From Iceland — The Immigrant Representative

The Immigrant Representative

Published May 18, 2007

The Immigrant Representative

Maybe you could start by telling our readers how you came to enter Icelandic politics.
The municipal elections in 2006 pretty much convinced me to get involved. I was not really happy with the results. I was not happy with the way many people behaved themselves and I believed that the immigrant community in Iceland was sorely under represented and no party was serious about representing us so we would have to do it ourselves. For that reason I started the New Icelanders Party in July. Suddenly, other people began to take interest in immigration issues. The Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) contacted me and another immigrant representative to a meeting and basically asked: what do you people want? We went down a long laundry list of things that we wanted to change, but then I did not hear from them again. Then I was approached by people from the Left- Green Movement (Vinstri grænir) and told very specifically that they wanted to integrate our immigration platform, that they wanted to represent the immigrant community and they wanted me to help them write a platform. I was familiar with their platform, but not entirely, so I looked over it and found I was in more agreement with their platform then anyone else’s, so there was no conflict of interest for me to join them.

So, you were a Left-Green before joining them?
Yes, I voted for the Left-Greens in the municipal elections. I had met [party member] Hlynur Hallson in Akureyri back in 2003 and I interviewed him for this little online magazine I had at the time and I came away very impressed with him. So, yes.

How would you describe going through this process, being a foreigner and running in an election in Iceland? Did you feel you were being treated differently at any time because you are an immigrant?
No, actually, I got more shit for being an American for working for the Grapevine, to be honest. When I would get complaints, or read complaints on websites like, [a political discussion forum] there would be a cult of people who hate the Grapevine. The complaints were usually about my American political correctness. This cracked me up. But during this campaign, whether people really liked me and supported me or whether they despised me, my nationality never came in question. For that I am really grateful. I do not want to be treated differently because of my nationality. Whether people like me or despise me, I want it to be because of what I stand for, not because of what country I am from.

Early on, especially around the primaries, some concerns were raised over your Icelandic skills. Did you ever feel that it would be a barrier?
Not really. I mean, I do speak Icelandic and you can see on my blog that I write in Icelandic. The other people in my party have spoken nothing but Icelandic with me. Language has not been a problem for me. I enjoy speaking Icelandic. It is the language of this country and it is the language that is spoken in the Parliament, so to me it is a non-issue. Of course, I would be speaking Icelandic in Parliament.

Now you are in a position where you are a vice-M.P. and you are likely to take a seat in Parliament at some point during the next four years. What do you hope to accomplish once you get there?
Our immigration platform. The only platform that we have now in the Left-Greens is one that was made through the combined efforts of literally dozens of people who got together in meeting after meeting after meeting, week after week, for months on ends and culminating it its final approval on our National Convention last February. I think it is by far the best immigration platform in the country and what I am going to be focusing on is getting this platform passed. Getting the things that are detailed in this platform approved first and foremost.

What do you think are some of the main issues that need to be addressed as far as immigration issues go?
There is a long list of changes that we do want to make, but if I was to pick the top three… Language classes would be the first one. We want to make it free, more widely available, and available in the workplace when possible. If employers want to offer language classes, we want to provide them every opportunity to do so. We believe that there should be a standard to how Icelandic is taught as well as the qualifications somebody needs to teach Icelandic. That is very important. We also want a separate curriculum for teaching immigrant children Icelandic from the one that is used to teach Iceland born children, because if you are born here and brought up by Icelandic parents you hear it every day for six years before you started school. If you just came to this country and you are already 12-years old, your comprehension needs to be focused on other areas. You cannot start at the same level so there needs to be a separate curriculum.
Second is working rights. I point out the Confederacy of Icelandic Labour Unions (ASÍ) have written these pamphlets that detail the working rights of foreigners and is translated in close to 20 different languages. We would like to see that when people come to this country to work, they are given this kind of document in their native toungue.

The third one also regards immigration. Many people who come to this country have a university education. But unfortunately, this education is often not recognized. We think that should not be the case. The University of Iceland is a fine university, but there are other fine universities in the world that provide equally good education. We are poorly lacking educated people, for example in health care where there is a shortage of nurses. Of course, a lot of that has to do with how poorly the nurses are paid; they definitely need a pay rise, of course. But we also need to get more educated people into the market, definitely. There are a slew of other immigration issues that we want to address and it is all available online where anybody can read it.

What do you think is the reason for these shortcomings? Is it because people in Iceland generally lack an interest in immigration issues, or were we not prepared for the increase of immigrants to the country?
I think it is a number of reasons. The general attitude has been that people were coming here temporarily or they cannot vote anyway, so who cares? But in the last year, the government took an active interest in immigration issues and I think a lot of that has to do with the efforts of people like Toshiki Toma and myself and groups like Iceland Panorama and the Intercultural Center, as well as the Left- Greens and the efforts that we have pushed forward. I think immigration matters to the average Icelander. I describe them as multicultural moderates, OK? They do not necessarily like the idea of the government playing a role in making Iceland more multicultural. But at the same time, they are very uncomfortable with people who start discussing immigration issues with a nationalistic tone.

Icelanders in general do not agree with racism. They do not agree with nationalism at all. So they shy away from discussions about immigration issues because no one wants to be thought of as being racist. But if you have concerns, of course they need to be talked about. There is nothing wrong with that. But when particular people raise questions like: what if Muslims move to Iceland? And do not seem to realise that there are already thousands of them living here. You know, that already makes people want to shy away from the discussing the issue altogether. But I think it does matter to Icelanders and most of the people I know, whether they are to the left or to the right, have the same attitude, that is, everybody should have the same opportunity to make it in our society. It is all a question of how you go about doing it. It is a question of process, so there is a difference to how different parties approach it.

The Liberal Party [The only party in Iceland to speak out against immigration] toned it down before the elections. I don’t know if that was because they were being politically wise, or if they actually wised up a little bit. But in general, I think people are not comfortable bringing up the subject because they do not want to express certain words and are concerned with being thought of as being über-nationalistic. That is understandable, but we do need this discussion. Both sides need to be able to communicate with each other because [the lack of communication] is exactly why there have been problems in other countries like Denmark, Germany and France. If you open the doors to your country and allow the people to come in and you let them do all the shit jobs but you don’t do anything to actively integrate people into the society and you don’t do anything to teach nationalists about the culture and the people who are moving here, then you are just asking for trouble. That does not have to happen here. The answer is not to close the borders or putting some arbitrary number on the number of people who are allowed to move here, that actually accomplishes nothing and would do a lot of damage to our economy as well.

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