Reykjavík’s Human Rights Office offers counselling and advice
Barbara Jean Kristvinsson, a counsellor with the city’s Human Rights Office, knows from experience how difficult it can be to get accurate information when you move to a new country. Barbara came to Reykjavík from the United States in 1991 and remembers her first call to the immigration office, which at that point was called ‘Útlendingaeftirlit,’ or “Foreigner Supervision.”
When she asked about the process for obtaining a residence permit, she was told that because she was married to an Icelander, she didn’t need any special documentation. It wasn’t until she was stopped going through customs at the airport some time later that she found out that this wasn’t at all true, but rather that she should have applied for a residency permit immediately upon her arrival. “Not even Icelanders understood how things worked,” she says. “There were no services for foreigners at all.”
It might be assumed that Iceland doesn’t actually need significant services for immigrants, or that the immigrant population in the country is not large enough to sustain dedicated services. So to put matters in perspective, consider that in 1996, Iceland’s immigrant population—both those who have Icelandic citizenship and those who are foreign residents—totalled 5,357. As of today, there are 25,926 immigrants in Iceland, over 6,600 of who have citizenship.
Meeting The Demand
Sensibly, then, the City of Reykjavík has risen to meet the needs of its growing population of immigrants and foreign residents, dedicating resources to multicultural initiatives and counselling services. Today, the city’s Human Rights Office employs four counsellors who speak English, Filipino, Icelandic, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian and are able to provide free and confidential counselling services at their office every week. Translators are provided free of charge for individuals who speak other languages. In the first part of 2013 alone—from January until July 2013—these counsellors met with 632 immigrants, the majority being individuals from Poland. The issues addressed in these meetings were quite varied, including everything from workplace issues, financial matters, and domestic and family issues, to housing trouble, health matters, tax questions, legal advice, schooling and educational issues.
Reykjavík has offered some form of service for immigrants since 2010, and the Human Rights Office has provided counselling since 2010. Recently, the latter office decided to also make its services available for two hours a week at the main branch of the Reykjavík City Library. “We want to go into the community, instead of making them come to us,” says counsellor Joanna Marcinkowska. She has lived in Reykjavík for ten years, but recalls her own difficulties when first arriving. “I came before Poland had joined the EU, so the process of obtaining work permits and residency was much more complicated.”
Coming From Experience
Both women agree that it is of utmost importance that the counsellors advising immigrants and foreign residents also be immigrants themselves. “Having gone through the same kinds of experiences—the emotional experiences—helps you to develop a sensitivity,” Barbara says. Joanna agrees: “When they get the feeling that you really do understand what they are going through, it helps them to open up.” In addition to the services they provide to immigrants, Joanna says that the counsellors also act as advisors for city employees, such as social workers, who are dealing with immigrant issues. They hold regular short lectures throughout the city in which they provide general information about Reykjavík’s immigrant population—how many immigrants there are, where they are from, which residence permits and documentation they require—as well as useful context about what kind of challenges and problems immigrants face, and pointers on how to communicate better with a person for whom Icelandic is second language.
“Professionals in the city don’t always know or use all the tricks of communication,” Barbara says. Such tricks include using short and simple sentences, or asking the person to repeat information to be sure he or she understood. “They’ll think a person understood, when they didn’t. And sometimes people are afraid to ask questions—they already feel stupid enough.”
The counsellors hope to encourage immigrants and foreign residents to take advantage of their services, to not be embarrassed to seek out professional advice. Immigrants naturally turn to their community to get advice or information about legal processes, services and other questions, but Barbara points out that “sometimes people think they know the answer, but there will be a little piece of the puzzle missing—something that has changed over the years, or something that worked for one person, but won’t be right for another.”
“Some people are ashamed to ask for help, but they don’t need to be,” Joanna says. “There are no stupid questions.” Barbara agrees, saying that getting settled in a new country and learning a new language can take a long time, which is precisely why their services are in place. “Integration doesn’t just happen.”
Where Do I Go To Get Help?
Counselling services offered by the Human Rights Office have expanded a great deal in the last few years, with new counsellors speaking additional languages joining the staff and expanded hours of availability. From January 2013 until July of the same year, the counsellors assisted 632 individuals. Counselling and advice services for immigrants and foreign residents are available at the Human Rights Office at Borgartún 12-14, Monday through Friday. Call 411-1111 to be connected with a counsellor and to make an appointment. Counsellors will also be at the main branch of the Reykjavík City Library at Tryggvagata 15 on Thursdays from 14:00–16:00.