Published September 28, 2016
A friend of mine says: “The problem with living in Iceland is that every time you open a door, you see yourself on the other side.” Sharp words and criticism are easy to hurl at some disembodied face on the TV screen—some talking head you disagree with. But here in Iceland, it’s different. We actually see members of Parliament at the grocery store. Our kids are in school together. Maybe that obnoxious radio host is your cousin. In such a small society, it’s hard to criticise individuals because, in the end, you have to live and work with them. In such a situation, it is not in anyone’s best interest to call foul when something is wrong, because people might take personal offense, and can hold it against you later. Generally speaking, I like to see the best in people, and I believe that most folks are genuinely trying to do the best job they can under often difficult circumstances.
I give this rather long and rambling disclaimer because I want to whip out a red card on immigration in Iceland, while making clear from the beginning that I believe the individuals in the system are doing the best they can with a shitty set of circumstances. My beef is with the system, which is not able to efficiently and compassionately handle its task.
Part of my hesitation is because I deal with the system as part of my job and I need it on my side. Also, I recognise somewhere in the back of my mind the irrational fear that, as an immigrant myself, I could get kicked out of the country. Every time I find myself at the sliding doors of the UTL offices, that old familiar lump hardens in my throat. My hands get sweaty. I steel myself for the encounter, which is almost assured to be unpleasant in one way or another. I hate going there.
Guilty until proven innocent
There are some hard truths about moving to Iceland that I have only recently come to understand. For one, immigrating is hard, especially for people who are not from Europe. The system isn’t designed to be easy or enjoyable—it’s designed to be tedious, demeaning and difficult. All those hoops to jump through are designed to trip you.
Moreover, the Directorate of Immigration is not set up to help immigrants come to Iceland. The institution is there to vet newcomers, and every step of the process is there to guarantee that the country isn’t opening itself to people it deems undesirable. They want to make sure that you are paying taxes, you are not a criminal, and you are not mooching hard-won social benefits. What results is the painful process whereby applicants, even those of us who have been living in Iceland for years, are asked to continuously prove that we are still not committing crimes, we are still pulling our weight at work or in school.
On the other side of the glass, the people reviewing our applications scan documents with hawk-like precision for any small reason to reject us. After doing this day after day for years, the tone with which they receive you can best be described as suspicious. The very narrow window of opening hours, and influx of applications, means they are impatient. There is a long line of people behind you, and the clock is ticking. It is a tense experience.
Something’s gotta give
Recently I went to the office near closing time (2pm) with an envelope to deliver. The waiting room was full and hot. A staff person came into the waiting room and locked the door, standing guard to let people out when their business was finished, but not letting anyone else inside. My mind wandered to that psychological study I read about in college in which students were assigned to be either guards or prisoners, and how quickly they started to abuse their power, or accept their ill fate. Locked in this bleak space with the other foreigners, I wondered, if we are in the midst of one of the greatest human migration periods ever experienced in Europe, why the hell is this—the single institution in the country responsible for processing residence applications—only open four hours a day? Surely we can do better.
I bring this up now because I chose to come to Iceland. Others move here because they don’t have a choice. For them, this is a safe option of last resort. The process is hard enough for people like me who speak Icelandic, are relatively good at paperwork, and have a network of Icelandic friends to help figure out where the hell to find tax statements, or proof of housing, or financial support, or certificates of social services, or any other of the random stack of documents immigrants are asked to compile in their residence permit applications. If I found it emotionally stressful to sit in that low-oxygen waiting room, I can’t imagine how the process feels for refugees whose very life rests on filling in the proper boxes on a form with stamps in the right places.
I hope the system changes. I hope that a reasonable balance exists between admitting newcomers and ensuring security. And I sincerely hope that Iceland evolves into a more multicultural society and recognises the enormous social benefits of opening its doors to more than just the hordes of tourists stomping through downtown in their parkas and hiking boots.