Published August 8, 2003


I left the United States for good, and I mean really and for true, in 1999, and have vowed never to return, ever. Aside from general embarrassment and disgust with what passes for culture, a military dictatorship pretending to be a democracy for a government, and the seeming ubiquitousness of “reality” TV shows, my greatest reason for leaving was that with every war, conflict, or battle that the U.S. visited upon some nation or another in the world, I knew that my tax dollars were paying for a part of it. Sooner than I thought, it became more than I could bear, and my Icelandic friends helped me process my immigration papers. Hello sweet freedom! Uh, right?

Well, let me say first of all that I am happy to be living in Iceland. This is where I want to stay, raise my family, and become too old to bathe myself. My life is much simpler and more relaxed since moving here, and my social conscience weighs a little bit less. But no place is paradise, of course, and there are things which I learned the hard way. Hopefully, this piece will help provide a broader and clearer picture of immigration in general, and in Iceland particularly.

I have always found nationalism a bit silly, and anti-immigration sentiments downright absurd. Especially in the States. “Look at these damn foreigners,” I’ve heard way too many Americans complain to me as we see a family of foreigners walking around somewhere, “They come to this country and don’t even speak the language. They steal our jobs, breed like rabbits, and live forty to a one-bedroom apartment.” This type of sentiment always gives me pause from an American. Especially from an American. I mean, aren’t we all “damn foreigners”? Don’t the real Americans live on reservations today? So I’d ask these people, “Where are your grandparents from?” Almost immediately the flag-waving ceases. Americans, with the exception of the reservation-dwelling Natives, are all descended from people who at one time came to this country without knowing the language, found jobs, worked hard, and with a little perseverance, became the butt of ethnic jokes which are still told to this day.

But certainly times have changed since the poem which is now engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty was first penned, right? The “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are welcomed much more easily in the States today, provided that they’re not Muslim. And how about Iceland, then? Surely in such a comparatively more progressive country attitudes are proportionately more advanced, no?

Welllll, it depends on who you talk to.

Icelanders are generally welcoming of foreigners. Many’s the time I went to a bar alone and had someone approach me asking, “Where are you from?”, thereby starting a long conversation of many questions. Even though I’m from a country as unremarkable as the U.S, after four years people are still asking me questions about what it’s like there. The curiosity never ends, and though it takes time to make long-lasting friends with an Icelander, they generally welcome foreigners. To an extent.

When I first came to Iceland I worked in a restaurant which shall remain nameless. I very quickly found that I had to work three times as hard to prove a third as much, that if anything went wrong I was always the first person to be asked why it happened, and that my boss kept me in the dark about many of my legal entitlements. Other immigrants have told me similar stories. The fact is, there are incredulous people everywhere in the world, and you have to be careful. Look out for the tell-tale chain smoking, the unreturned phone calls, and the weak explanations as to why you can’t get paid “this month”. These guys are the exception. So how about the everyday people?

I once conducted an informal survey among the Icelanders I know. Some were co-workers, others were friends. I asked them one question: “Do you think there are too many foreigners in Iceland?” The response was always the same: “No, but . . .”, followed by some rather imaginative suggestion regarding what they would do with the huddled masses. My favourite so far is, “They shouldn’t be allowed to live together and start their own neighbourhoods.” I laughed out loud at this, really. I mean, first of all, what is the harm in having a Chinatown? Secondly, how would one enforce such a law?

Immigration Official: “Country of origin?”
Immigrant: “Thailand.”
Immigration Official: “Hmm, let me see. Well, we already have five Thais living in the 101 postal code. How’d you like to live in Kopasker?”

The fun doesn’t end there either. In 2000 there were a couple of Chinese arrested in Keflavik airport for carrying false passports. The very next day the police came to the guesthouse where I was living, which was full of immigrants. They went door to door writing down passport numbers. When they came to my door I asked them why they needed my passport number. They sort of looked at each other, said nothing, and left. It was kind of surreal, actually. The Chinese people living in the guesthouse surrendered their passport numbers right away, however; in China you don’t question the police about anything, and I think these Icelandic cops knew this. They probably also knew that we Americans will explode in a fit of rage and assault police officers, of course; haven’t you ever seen World’s Wildest Police Videos?

When I hear Icelanders expressing fear of an immigration flood they always bring up Denmark, as though Denmark was the greatest immigration failure on the face of the earth. In particular, they talk about how those notorious “neighborhoods” have formed, and they describe with indignation how the immigrants refuse to learn the language! OK, have you ever heard Danish? Even some of you Danes reading this know what I’m talking about. Seriously though, do you know who they’re hurting, these people who refuse to learn the language? Themselves alone. They will never get jobs higher than dishwasher or fish-gutter, they won’t vote, and their income is still taxed the same as everyone else’s. What more could a government want? If anything, you’d think the Ministry of Immigration would try to prevent them from learning the language!

All these little things don’t make for much, in the long run. An immigrant who finds a good boss and tries to learn the language will probably do well for himsefl in Iceland. He will certainly do better here than in the States. Which makes it all the more deplorable what Fréttablaðið (whose hilarious motto is “we report the news”) is doing.
Maybe it’s because nothing very exciting happens in Iceland, or maybe it’s because the editor of this rag has something against immigrants himself, but Fréttablaðið has consistently released a string of articles which have a decidedly anti-foreigner slant. Worse still, these articles are always built on reporting half of the truth. I cite my examples:
Earlier this year, they ran a banner headline which read “The Majority of Icelanders Think There Are Too Many Foreigners”. Buried deep within the article, however, was the fact that they only called 600 people.

…Continued on page 30

A friend of mine was called for this survey. He asked the surveyor how many foreigners there were in fact in Iceland. The surveyor said he didn’t know. So much for being able to make an informed opinion, let alone within such a feeble cross-section. Later on, they ran another front-page story about foreigners who marry Icelanders, get citizenship, and then divorce shortly thereafter. It’s a good thing that Stöð 2 news that very night added to the story: Any foreigner who gets citizenship through marriage will lose it if they get divorced. And then there was the outrage Fréttablaðið expressed over 150 foreigners working at the new Alcoa plant in the east, while unemployment is so high. Refreshingly, they printed a quote the next day from an Alcoa official who said that no qualified Icelander could be found for those jobs. Still, would it have killed the fact-checker to call Alcoa before running the initial story? Maybe the delay was deliberate. Who knows?
This kind of sensationalism is made all the more disgusting by the fact that there is nothing constructive to be accomplished by running such stories. Most Icelanders realize how important a role immigrants play in their country.

Who else is going to gut the fish?
In case you’re a little in the dark about immigration law in Iceland, here are a few basic rules which seem to be almost international. Anywhere you go in the world, you will find that:
1) Any foreigner coming into the country must have a job already waiting for them.
2) This job must be one which no national can or will do. (Hence the fish-gutting).
3) The employer must prove to the state that he has tried to find a qualified and willing national to do the job, before hiring the foreigner.
4) Immigrants work on temporary work and residence permits. That means, if their permit expires and a national wants their job, the employer is obliged to give the job to the national, even if the employer would rather retain the immigrant.
5) Citizenship takes a long time. In Iceland, it’s seven years of really, really, good behavior.
Hopefully this will give you all; immigrants, tourists and Icelanders alike, a broader and more honest view of what it means to be one of the wretched refuse on the teeming shores. Immigrants are coming to your country because they like your country better than their own. Isn’t that flattering? And until they become fully nationalized, they’ll do all the crummy jobs you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (metric conversion: three-meter-pole). How convenient is that? So the next time you see a family of foreigners walking down the street, or are about to breeze right past the cleaning woman in your office without a second glance, or are waiting for the orderly to finish cleaning your grandmother’s bedpan so you can make your monthly visit, don’t act like you don’t see them. Smile, wave, and tell them “Welcome to our country, you ready and willing future citizens of this, our great society!” They might not yet understand a word you’re saying, but chances are they’ll smile and wave back.

Paul Fontaine-Nikolov lives in the desolate north of Iceland with his wife and two goldfish. He is the editor of the political online magazine Apsaras Review, works in a group home for disabled people, and is currently campaigning to get the U.S. to pay reparations to Cambodia. When not doing any of these things, he cooks. He can be contacted at

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