When it comes to discussions about immigration and multiculturalism in Iceland, most of our daily media focus has been on the things politicians say. This is natural, to an extent—these are the people who write our laws, after all, which will have repercussions for us whether we like it or not. But I think we forget that some of the more shockingly ignorant and xenophobic remarks from politicians on national and local levels don’t arise from a vacuum. There are, unfortunately, populist voices of xenophobia, and one of them is undoubtedly radio station Útvarp Saga.
For the unfamiliar, Útvarp Saga is a talk radio station of a kind you’ve heard many times before. The flagship show, Línan laus (“The line is open”) features a pair of hosts prattling on their opinion on a particular subject at length before taking calls from listeners who invariably agree with them. Útvarp Saga bears the distinction of being, to put it in the nicest possible terms, a hive of hate speech and pig-headed ignorance with zero basis in reality. I have heard some jaw-dropping levels of ugliness come from this station, and not just from the people who call in. Línan laus’s hosts, Arnþrúður Karlsdóttir and Pétur Gunnlaugsson, are all too diligent and sowing hatred and fear amongst their listeners.
It would be nice to believe that pretending this station doesn’t exist will make them go away, or that they don’t really have a lot of reach and influence. History disproves the former, and personal experience disproves the latter. Here, I’d like to address the two main talking points Útvarp Saga frequently tosses around when it comes to foreigners.
THE UNEMPLOYMENT MYTH
1. “We have all this unemployment in Iceland, but these foreigners are taking work from Icelanders!”
Boy does this one come up a lot. Fortunately, this one is easy to shoot down. First of all, according to the Directorate of Labour, Iceland’s rate of unemployment in February 2015 was 3.6%, down from 4.2% one year previous. Let that sink in a moment. This is just over half of the US’s unemployment rate (5.8%) and about a third of the EU’s unemployment rate (10%). Maybe compared to the 2% unemployment rate we used to enjoy bragging about during the boom years, 3.6% seems astronomical, and there are certainly socioeconomic problems Iceland still needs to contend with, but joblessness is demonstrably on the decline.
Útvarp Saga is not very concerned with European immigrants, but rather with those from outside the EU (more on that later). That being the case, maybe Pétur and Arnþrúður will breathe easier knowing that for us non-EU immigrants who aren’t here to study or marry Icelanders, we are required—by law—to only work a job that no Icelander can do or wants to do. What this invariably means is that immigrants will comprise a sizeable portion of job sectors that most locals avoid if at all possible (in Iceland’s case, this means cleaning offices and homes, caring for the elderly and disabled, minding children at after-school programmes, and working in bars and restaurants).
It is hard to imagine what Iceland would be like if all these foreign workers—tending to low-paying, physically demanding but absolutely essential jobs—just up and left the country. Hell, it’s hard to imagine how things would function if all these people stopped working for a single day. Thanks to a permanent underclass of immigrant labour consigned by law to only work jobs that the locals avoid, Icelanders like Pétur and Arnþrúður can sit in warm, comfortable chairs and get paid to complain about these very same immigrant workers.
Even in the long term, immigration is good for the Icelandic economy. Japan has been in an economic slump for about 20 years now, and as the Japanese government tries every trick in the book to get the economy motivated, economists around the world have pointed to two main factors that are contributing to their financial woes: the population is getting older, and immigration restrictions are exceedingly high. More native Japanese are leaving the workforce with age, but there aren’t enough new workers to replace them. Meanwhile, according to Statistics Iceland, Icelanders are getting older, too: in 1990, the average Icelander was 33. Today, the average age is up to 37.2. Iceland’s population is ageing, and it will need foreign labour to keep the economy going.
2. “But these people are too different from/don’t respect our national culture!”
Let’s cut the bullshit. Whenever anyone on Útvarp Saga talks about “our national culture,” they mean white people. Of course, they don’t say “these people aren’t white” because that would be straight-up racist. Instead, they use dog whistles like “our national culture,” because that way, they can make assertions such as “Poles are similar to our national culture” (as Pétur did on February 3, and has said on many occasions), despite Poles coming from a completely different ethnic, linguistic and religious heritage than Icelanders. These differences aren’t a bad thing, mind you, but it’s clear where the similarities between Poles and Icelanders actually lie when he talks about “our national culture,” and it’s also clear what kinds of people are most certainly not a part of “our national culture,” especially for all the fear-mongering this radio station engages in regarding Middle Eastern Muslims and asylum seekers.
The weird part about this second assertion is you can advance it sans any evidence whatsoever. Not once has Útvarp Saga presented a single fact that backs up the assertion that non-white immigrants “disrespect” Icelandic society, nor that non-white immigrants have somehow damaged Icelandic society in any way. Muslims in Iceland, arguably Útvarp Saga’s favourite boogiemen, have yet to demonstrate even a modicum of violence, extremism, or other social ills they are repeatedly accused of being about to unleash in Iceland. There are about 1,500 Icelandic Muslims, and they’ve been here for a couple decades now. If Iceland’s Muslims are planning to wreak havoc on this country, they sure are taking their sweet time.
For the record, I don’t think Útvarp Saga should be banned or censored. Enforcing Iceland’s hate speech law would only make martyrs out of them. Instead, media outlets and NGOs alike need to be more diligent when it comes to calling out Útvarp Saga when they are both wrong and irresponsible. They are frequently one or the other, and often both.