From Iceland — Paint An Open Gate On This Wall

Paint An Open Gate On This Wall

Published November 17, 2015

Paint An Open Gate On This Wall
Haukur Már Helgason
Photo by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

In a single day at the end of August, ten thousand Icelanders, three percent of the country’s minuscule population, signed up to the Facebook event “Dear Eygló Harðar – Syria Calling.” Addressed to Welfare Minister Eygló Harðardóttir, the online event was created to show—and demand—Iceland’s support to Syrian refugees. Signatories offered hosting, language lessons, legal aid etc.

This call for solidarity instantly caught international attention: “Icelanders Use Facebook to Open Door to Refugees,” claimed the New York Times, while headlined: “Thousands of Icelanders Have Volunteered to Take Syrian Refugees Into Their Homes.” While the country’s centre-right government gratefully accepted the campaign’s value for nation-branding, looking good does not necessitate doing good. The number of refugees to receive protection in Iceland this year remains between fifty and one hundred persons.

While the country’s centre-right government gratefully accepted the campaign’s value for nation-branding, looking good does not necessitate doing good. The number of refugees to receive protection in Iceland this year remains between fifty and one hundred persons.

Public relations

Geographically, Iceland is remote from Europe’s southern borders. Politically, it is not. “Fifty refugees?” people asked when late summer’s impossible images appeared. Children by the shore, drowned. A truck in the alps, filled with corpses, suffocated. Is asylum for fifty people really the most we can provide? On August 30, Welfare Minister Eygló declared her joy over people’s solidarity with refugees, calling it “strong support for the Government’s refugee policies.” “What will the government do, then?” pressed the radio host. The minister equivocated: “The matter is under review.” Right. What will that mean, materially? “For this to work out and work well, we need help,” said the Minister. “I want to encourage those thousands of people to step forward, contact us, at the Ministry of Welfare or the Red Cross, and ask what they can do to help.”

In response to the minister’s open call, author Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir created the Facebook event cited above. Within a day, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson responded. Many Icelanders want to accept more refugees, interviewers pointed out—what is your perspective? The Minister sounded viscerally ill at ease at such questions, and spoke at length about the enormity of the challenge, before replying that he intended to swiftly… “form a ministerial committee.”

The following night, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s family made the journey which ended as an icon of our evil, an image that will continue to haunt us. The boy’s dead body was found by Turkey’s shore on the morning of September 2. The subsequent wave of sorrow may have fuelled the demand for any sign of hope. In any case, the good news from Iceland spread through headlines like wildfire: 10,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees after author’s call, 10,000 Heroes Open Their Homes to Syrian Refugees, and so on.

The company you keep

A few days later, PM Sigmundur Davíð began his annual policy statement by mentioning the refugee crisis. Syrian refugees remind us, he said, “how grateful we can be for the life which our good and peaceful society has given us, so far away from the world’s field of massacres.” Through the 20th century, however, Iceland rarely proved too far away from massacres to partake in their profits. The first significant example may be when Iceland opted out of the interwar League of Nations, in order to maintain fish exports to Italy, at the time under sanctions for war crimes in Ethiopia. Mussolini showed his appreciation by personally signing the two countries’ trade agreement.

More significant in the current context, however, is Iceland’s approach to refugees before and during World War II. Hermann Jónasson, Sigmundur Davíð’s precursor as both Prime Minister and leader of the Progressive Party, refused entry to any Jewish refugees “on principle.” When Icelandic families sought to foster ten Austrian Jewish children through the war, Hermann proved principled enough to reject their applications for permits. Why? At the time, Germany was a major importer of Iceland’s fish, the country’s main export product.

Economics may not, however, fully explain the Minister’s choice of principles. Only after the war did Iceland’s parliament learn that in July 1939, Hermann had sent the 24-year-old Agnar Kofoed-Hansen to Berlin, for police training. The young air captain was greeted as “Heinrich Himmler’s personal guest,” then studied for 40 days with Police chief Kurt Dalüge, who was later tried and hanged for war crimes.

Bypassing Agnar Kofoed-Hansen’s lack of academic credentials, Hermann appointed him as Police Chief in January of 1940. When the British army occupied Iceland that April, they saw reason to disarm Agnar’s paramilitary forces. As Police Chief, however, he remained in office until 1947. Among his duties was the establishment and organization of Iceland’s first immigration office. In 2002, the institute’s mandate and name were altered, but to this day the Directorate of Immigration processes all applications for residence permits and asylum.

“No coloured troops”

The current relevance of Agnar Kofoed-Hansen’s Nazi internship remains unclear. On the one hand, the actual reasoning behind Agnar’s training in Germany has never come to light. His report from the journey has not been made public, and Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson seems to have easily evaded all relevant questions. On the other hand, Iceland’s immigration policies remain obscure. No Icelandic government has ever declared an official immigration policy. Some patterns may, however, be deciphered through authorities’ actual practices.

In 1941, as American forces replaced the British occupiers, Iceland made eight official requirements of the newcomers. Stipulation number four in the two countries’ agreement was that only “select soldiers” would be deployed to Iceland. Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson clarified the euphemism to a concerned Alþingi: “Due to internal affairs in the USA, it was not considered proper to state this explicitly in the agreement, but we have made it clear to the parties involved that what was meant is that no coloured troops shall be deployed here.”

At the establishment of a permanent NATO air base in Keflavík in 1951, Iceland reiterated the demand. Whenever the racist policy was publicly criticized in the US, however, Icelandic media not only downplayed the criticism but actually denied that the well-documented policy existed. “No racial discrimination in Keflavík,” headlined the social-democratic daily Alþýðublaðið as late as 1964, in response to a mention of the policy in an American academic publication. As refutation, the newspaper pointed out that “there are now two negroes” at the Keflavík air base.

Little data is available on Iceland’s exclusionary policies, but anecdotes run endless. Lest anyone think Iceland’s exclusion of minorities is limited to African-Americans or a bygone era, consider what transpired when twenty-one Romanians of Roma ethnicity ventured to Iceland in 2007. As members of the Schengen area, the Romanians were by then officially free to travel and stay in the country. None of them were known to have broken any law. Unable to officially deport the group, then, police officers instead slandered the newcomers in the media —“it is well known that criminality follows these kinds of people,” and so on— until hotels collectively refused to accommodate them. Within a week of their arrival, all the Romanians had accepted return flight tickets, “offered” to them by the Police, according to whom the group thereby “voluntarily” left the country. This extra-legal process received little critical media coverage. It has been repeated since. There are no Roma communities in Iceland.

In a twisted variety of egalitarianism, Iceland discriminates against all ethnic minority groups equally.


Icelandic had no word for the Holocaust until an eponymous American TV series needed translation in 1980. For decades, Icelanders spoke of World War II as “the blessed war”: occupying forces brought about a swift process of modernization. Without any ruined cities or fallen soldiers, Iceland then received the greatest amount of post-war Marshall aid, per capita, followed by the permanent air base in Keflavík. Beyond the country’s first rural road system, provided by the Brits, and the first international airport, provided by the US, the air base gave Iceland leverage to make high demands throughout the Cold War. Threats of closing the facility or exiting NATO secured victory against the Royal British Navy in the so-called Cod Wars, through which Iceland extended its exclusive fishing grounds from four nautical miles to an eventual 200 nautical mile radius. In return, Iceland ardently supported US military ventures through Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan—and Iraq.

At the end of the Cold War, the future of the Keflavík base became uncertain. To gain the Bush administration’s favour and keep the base, Iceland signed up to the 2003 “coalition of the willing.” In July of 2004, Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson visited the White House to further deter US authorities from leaving. In a subsequent joint press conference, Davíð claimed that the “future of Iraq and the world is much better” due to the US invasion, adding: “There is hope now, there was no hope before.” Then, along with journalists, Davíð sang happy birthday to the president.

By leasing vessels and crew to FRONTEX for operations in the Mediterranean, Icelanders have since 2010 turned refugees into revenue, gaining around €4 million in annual net profits.

Regardless, in 2006 the base shut down. Davíð Oddsson may have been more cunningly realist than delusional: many elements contributed to Iceland’s economic collapse in 2008, but US relations should not be ignored. That September, the US Federal Reserve offered currency exchanges to support Sweden, Denmark and Norway through the crisis, but not to Iceland—an exception that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. Within a week after that signal, Iceland’s three major banks collapsed.

The economic collapse left Iceland’s currency devalued by half. All public institutes suffered cuts. A desperate search for new income sources led the Icelandic Coast Guard to the EU: by leasing vessels and crew to FRONTEX for operations in the Mediterranean, Icelanders have since 2010 turned refugees into revenue, gaining around €4 million in annual net profits.


Since receiving 52 refugees from Soviet-invaded Hungary in 1956, Iceland has participated in numerous quota-refugee programs. Asylum seekers, however, who enter without prior invitation, have rarely stood a chance. In the twenty years from 1988-2008, Iceland granted asylum to only one applicant—not annually, but in total.

Since 2008, increased media attention and public scrutiny, led by activism on many fronts, have significantly raised the number of asylums granted. Ten to twenty applicants now receive protection in Iceland annually.

Growing public awareness of migrants’ rights manifested in a scandal in 2014: faced with protests in support of a Nigerian asylum seeker, the Ministry of the Interior altered and leaked an internal document on his case to the media, with the purpose of slandering the man and his fiancée, to thereby affect public opinion and facilitate his deportation. The method may not have been new—but the consequences were. Ardent journalists, led by DV’s Jón Bjarki Magnússon and Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson, uncovered the leak, as well as the Minister’s subsequent series of lies and deceit. After a full year of stubborn investigative reporting, the Minister, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, was forced to resign. Never before have xenophobic governmental practices had such severe consequences for a politician’s career.

While the country’s exclusionary politics are thus being exposed and opposed, the underlying xenophobic attitudes become more explicit. After stalling an application for fifteen years, in autumn 2013 Reykjavík city authorities finally allocated a plot of land to Iceland’s Muslim Society for what would be the country’s first mosque. A few weeks later, a bleeding, severed pig’s head was left on the site, along with a blood-soaked copy of the Quran.

Any alleged investigation of the matter was inconclusive. “I see no difference between this and any other act of protest” declared police officer Benedikt Lund. Case closed.

Iceland’s Got Talent

Iceland’s tourist industry is booming. Since 2008, tourism has grown from a marginal sector of the economy to the country’s largest industry: the turnover of one million tourists per year has now surpassed the value of the nation’s fish exports. The mercurial nature of the field, essentially a popularity contest, means appearances are economically vital. Promote Iceland, the bureau responsible for co-ordinated nation-branding since 2010, recently updated its marketing guidelines for the whole sector, defining Iceland’s target group as “the enlightened tourist.” According to the guidelines, the enlightened tourist has “education and income above average,” wants to “stand out from the herd, travel independently” and is “interested in being acquainted with the culture, ideals and lifestyle of others.”

And Iceland itself? We should make the impression, they say, that “we are so very happy to see you and to make you feel right at home. You could say welcoming is our second nature.”

Against one million welcome tourists, as of mid-September, the Directorate of Immigration had processed 167 asylum applications this year. And rejected 113. Habitually, rejected applicants are fetched by the police in the middle of the night, with only a few hours notice before the departure of their deportation flights. According to rumours, this method is supposed to thwart suicides, common among those with a longer notice. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1974, night arrests have other important advantages: “Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door. The arrested person is torn from the warmth of his bed. He is in a daze, half-asleep, helpless, and his judgment is befogged. In a night arrest the State Security men have a superiority in numbers, there are many of them, armed, against one person who hasn’t even finished buttoning his trousers.” No less importantly, “neither the people in neighbouring apartment houses nor those on the city streets can see how many have been taken away. Arrests which frighten the closest neighbours are no event at all to those farther away. It’s as if they had not taken place.”

The Committee’s Committee

Following September’s Facebook event, calls for solidarity with Syrian refugees soared: twenty-five municipalities in Iceland declared their will to host refugees. All opposition parties proposed a parliamentary resolution to immediately offer asylum to 500 people. A thousand new volunteers signed up with The Icelandic Red Cross overnight, which in turn encouraged authorities to receive at least hundreds of refugees. On September 20, the ministerial committee, announced by the Prime Minister three weeks before, responded to the pressure, held a press conference and declared its plan: to establish and fund a specialists’ committee. According to Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð, next year’s budget will see €7 million allocated to the committee’s projects. As to whether any of the money will be used to significantly increase the number of refugees to be received, the ministers chose not to comment.

Current evidence indicates that this means no, and that Iceland’s population density will safely remain three persons per square kilometre. In late October, Welfare Minister Eygló announced that her Ministry had received the profiles of thirteen Syrian families currently residing in camps, including, she noted, “an electrician, a plumber, an engineer and a driver.” The specialists’ committee, appointed by the ministerial committee, currently evaluates these people’s applications, swiping left and right to choose which ones among them will be granted asylum. According to the Minister, the lucky ones might arrive before the end of the year.

Wael Aliyadah and Feryal Aldahash, a couple from Syria, arrived in Iceland last July, along with their kindergarten-aged daughters. In mid-October, the Directorate of Immigration ruled against substantially examining their application, meaning that the family shall be deported to Greece, their first country of arrival within the Schengen area.

The family’s lawyer appealed the decision. Extensive media coverage, an online petition and protest gatherings in their support do not ascertain a reversal of the decision, but have already delayed the deportation.

So far, contrary to the public solidarity on display this autumn, this delayed deportation is Icelandic authorities’ only material contribution to the Syrian refugee crisis.

See Also:

You’re Welcome: An Update On Refugee Affairs

SPARKS TURN TO FLAMES: A Conversation With Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!