Tell us a bit about the book.
What I try to do in the book is to look at the relationship between Iceland and the outside world and try to find common roots for Iceland’s position on issues relating to foreign policy, such as the EU, the relationship with the US and the former US military base in Keflavík, globalisation, and immigration issues. I believe there is a common root for Iceland’s conservative position on foreign policy that can be traced back to Iceland’s struggle for independence.
There is a certain nationalism in our ideas about the Icelandic nation that are different from other European nations because nineteenth-century European liberalism never reached Iceland in the same way it did other European countries. European liberalism was based on the demand for freedom of the individual, the demand for freedom of commerce, etc., but here in Iceland the focus was not on the individual – rather on the nation as a whole, almost as an organic bodily whole – which gives us a slightly different idea of the Icelandic nation. I think that this in some ways explains our fear of immigrants, the idea of the purity of the organic body that is the Icelandic nation. You have claimed that Iceland has the strictest immigration policy in the free Western hemisphere, please elaborate a bit.
In order to reach that conclusion, you have to look at how the immigration policy appears in Icelandic laws, the part that is directed at influx restrictions, and stipulates who can actually enter the country. These regulations are really twofold. On one hand, there are mutual regulations adopted from the EU through the EEA agreement, which stipulate that citizens from the EU area all have employment rights here. This is a decision that was taken jointly by the European nations in Brussels; Icelanders never made that decision for themselves. After the enlargement of the EU, this applies to the countries in Eastern European that have recently joined the EU as well.
But once you look beyond the joint European regulations and towards people outside the EU – i.e. the part of the regulations that we can decide for ourselves – then you have the strictest immigration policies in the free democratic world. We have adopted Danish and, to some extent, Norwegian immigration regulations. We have applied the strictest parts of their regulations, including highly debatable clauses like the 24-year clause stipulating that an immigrant’s spouse must be 24 years old to acquire a residents’ permit. There is also a 66-year rule, stipulating that an immigrant’s parents must be 66-years old to acquire a residents’ permit. It could be argued that these laws are in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but the issue has never been put to the test.
In addition, there is the strange decision by the Icelandic government that work permits for foreigners are issued to the employer, not the employee, which means that foreign workers are dependent upon their employers and are not able to move freely. This could also be regarded as a violation of human rights, since the employee does not have freedom of occupation, which is supposed to be guaranteed according to the Icelandic Constitution.
On top of that, Icelanders do not accept refugees seeking asylum. I have not been able to find another western country that does not accept asylum seekers. Only one person has been granted asylum in Iceland; others have been refused based on the Dublin Convention. Iceland always applies the strictest resources and when you add these facts up, the conclusion is that Iceland has the strictest immigration policy in the free democratic world. I have at least not found an example of stricter policies.
You mentioned two possible violations of human rights conventions in Icelandic immigration laws. Why do you think law-makers have taken such extreme measures for immigration laws?
There is an underlying fear of foreigners and immigrants in our society. Some people fear that large groups of foreigners will come streaming to Iceland and somehow disrupt the fabric of our society. In reality, there is nothing to support this fear. If you look at the position of immigrants in Icelandic society, you will see that there are about 25,000 people of foreign nationality in Iceland. Immigrants are about 6% of the Icelandic population, but they are about 10% of the active work force in the country, which tells us that the level of employment among immigrants is much higher than the current level of employment in the country, which again tells us that foreigners are coming here to work.
Many of them are only working here temporarily on big building projects that are underway and that explains the great influx of foreign work force right now, but there is nothing that suggests that this will continue, not unless people want to build an aluminium smelter in every town. If we compare this, or set up an equation, then there are 30,000 Icelanders living abroad. That is, there are more Icelanders living in foreign countries than foreigners living in Iceland. We are at a deficit; we are 5,000 foreigners short of breaking even.
In addition, all studies suggest that immigrants financially benefit the Icelandic society. Two recent economic studies – one by Kaupþing bank, the other by Landsbanki bank – both show that in 2006 every person in the country greatly benefited financially from the foreign workers in Iceland. We would have been further in debt without them, inflation would have been higher, and we would have had less money between your hands if they were not here. The question then is, what explains this fear that we are witnessing in the public discourse.
The only explanation I can find is rooted in our ideas about the Icelandic nation. Historian Guðmundur Hálfdánarson has shown that in Iceland a different kind of idea of nationality developed, different from the rest of Europe where more liberal ideas developed which focused on freedom of the individual and freedom of commerce. Here, a more conservative idea of nationality developed, where the onus was not on freedom of the individual, but freedom of the nation, where the nation is personified as an organic bodily whole, or a body of its own. A great influx of foreigners changes that body. It becomes a different body, and people start to fear things such as diseases and politicians start talking about looking for tuberculosis in foreigners and so on. I think that is rooted in this idea of nationality and the fear that the national body will become impure and deteriorate with the influx of foreigners.
What you are saying is that there is no logical reason for this fear of foreigners, but rather it is all based on the Icelandic ideology of nationality?
Yes, I think that is at the heart of it. You cannot find any factual support for this fear, other than the idea of the composition of the nation and the fear that it will change. But this is in line with a certain axis of conflict that has always been present in Iceland. That is the conflict between what we might call “isolationists” and “internationalists.” Almost every controversial issue regarding the relationship between Iceland and foreign countries has been affected by the conflict between those two groups, whether is was over membership of EFTA, membership of NATO, the EU, fear of globalisation, protecting the pure Icelandic language, protecting the pure Icelandic agriculture, etc. The immigration issue is the conflict about the pure Icelandic nation.
There has always been a conflict between those who want to open up society and those who want to close it, and right now there is a conflict between the isolationists and internationalists over the immigration issue. I believe Iceland still has a chance to develop a successful co-existence of immigrants and natives, but you do not do that by stirring up the peace with immigrants like some Icelandic political parties have done. You do that by forming and installing an active and integral assimilation policy. Such a policy does not exist in Iceland right now. The Minister for Social Affairs recently introduced an assimilation policy which mainly focuses on the language barrier. There are other things needed for successful assimilation.
What are you thinking about specifically?
We need to address such issues as ghetto formations for example. In neighbouring countries, we have seen how immigrant ghettos have formed, where immigrants have moved into the cheapest neighbourhoods in the city. As foreigners move into the neighbourhood, the natives move out and then the politicians lose interest in the neighbourhood and it starts to deteriorate. Next thing you know, you have a ghetto, which will polarise society and eventually you will have a conflict like what we saw in France recently.
We can see the first signs of this development in certain neighbourhoods here in Reykjavík, and this is what we need to eliminate here in Iceland. We can do that by installing an official policy for distributed residence of immigrants, where we would encourage immigrants to move to certain neighbourhoods by granting them financial incentives. This would be easy to do, city and state officials grant different kinds of financial assistance to different sorts of groups. That is how we manage society. Another thing that needs to be done is to provide financial incentives for civil society to get immigrants involved in its operations. The government pays large sums of money to organisations like sports clubs or the scout movement. If you use some of this money as an incentive to get foreigners involved in their operation, you are making the whole community active in the assimilation. That is what an integrated assimilation policy looks like.
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