Published September 11, 2015
After last week, I am convinced that small actions can create a great impact. On a Sunday afternoon near the end of August, I saw that an old friend had set up a small event on Facebook. She was encouraging people to pressure the government into accepting a higher number of refugees from Syria, in reaction to the increased numbers of refugees and asylum seekers risking their lives to get to safety in Europe. In the week that followed, offers to assist refugees in need have poured in, and the government formed a Ministerial Committee to review the numbers of people Iceland will accept.
Following the solidarity on social media, the Red Cross in Iceland saw a surge in new volunteers. In roughly a week, 1,100 people nationwide signed up to become volunteers. Last Monday, over 200 people showed up to an open information meeting held at the Red Cross headquarters in Reykjavik.
The Minister of Welfare, Eygló Harðardóttir, has already noted that Ministry officials have contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to announce Iceland’s interest in welcoming refugees from Syria. In Alþingi’s opening session on Tuesday, Eygló said: “We can, and should help those in need, both at home and abroad.” The social media call and the concerned voices have obviously influenced the debate on migration and refugee issues here in a positive way.
However, not all voices are positive, with some people claiming that such initiatives are naive and lack practical thought. I would argue that mocking people in search of safety or labelling the efforts of those willing to help as “Samúðarhræsni smáborgara” (“Pity hypocrisy of petite bourgeoisie,” as I’d translate it), which we have seen in Icelandic papers over the last week, does not help us tackle the issue. I believe that with informed discussions on the topic, we can avoid the negative voices distracting us. We need to start making firm decisions on assisting more people, and we need to do it in a proper way.
From 1956, the efforts of welcoming refugees to the country have been done in cooperation between the state, municipalities, the Red Cross and the people themselves. It is very important that people get the support they need, not only support to arrive here but also official support and help with settling into a new country. Getting used to living in a new country also needs to be supported by the work of capable professionals, psychologist, psychiatrists and social workers.
This week, a young man spoke with Morgunblaðið about his experience of arriving in Iceland from Kosovo in 1999. He explained that the empathy of Icelanders had saved his life: “Now I understand that there was no difference between the people in the refugee camps around me at that time, and those dressed in suits in fancy offices across Europe. We can all end up in difficult circumstances in life but with the right opportunities we can all become scientists, doctors, footballers or whatever else, and live decent lives.”
The efforts that we can undertake here in Iceland are efforts that will create opportunities for people who otherwise would have none.
Responding to the increased goodwill towards accepting refugees in Iceland, one commenter on the Grapevine’s Facebook page asked, “So who is going to put a refugee ahead of an Icelander?” In my mind this issue is not about helping one instead of the other. Helping people from other parts of the world surely does not mean that we won’t help people here in Iceland. The Red Cross is assisting people domestically in various ways; our staff and volunteers are constantly working with homeless people, individuals dealing with mental illnes and various others in different walks of life.
All over the world, the Red Cross is helping migrants and refugees to uphold their rights and dignity. In a few months time we will be able to channel all the goodwill of fellow volunteers here in Iceland in assisting refugees that will be welcomed in the country. Let’s also not forget that there are already people here that we can assist now.
The Icelandic society that I want to live in is built on values of acceptance and respect for people of different backgrounds. I am pleased to see that the public discourse in this country has been channelled into positive paths, rather than negative ones, as we are unfortunately seeing in too many other European countries. At the same time I believe that we can do more to assist: We need to keep the debate alive and pressure politicians to make swift decisions to help people in need and react quickly to the current crisis.
I encourage you to speak up for humanity and share your thoughts with politicians, neighbours, colleagues, family members and friends. Allowing the negative voices to win will surely not make our society a better place to live in.
Ragnar Þorvarðarsson is the Vice Chair of the Red Cross Reykjavik.