More than 20.000 immigrants are currently living in Iceland. They enjoy the safety and serenity in this country, a rich cultural life and a functioning social system. Some of them have even experienced less discrimination than elsewhere. However, many foreigners have difficulties integrating into Icelandic society. Their problems range from direct discrimination to subtle differential treatment in work and everyday life.
Stereotyping foreigners—a hierarchy
Foreigners have experienced different degrees of discrimination in Iceland depending upon their origins. Scandinavians are treated the best; they are even allowed to vote in municipal elections sooner than other foreigners. Europeans come next, most of them enjoying freedoms under the EEA-Agreement. North Americans follow, being culturally close to Icelanders. Then comes the rest of world.
As for direct discrimination, studies show that it is especially experienced by Eastern European and dark-skinned immigrants to Iceland.
There are many examples of this. When asked, Margrét Steinarsdóttir, legal advisor to immigrants at the Service Centre Miðborg and Hlíðar, and director of the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, recounts reports about a dark-skinned woman being denied access to a downtown club on the grounds that they had “troubles with dark-skinned women” before. Barbara Kristvinsson, advisor to immigrants at Miðborg and Hlíðar, also recalls: “The media plays a large role. Sometimes there were reports in the newspapers about crimes attributed to Polish or Lithuanian people with headlines such as ‘Increase in crime’ right next to them. Newspapers were even more eager to get pictures of them, seemingly to stigmatise them. Of course, this brought the connection: ‘Eastern Europeans are all criminals’.”
A study about Poles in the Icelandic media published in October 2010 by the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Iceland concluded that “media discourse has created a stereotype of foreigners as threatening, usually Eastern European men, connected to organised crime, rape and fighting.” Such racial stereotyping is a practice that was criticised by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance in 2007. Equally worrying is the observation that “those who understand the language more and who use the Icelandic media, feel more discriminated against than those who don’t. Some even say it is better not to speak Icelandic, so that one doesn’t feel so bad.”
Icelandic skills and differential treatment
In many cases, however, different treatment of foreigners in contrast to Icelanders is subtle, often related to language skills. Barbara, an immigrant herself, remarks: “Even though I’ve been here for 19 years and speak Icelandic, I have an accent and sometimes I still feel that people talk down to me because of that”. A foreign student commented that Icelandic students complained about her “bad Icelandic placing obstacles” in their way during a written group assignment, although she had her (Icelandic) husband look over her part: “It’s becoming a little better now, but they made me feel as if I had to prove that I deserved to be here.” In another account, an English-speaking woman called a health centre in Reykjavík, but was repeatedly hung up on. When she demanded a personal explanation, the receptionist said that people had to speak Icelandic in order to see a doctor. And, Arnþrúður Karlsdóttir, the director of radio station Útvarp Saga, indignantly refused to talk to an English-speaking woman on her talk show (see Grapevine.is, 18.11.2010).
Jobs—knowing the right people
Speaking the language is, of course, not only important for integration in private, but also professional life. Nevertheless, it is not the golden gateway into Icelandic society and the job market. Xavier Rodriguez, a lawyer and journalist from Barcelona, complained in 2008 to Fréttablaðið about his difficulties. Having passed a LL.M. at the University of Iceland, speaking good Icelandic and having four other Master Degrees, he did not find a stable position as a lawyer. Now, he works as a freelancer for Icelandic and Spanish clients, as a journalist for the Catalonian national Radio and TV, owns a travel agency and teaches media in a high school. “You have to reinvent yourself, if you want to be working here as a foreigner”, he says.
Data from Iceland Statistics and the Directorate of Labour in Reykjavík show that more than eight percent of foreigners are unemployed, compared to around 4.5% of Icelanders. In 2009, 31% of unemployed foreigners had worked in the construction industry. While this is admittedly a high number, it also means that around 70% of the unemployed foreigners did not lose their jobs due to the collapse of the construction industry. Another interesting issue would be to examine how many educated foreigners are working in low-skilled jobs.
The problem does not simply reside in the deliberate discrimination of foreigners. It is deeply rooted in Iceland’s homogenous society, in which giving jobs to relatives or friends has always played a large role. But, as Barbara says: “It is hard to pin down. There are also a lot of Icelanders who are unemployed. Imagine you have a vacancy and you have 200 applicants, of which you know 50. In the end it comes down to a personal fit”. Even further than this goes an anonymous Icelandic source telling me the story of being told in the Unemployment Office in Reykjavík that the Icelandic people are in a better position when looking for a job than foreigners: Icelandic companies rather hire Icelandic people, it was said in an introductory meeting for the Icelandic unemployed. Call it nepotism, call it a-small-society-in-which-everyone-knows-everyone. In any case, it reflects the difficulties that foreigners can have finding work in Iceland without having a network of relatives and friends with whom they could connect also on a professional level.
Foreign workers—“the disposable class”
Moreover, many non-EEA-citizens feel unwelcome after they have lost a job, as they do not have access to social security through unemployment benefits. Explains Margrét: “If you don’t have a permanent residence permit, you are not entitled to unemployment benefits, no matter how long you have been living here. This is different for EEA-citizens, since the EEA-Agreement grants certain rights in Iceland, just as Icelandic citizens enjoy such rights in EEA-countries. But, of course, I think that people should get unemployment benefits simply on the grounds that they have been working and paying taxes here.”
The connection between eligibility for unemployment benefits and permanent residency represents a big impediment for immigrants, because many of them stay using changing, temporary residence permits for years. Like Jonas Moody. After losing his job, he learned that he was not eligible for unemployment benefits, despite having paid taxes in Iceland for six years. In a striking piece that appeared on Icelandreview.com entitled ‘Iceland’s Disposable Class’, he wrote: “My adopted nation has truly let me down… Despite marriage and home ownership and being able to decline very difficult words like ‘kýr’ and ‘ær’, if I don’t have an income, then according to the Immigration Office I am no longer welcome in Iceland[…] Because it is best for the economy if all the superfluous people left the country, my life here is being revoked. Cancelled. […] It angers me to hear politicians and economists talk about ‘the imported workforce’ as if we’re something that arrived on a cargo ship packaged in a box. As if, when the nation is done with us, they can crumple us up and toss back into the ocean whence we came”. Jonas has since returned to the U.S.—now, his Icelandic husband is an immigrant there.
It is interesting to note that when a request for residency is declined, there is no independent judicial body for review. The Minister of Justice, who is the Appellate Body for decisions of the Directorate of Immigration, also appoints its Director. In turn, the decisions of the Ministry are only subject to a limited court review on procedure rather than substance. This has been subject to criticism in several Human Rights reports, as for example in the 2009 Icelandic Human Rights Centre report ‘Discrimination in Iceland’.
Is Iceland really better off without foreigners?
Times are tough. Everywhere. Being an immigrant is tough. Mostly everywhere. But the main question is: Is Iceland better off sending Jonas, with his Icelandic partner, away? Is it really best for companies to hire someone they know? Eva Joly recently urged Iceland in Silfur Egils to “use” foreign specialists to help make the country better after the crisis. In times of internet and globalisation, in which bananas “travel” freely around the world, is there any use in trying to keep foreigners outside? Making them immigrants somewhere else?
Countries have already tried that. Concentrating on attempts to close off, they have neglected the integration of foreigners into their societies and, now, have to face the consequences. Iceland, being decades behind in its experience as an immigration country, should learn from these mistakes. Integration has to start now and not after decades when people realise that the foreigners are still here. Migration has always been an integral part of human life on earth and Iceland should take it as an opportunity to integrate foreigners, learn from them and become a better society, equipped to face the challenges of the modern world, in which multi-cultural and broad thinking is essential.