Crowded into a small room in the basement of Kaffi Kúltúr, Mr. Halldórsson was surrounded by Icelanders and a few foreigners who all share one thing in common – none of them are happy about these new laws. Sitting beside him, I noticed his hands shaking as he held his written statement, reading the party line which has stirred up so much outrage and bewilderment. I certainly have to give the guy credit for facing a room full of angry Icelandic liberals. Even if there were only fourteen of them.
A regular tightening of immigration laws is nothing new, and when various new restrictions were added in 2002 (including the compulsory attendance of at least 150 hours of Icelandic classes – to be paid for by the immigrants at a total cost 100.000 krónur; about a whole months´ wages for many), resistance was limited to foreigners and a few sympathetic Icelanders. However, whether due to growing sympathy among Icelanders or the fact that these new laws effect Icelanders themselves, resistance is growing rapidly.
The new laws regarding immigration bear many inconsistencies. To name a few:
1) While it is perfectly legal for an Icelandic couple to apply for a bank loan to buy a house or apartment when they’re as young as 18 years of age, foreign couples, or couples of one Icelander and one foreigner, must wait until they are 24.
2) For the police to search the home of an Icelander, they must make a strong case for suspicion of a crime to get a search warrant from a judge. Yet for the police to search the home of a foreigner, a member of the police force need only suspect that the foreigner has broken an immigration law, and needs no such search warrant.
3) Most bizarre of all, the parents of a foreigner may not immigrate to Iceland until they are at least 66 years of age.
Mr. Halldórsson was received politely as he read his statement, explaining that this set of laws was being wildly protested based on a “misunderstanding” of what the law actually was. There was no misunderstanding, however, among this group of people in attendance as to what this new law had to say. As Mr. Gunnarsson noted: “We contend that these laws are flat-out racist. They send a message to all foreigners immigrating to this country that we consider them to be dishonest, and not worthy of our friendship or our respect.” And then the meeting began to get really hot.
An Icelandic woman, newly married to an Italian man, recounted her tale of frustration: “I thought that it would be enough that my husband was married to me. Yet because of these laws, he’s not able to get a kennitala (an Icelandic identity number) and therefore can’t get any legal work.”
From my own observation in my home country – where we’ve passed more and more restrictions against immigrants – these laws actually do nothing to reduce the number of immigrants coming into the country. Whether we’re talking about Iceland or the United States, immigration continues to rise despite of them. One very real effect, however, is that in order for these immigrants to make a living wage, they are forced to work illegally. This serves to justify, in the minds of many lawmakers, the need to add further restrictions. And so the vicious cycle continues.
Now that the law has been passed and the media has moved on to what it deems more important – laws regarding itself – will this matter go the way of the 2002 laws; stirring up outrage in a few but ignored by the public at large? Not if the Reykjavík Multicultural Centre, among others, can help it.
On Friday 21 May, the Reykjavík Multicultural Centre held a public meeting at Iðno. The attendance faired far better than the Heimsþorp meeting – some fifty people listened intently as centre chairman Stefán Jón Hafstein read aloud the purpose of this meeting, which essentially made it clear that the city of Reykjavík is reaching out to the immigrants living in this city and actually asking them what should be done to make Reykjavík more multicultural. Certainly a step in the right direction, and it didn’t end there.
One of the ideas brought by sitting members of the committee included a multi-language radio station – stocking the library with more foreign-language books and a website which could serve as a single source for immigrants to go to. Some very good points about language very also made:
“The fact that the immigrants themselves have to pay for 150 hours of classes, even the ones living in some tiny little village hours away from where any class is taught, is bad enough. Even if you can afford it, these classes are structured poorly and not very much help in getting integrated.”
Of course, there are a few bad apples in every basket, as they say, and when I saw some tell-tale flyers up around town, my heart sank.
“Stop the immigrant invasion,” they read (in Icelandic), “Protect the purity of your country. Love your white skin.” And so on and et cetera. What disturbed me most was that these people were promoting a meeting which they planned to have at Stjórnaráðið, the very seat of government, right across the street from where Hitt Husið and Heimsþorp were planning on throwing a street carnival against racism. The two events were scheduled to begin at the same time.
I showed up at Stjórnaráðið at the appointed time, filled with dread. Across the street, the carnival was setting up. It was a cold rainy day, but nevertheless the carnival organisers seemed in high spirits. I took a breath and tried the door – it was locked. I looked inside and saw no one there. I left the area to get some coffee.
When I came back half an hour later, the carnival was in full swing. That is to say, as full as the swing could be in the cold, pouring rain. So despite the elements, there were some 100 people huddled under umbrellas and listening to a slightly-out-of-tune but very well-meaning band. Also entertaining the crowd was a stilt-walker, a fire-breather, a juggler, and a fire-dancer. At one booth a Chinese man was writing people’s names in Mandarin characters. At another, there were some international snacks for sale, such as sesame crackers from the Philippines, couscous from North Africa and banana nut sticks from Thailand. A few volunteers were leading people to a world map and encouraging foreigners to place small orange stickers on their city or country of origin. There I saw stickers marking Honduras, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, most of eastern Europe, and numerous other locales. Baltimore was already tagged, so I placed a sticker on Bulgaria, on behalf of my wife.
As Musíktilraunir “battle of the bands” award-winners Lada Sport set up on stage to perform next, I caught up with Sigga Birna Valsdóttir, the coordinator of this event. She told me that one event in particular was the inspiration behind this carnival:
“Not too long ago, there were some fights between gangs of Icelandic kids and Asian kids living in Breiðhólt. The news coverage of this focused very negatively on the Asians. I work at Hitt Húsið with young people in the 16- to 25-year-old range, including some of these Asian kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to practically demand that these kids go to the police when some racists vandalise their homes. There’s too much of this ‘let’s just pretend it didn’t happen’ attitude. But when I began to put this event together, I received a very positive response. So many of these kids wanted to take part, and did. It went far better than I expected.”
I asked her if she knew anything about the flyers from the “racists”. It turns out that it was, in fact, part of performance art piece that was done separately from the carnival. Apparently, there were a few people of different races dressed as angels, who beat a piniata which was supposed to represent racism. The idea was to attract racists to the area and perform this piece for them. I was told that no racists actually showed up. So much for that then.
Many immigrants reading this article might be asking themselves at this point, “Fine, but what can we do?”
Every political party in this country depends on volunteer support to campaign. People to hand out flyers and pins, to stuff envelopes, to host public meetings and the like. What we immigrants can and must do is lend our volunteer support to that party which defends us and represents our interests in Iceland.
Also, there is the offer made by the Reykjavík Multicultural Center. Those with some ideas to get across as to how to make Reykjavík more multicultural can contact Halldóra Gunnarsdóttir by phone at 563 2000, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Immigrants will keep coming to Iceland. We work hard, we pay taxes, we obey the law. Unless immigration restrictions make earning a legal wage nearly impossible, we will continue to live as honest members of this society. Most Icelanders would be inclined to agree. Given the growing response to and participation in this issue, it´s safe to say that this matter is far from over.