I’d read with interest The Multicultural Centre’s extensive survey from last year, “Aspects of Immigrants in the West Fjörds and East Iceland.”
This survey asked immigrants in these parts of the country – where the immigrant population is highest – numerous questions regarding how many Icelanders they associate with, what their work conditions are like, what church they attend and so on. But what really grabbed my attention were the political opinions of immigrants living in Iceland.
According to the survey, while only 26% voted in the 2002 local elections (most saying because they either didn’t have the right to vote or weren’t living in Iceland at the time), fully 74% said they intended to vote in the next local elections in 2006. This growing interest in taking part in the political process is encouraging, and hopefully Iceland’s politicians will sit up and take notice. If the survey itself is any indication, there’s certainly room for improvement: 47% of those surveyed said that they felt the political parties in Iceland weren’t doing enough to introduce their platforms to those who don’t understand Icelandic well, while only 23% felt the parties were doing well in this area.
There’s a lot of truth to these figures. In looking at the websites of Iceland’s five political parties, only two parties list their platforms in English as well as Icelandic: the Liberal Party and the Leftist-Greens (who also have a Danish option). Of course, it could be argued that if you want to know the party platforms, then you should learn Icelandic. But one wonders how much the government wants foreigners to learn Icelandic in the first place, in light of recent events.
Just last summer, the city of Reykjavík stipulated in their contract with Mímir – who conduct Icelandic classes – that in order to receive partial city funding, they must raise the fee for 50 hours of Icelandic classes from 17,000 ISK to 22,000 ISK. And that’s just for people living in Reykjavík; those living outside the city will have to pay 44,000 ISK for the same 50 hours. At the same time, Icelandic law states that foreigners must attend 150 hours of Icelandic classes in order to gain permanent resident status. This rise in course fees can only exacerbate another result of the survey: 66% of those responding rated their comprehension of Icelandic as middling to none, listing the cost of Icelandic classes as a major reason for their lack of understanding. The likelihood that their Icelandic comprehension will be good enough to read the platforms of political parties within the next few months, when local elections are to take place, is all but negligible.
Does the Icelandic government want foreigners to understand Icelandic or not? Do they even want their votes? If Icelandic politicians want the support of the immigrant community, they could publish their party platforms, their speeches and their proposals in the major languages spoken by foreigners in Iceland: English, Polish, Serbo-Croatian and Thai. They could also either lower the cost of Icelandic courses or eliminate the course requirement altogether.
According to Statistics Iceland, as of 2004, 3.6% of Iceland’s citizens are of foreign birth, with a total of 20,669 people of foreign birth living in Iceland. Parties who choose to marginalize such a significant section of the population do the immigrants, themselves and the country a disservice. At the same time, 9% of those responding to the survey said that they felt it was likely to very probable that they themselves would run for office. Seeing as how disinterested Icelandic politicians seem to be an immigrant support, the foreign-born people of Iceland could very well find better representation from within their own community. Given their recent surge of interest in voter participation, I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it onto city councils, or within the halls of parliament themselves.
To read the Multicultural Centre’s survey, go to http://felagsmalaraduneyti.is/wp-content/uploads-skjol/konnun-vidhorf.pdf (in Icelandic).