From Iceland — Crying WolfThe Myth of an Illegal Immigrant Problem

Crying WolfThe Myth of an Illegal Immigrant Problem

Published May 6, 2005

Crying WolfThe Myth of an Illegal Immigrant Problem

The immigration problem looks to be extremely difficult and threatening in the way all things evil are difficult and threatening: it is vague and unspecific. When asked about the exact damage immigrants were doing to the economy, Minister of Social Affairs Árni Magnússon told Grapevine “I don’t know, but it is a problem, and it is increasing. We have this situation in the Icelandic labour markets, we’ve had it for the past one or two years and will have it for some years to come.”

Again, vague and unspecific. But there must be a problem. After all, Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason is worried. Because of the EU and EEA, he says, illegals are coming into Iceland and taking jobs. Following an old bias, he told Grapevine that the problem seems to be with “people from Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States to name a few, [who] do not have the same rights to work in other countries as someone from Portugal” or another more established EU country.

There is a concerted, publicized effort to target unregistered immigration that has recently been launched with the combined forces of the labour unions, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. Their plan is to conduct a workplace-by-workplace investigation of the legal status of the foreign employees. Unregistered immigrants will be arrested, tried, fined and deported. The argument behind this crackdown contends that unregistered immigrants are hurting the labour market in Iceland.
Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason told Grapevine, “There is no need to increase either funding or manpower in this [immigration] effort.” Magnússon had a scary take on why funding would be unnecessary: neighbours should turn in neighbours: “One of the good things about being a small nation is being a small nation. Almost everybody knows everybody so I think this shouldn’t be so difficult for us. I urge everyone that knows about anyone who is here illegally to let the police know, because that’s to the benefit of all of us.”
So conservative politicians are “saving” Iceland from the immigration problem so oft repeated in the media then. But, while some of their language suggests a nightmare scenario, they simply can’t back it up. The cost effectiveness of a crackdown is not a problem for the government because there is no evidence that an unregistered immigrant “problem” even exists in the first place.

No one in the Ministry of Justice, the Office of Immigration, the Ministry of Social Affairs or in the unions that Grapevine spoke to was able to provide even an estimate of how many unregistered immigrants there might be in Iceland. Without this key piece of information, the government lacks justification for this crackdown. In addition, the statistics regarding immigration in Iceland actually reinforce the fact that there is no unregistered immigration problem.

2.6% Unemployment Doomsday Blues

Magnússon himself told Grapevine that 93% of immigrants in Iceland are gainfully employed. Directorate of Labour statistics show that unemployment in Iceland has actually dropped in the past year from 3.5% to 2.6% for the country as a whole. In the countryside, where the immigrant population is higher than in the capital area, unemployment is even lower than the national average, at 2.3%, down from 3% last year.

Without any estimates of how many unregistered immigrants their might be, with nearly every immigrant in Iceland gainfully employed, and with unemployment dropping for the nation as a whole and even more so in parts of the country where the immigrant population is highest, how is the government able to justify the claim that there’s an unregistered immigrant “problem”? The answer might be as simple as political gain.

No one likes the idea of “illegals” stealing jobs, and appearing tough on this issue has always been an expedient political tool for maintaining power. The Independence party has been the most unabashed supporter of immigration restrictions – regardless of a lack of evidence to support any unregistered immigrant problem. This scare tactic has helped the Independence Party gain support. This support is most obviously seen in a public rallying call against immigrants as a whole that has gone virtually unchecked.

In an opinion piece that ran in the April 21 issue of Fréttablaðið, Icelandic taxi driver Kristinn Snæland castigated the media for ignoring “people who have lost work due to immigrants and other foreigners, legal or illegal.” What Snæland and apparently many others are unaware of are Articles 6 and 7 of the Foreign Nationals’ Right to Work Act, which requires that immigrants coming to Iceland must apply from outside the country, and that they may only work at jobs which no Icelanders can do or wants to do. The notion that registered immigrants hurt the labour market is completely untrue, yet this sentiment and other anti-immigrant voices are repeated in the media with virtually no correction. These fears work to the advantage of a ruling party that uses these fears – not actual facts – to support a crackdown on immigrants.

Though, of course, immigration terror doesn’t have to focus on foreigners. Ingvar Sverrison, a lawyer for the Confederation of Icelandic Labour Unions (ASÍ), wants immigrants to know that they are not the target. He’s more interested in the employers.

“I want to make it perfectly clear that foreigners are not being targeted by the authorities,” he said in an interview with the Grapevine. “We welcome the new actors in the Icelandic labour market, domestic or foreign, employers and employees. In many cases foreign workers are exploited. We want to punish the employers. We want to stress that these employers who hire illegals will be severely punished, so that the advantage they gain through exploiting them is wiped out.”

But ASÍ chairman Grétar Þorsteinsson used slightly stronger language at a May 1st conference, saying, “The goal is to wipe out illegal work in this country by every means at our disposal.” (Emphasis mine)
Also, in the nine arrests of unregistered immigrants that have been made since the beginning of 2005, Grapevine only found one case of any these employers actually being charged with anything: Hlýnur Vigfússon, the manager of the strip club Bohem, was fined for employing three women from the Czech Republic who were working here illegally. The women were told to leave Iceland the same day they appeared in court.

In all fairness, when we visited his office, Sverisson was working on pamphlets to educate foreign workers on their rights, to be printed in several different languages. And the unions are powerless to decide the fate of unregistered immigrants. That authority belongs to the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the courts, the Office of Immigration and the police. In other words, one man controls every government institution that has anything to do with immigrants in Iceland. And almost everything in the immigration laws is open to his interpretation. As lawyer for the Intercultural Centre Margrét Steinarsdóttir told Grapevine last January, “One feels that many stipulations of the law on foreigners are basically vague and open to interpretation, that they’re written in such a way that if the immigration authorities wanted to, they could effectively close the country.”

If You Can’t Cry “Wolf,” Cry “Úlfur”

There are two fronts to take on the immigration issue so that the conservatives can point out that the country is going to hell. If you can’t get them on the economy, conservatives go for language.

In an opinion piece that ran earlier in April in Fréttablaðið, Kári Jónasson argued in favour of Section 15 of the Act on Foreigners, which requires immigrants to take 150 hours of Icelandic classes before they can qualify for a permanent work and residence permit. When Minister Magnússon was asked about language requirements, he told Grapevine, “One of the things we’ve seen in our research and our polls is that almost every immigrant wants to learn Icelandic.” The research that Magnússon refers to was conducted by Fjölmenningarsetrið (Multicultural and Information Centre) in the West Fjörds and Félagsvísindastofnun (The Social Science Research Centre), who surveyed foreigners living in the West Fjörds and in the east of Iceland. The survey indicated that 92% of immigrants surveyed want to learn or improve their Icelandic. Seeing as how the vast majority of immigrants want to learn Icelandic anyway, Grapevine asked why there was a need for such a regulation in the first place.
“We see that there are many immigrants who aren’t learning Icelandic,” Magnússon responded. “So we have a dilemma there and this is one of the things that we will have to look into. If all the immigrants want to do it, why don’t they do it?”

When the idea was mentioned that one possible cause was not having enough time to attend classes while working full time and raising a family, Magnússon dismissed the idea.

“Well, that’s life,” he said. “I think that if you want something enough, you can make it happen. Is it because of a lack of time? Maybe, although I don’t agree with you, it could be.”

But Magnússon was ignoring facts that should have been at his disposal. In the results of the very survey Magnússon was referring to, half of the respondents said that they don’t have time to attend the Icelandic courses offered. In addition, one third of the survey’s participants said that there was a shortage of Icelandic courses, and one fourth of those responding said that the courses were too expensive. That a government official could cherry-pick what information from a survey he chooses to believe, while casually dismissing the concerns of the people he’s supposed to be protecting, is unsettling and verges on blatant nationalism for political gain.

To his credit, it should be noted that Magnússon has created an “immigrant’s council,” which he claims was created with the purpose of confronting growing prejudice against foreigners.

The council will be comprised of two members of the Ministry of Social Affairs, one from the Ministry of Justice, one from the Ministry of Education, one from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one from the Association of Icelandic Municipalities, and one immigrant. At the time of this writing, the council is awaiting government funding. However, it still remains unclear how the council will work and how much power they will even have. As Magnússon told Grapevine, “In terms of strategy, we haven’t thought it all the way through yet; it’s a relatively new idea.”
Immigrants in Iceland are not helpless to the whims and anxieties of the government. Everyone living in this country has the right to e-mail, call, or meet in person with ministers and members of parliament, to ask questions and express their needs and concerns. Even immigrants without the right to vote have the power to do volunteer campaign work for the parties they feel best represent their needs. In order to stop the cycle of paranoia and restriction that has been guiding Icelandic immigration law for over ten years, immigrants and Icelanders alike need to hold their representatives accountable. The alternative – allowing anti-immigrant hysteria to continue unchecked – should be considered unacceptable to all of Iceland’s residents.

With reporting from
Adda Ingólfsdóttir

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