From Iceland — Is Iceland's Government Not Particularly Interested In Answering Grapevine's Questions?

Is Iceland’s Government Not Particularly Interested In Answering Grapevine’s Questions?

Published September 18, 2015

Is Iceland’s Government Not Particularly Interested In Answering Grapevine’s Questions?
Haukur S. Magnússon
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No, they’re not. But their Press Secretary was kind enough to write a short statement regarding the topic we went them questions about, which is refugee affairs. 

We have grown accustomed to being ignored by Iceland’s current government. We don’t particularly expect them to pay attention to anything we do, nor to answer our emails, nor to even acknowledge our existence (outside of election season). There are probably reasons for this: maybe they think we don’t have enough readers to merit attention, maybe our readers aren’t the kind of people they’re interested in engaging in dialogue with, or maybe we offended them at some point (it’s kind of cool to imagine you can offend a government, actually). Whatever the reason, we keep regularly emailing and calling them up to ask about all sorts of government-y stuff or request interviews (wouldn’t it be cool if we scored an interview with Iceland’s PM?) and they almost never answer, except maybe to refer us to their website.

Seeing as Welfare Minister Eygló Harðardóttir became the inspiration and mascot for an accidentally massively successful campaign intended to pressure her government into accepting more refugees, we thought it would be smart to get her take on the whole situation. After all, our local readership comprises exactly the type of people that actively participated in the “Dear Eygló” effort, and it would make sense for her to engage in dialogue with those folks (not to mention all the foreigners that have taken an interest in the affair).

So we sent her some questions. Taking into account that ministers are often busy people, we even made sure to note that we’d be happy if she only chose to answer some of them, whichever ones interested her.

Alas, she couldn’t find the time to even delegate our questions to one of her assistants. Bummer. Unfazed, we altered our questions a tad and sent them to the office of our Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who had just then expressed a great interest in and passion for refugee affairs in one of those media outlets he can be bothered talking to (probably Bylgjan).

We got a response from his press officer, Sigurður Már Jónsson. Score! He told us that the PM had devoted quite a bit of his Alþingi commencement speech to the topic of refugees, attaching an excerpt, adding that he hoped the excerpt addressed some of our questions about refugee affairs.

Perhaps affected by magical reverse psychology, we had by that point begun intensely craving an interview with a government minister—any minister—on the subject of refugees. So we wrote the press officer back, and then we called him up and nagged him until he finally agreed to try to find time to send some original content our way, in response to the questions we had asked (he is quite a friendly fellow, actually).

And, he did!

The questions we sent to Eygló Harðardóttir/Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson:

  • What’s your stance on refugees?
  • What’s your stance on asylum seekers?
  • What factors (economic, social, etc.) does Iceland’s government take  into consideration when determining how many refugees it should admit at a given time? Have certain standards and guidelines been adopted from previous governments?
  • How many refugees does your ministry estimate Iceland’s infrastructure can accommodate, in particular the healthcare sector? How is this number determined?
  • Why does Iceland admit refugees? Do you believe it is a matter of moral responsibility?
  • Numbers from your ministry show that Iceland has accepted a total of 549 refugees since 1956. Do you believe this number is adequate, too high, or too low? Why?
  • When it comes to refugee affairs, Iceland has through the decades arguably lagged far behind its neighbouring countries. What are some of the main reasons for this?
  • Following the announcement of your government’s current plans to admit a total of 50 Syrian refugees to Iceland over the course of two years, there were claims that the proposed course of action was, per capita, fully on par with what nations like Germany and France had scheduled.
    • How did you reach that number, 50?
    • Was that “per capita” statement accurate?
    • If so, was matching Germany and France’s numbers per capita a goal of the government’s?
    • Did the German government’s recent decision to admit a greater number of refugees than previously planned affect the Icelandic government’s stance?
    • How did your ministry determine that admitting 50 refugees would take two years? Were the projections based on prior experience?
  • Did the negative public reaction to the initial 50-refugee proposal surprise you? Why/why not?
  • The “Kæra Eygló – Sýrland kallar” grassroots movement, launched in reaction to your initial refugee proposal, quickly amassed an unprecedented number of supporters, with thousands of Icelanders urging you, personally, to accept a far greater number of Syrian refugees into the country, while simultaneously volunteering their time and/or resources to aid in the process.
    • Do you in general pay attention to grassroots movements; public protests, petitions and the like? Have you ever reconsidered or altered your stance, opinion or policy in light of such events?
    • Has your government taken the movement up for formal discussion? Could you describe the general sentiment?
    • What was your initial reaction when you learned of “Kæra Eygló – Sýrland kallar”? Did you feel unfairly targeted or singled out by having your name attached to it?
    • What are your personal feelings on the movement?
    • Do you imagine that you would have participated in “Kæra Eygló” movement, were you a civilian?
    • The movement has garnered a lot of positive press across the globe. Do you believe it will positively affect Iceland’s image in the international sphere?
    • Do you feel proud of your fellow Icelanders’ apparent hospitality and eagerness to help
  • Numerous municipalities around Iceland have recently come forward, offering to host and care for groups of refugees, with Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson claiming that the city could accept “hundreds” of people. Had these municipalities been consulted when the 50-refugee plan was decided upon? Can or will these declarations have a direct effect upon how many Syrian refugees Iceland will ultimately accept?
  • The government has appeared generally positive, if hesitant, when addressing the public’s call for greater action and more refugees. What can you tell us about the process so far? Could you divulge a rough estimate of how many we might ultimately welcome, in light of recent developments?
  • Are there circumstances where admitting too many refugees could prove ultimately detrimental to a society? Are there any risks involved with accepting refugees, and if so, what are they?
  • Do you believe that the Icelandic nation’s enthusiastic show of empathy for Syrian refugees is also indicative of their stance towards so-called asylum seekers? Will it potentially affect the Icelandic government and authorities policy regarding so-called asylum seekers, which has been heavily criticised in recent years?
  • Have citizens contacted you or your ministry enquiring how they can be of help? What’s the best course of action?
  • Feel free to add anything you want.

And here is our approved translation of the press secretary’s response:

Icelandic authorities are fully aware that issues concerning refugees and asylum seekers are some of the most pressing facing Europe today. The Icelandic authorities believe that it is vital that Iceland, and other nations, react to the situation in as good way as possible. As a participant in international cooperation, authorities will do their utmost to meet obligations and take necessary measures in order to assist people in need, and stabilise the situation.

The Government has reacted to the current situation by establishing a Ministerial Committee on Refugees and Asylum seekers. The committee is tasked with coordinating the work of different ministries and institutions, so their work be as effective and efficient as possible. The committee is comprised of five ministers, whose offices deal with the affair’s different aspects—and the committee has called for cooperation between parties dealing with refugee and asylum seeker issues in Iceland.

Currently, there are 230 asylum seekers in Iceland with cases awaiting resolution. The Government has emphasised the importance or expedite the handling of the cases as much as possible, and has pledged increased funds in the draft state budget to accomplish this. According to new numbers from the Ministry of the Interior, a total of 154 individuals applied for asylum in Iceland from January 1 to August 31 of this year. This is a 66% increase compared to the same period in 2014, when 93 applied for asylum. In August, 49 people applied for asylum, that are as many as applied in the previous three months before combined. In light of the civil war that has been ongoing in Syria since 2011, it comes as no surprise that Syrians are the second largest group applying for asylum in Iceland—there are currently eighteen applications from Syrian nationals, or 12% of the total.

The Government has already announced an increase in funding in the new state budget. It is expected that further measures will be announced in due course.


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