful activities. We discuss how borders and boundaries create the identity of the asylum seeker and how the participants in this study experience that identity. We identify three main areas of exclusion: social exclusion, isolation, and cultural boundaries.


Fonde sur des theories concernant les frontieres et les limites, cet article envisage de maniere critique les processus par lesquels les demandeurs d'asile sont, en Islande, exclus d'une pleine participation a la societe. Les lois sur l'immigration et les obstacles bureaucratiques contribuent a cette exclusion, qui resulte de restrictions en termes de participation au marche du travail, d'un manque de logements, d'une temporalite et d'un manque d'activites constructives. Nous examinons la maniere dont les frontieres et les limites creent l'identite du demandeur d'asile, et comment les participants a cette etude vivent cette identite. Nous determinons par ailleurs trois domaines principaux d'exclusion: l'exclusion sociale, l'isolement et les frontieres culturelles.


In recent years increased numbers of people have claimed asylum in Iceland. After crossing multiple borders, they meet cultural boundaries and systemic barriers that they are sometimes unable to cross. These boundaries can lead to exclusion from the society in which they are trying to settle. In addition to state borders, the social and bureaucratic mechanisms that create boundaries can lead to social exclusion within states. We examine how borders and boundaries affect asylum seekers in Iceland. Asylum seekers claim a right to settle into society and they are simultaneously excluded from it. Within this context, we further investigate the interplay between national borders, cultural boundaries and social exclusion. We argue that immigration policy, bureaucracy, and social practices work as exclusionary mechanisms for asylum seekers in Iceland.

Analyzing the exclusion of asylum seekers can be problematic, since they are not generally understood to belong to the nation while their case is being processed. Their current exclusion from society is legitimated by the possibility of their future exclusion. As Cabot points out, the category of asylum seeker refers to the temporary nature of a persons relationship to a nation-state. (2) Hynes has described the status of asylum seekers as one of "liminality," the state of being in between statuses. (3) Yet, while maintaining this interim identity, asylum seekers live in Iceland, and they still participate in society despite these limitations on their status. As will be demonstrated in our analysis in this article, asylum seekers in our study are excluded from the normal activities of social life in Iceland. We find that this exclusion is produced through the application of immigration policy as well as through the bureaucratic practices and social norms in Iceland that create boundaries and barriers to participation in society.

In recent years, Iceland has experienced a rapid increase in the number of people claiming asylum. An island located on the periphery of Europe, Iceland has traditionally had low numbers of asylum seekers. Because of the country's location, many of the asylum seekers' cases are adjudicated through the Dublin Regulation, which allows countries to return asylum seekers to the European country to which they first arrived. Despite this likely outcome in the cases of many asylum seekers in Iceland, the waiting period for case resolution is typically long. During that period of waiting, asylum seekers are unable to fully participate in society.

This article raises the question of whether and how the asylum system in Iceland, through usage of national borders and cultural boundaries, leads to the exclusion and isolation of asylum seekers. We begin with a discussion on the theoretical background of the study, introduce the field and the methodology, and then move to the main findings. Three areas of exclusion emerged from our analysis: social exclusion, isolation, and cultural boundaries. This outcome results from restrictions on labour market participation, a reliance on social services, waiting for case resolution, and a lack of access to meaningful activities. Some asylum seekers also experience isolation related to their housing situation. We furthermore investigated the ways in which participants in this study experienced their identity as well as their experiences of racism and prejudice in Iceland. Finally, we consider their agency and resistance against the immigration system.

Theoretical Overview

Classic studies of borders and boundaries entail descriptive analysis of geographical boundaries. More recent studies of "bordering" processes increasingly focus on the human practices that represent differences between geographical spaces. (4) Emphasis on borders as disappearing or becoming increasingly porous, common in the 1990s and early 2000s, is diminishing, while more focus is put on the study of borders as securitized and militarized. They are also increasingly viewed as a dispersed or chaotic entities, performed or embodied. (5) Boundaries have been framed in different terms across disciplines, defined as a separation between spaces within geography and as a distinction between social groups within anthropology. (6) In this article we focus on borders and boundaries in the anthropological sense. While borders and boundaries are generally seen as fixed, stable entities that divide up space, within political science, (7) Anderson, Sharma, and Wright, view them as fundamentally ideological constructs. (8) They emphasize that the effects of borders on power relations and inequality need to be investigated, as opposed to the study of borders as mere territorial boundaries that can be crossed in single events. Although the forces of globalization require and create large scale population flows, human mobility is increasingly framed within the context of problems, crisis, and threats to security. (9) At the same time migration is becoming more dangerous as the result of stringent border control, which increasingly forces people to use unsafe routes and the services of smugglers. (10)

Traditionally within anthropology, borders and boundaries have been studied separately. Borders have been understood primarily to be territorial markers between states, whereas boundaries are seen as social constructs, establishing symbolic differences or producing identities. (11) According to Fassin, the two concepts must necessarily be combined in order to understand how immigration is governed and experienced. He argues that immigrants embody the articulation of borders and boundaries: "They cross borders to settle in a new society and discover boundaries through the differential treatment to which they are submitted." (12) Khosravi, moreover, claims that borders are used to expose migrants and refugees to exclusion, discrimination, and exploitation. States use borders to define who is allowed to live within their territory and who can be excluded from their territory through deportation. (13) De Genova describes deportation as a means of separating what is inside from what is outside. That separation allows for the exploitation of those who are excluded from the state. By being deported or undocumented, their existence is reduced to what Agamben termed "bare life." (14) Those who are "deportable" are therefore excluded from the nation and the state, even though they still live within its boundaries. (15)

Exclusion, furthermore, has been a subject of analysis in border studies, since the making of borders and boundaries inevitably leads to exclusion of some and inclusion of others. (16) In this article, however, we focus mainly on social exclusion within Iceland while asylum seekers reside there. Studies analyzing refugee resettlement in relation to social exclusion suggest that recently resettled refugees may be vulnerable to social exclusion due to factors such as socio-economic disadvantage, lack of social support, and experiences of discrimination. (17)

The concept of social exclusion highlights mechanisms that act as barriers to full participation in society. Some individuals and groups may experience only partial social exclusion, in some aspects of social life, while those who are excluded in many ways are more vulnerable and generally experience greater difficulties. (18) Social exclusion has been defined as an inability to participate in normal activities in the society in which one is geographically residing. (19)

The Field and Background

The borders of Iceland may seem easily defined: the country is an independent island state located in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. The coastline marks an obvious border between nations as well as between land and sea. It marks the outer limits of the Schengen area. Border control is strict when leaving Schengen but is less strict when moving between Iceland and other countries within Schengen. Therefore, many asylum seekers who are on their way to Canada get stuck in Iceland during border control and have few options other than to apply for asylum in Iceland. (20) As the result of Iceland's location, the majority of the asylum seekers who originate outside Europe have passed through another Schengen country on the way to Iceland. The Dublin Regulation allows countries to transfer asylum seekers back to the first European country they entered. (21)

Historically, migration in Iceland has been on a small scale. Immigrants made up less than 2 per cent of the population in 1996. Since 2001...

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