For how long has the Anti-Racist Movement been operating?
Since September 2006. That’s when we got permission to found the organisation and decided to try and see how people would respond to the idea. We had talked about it for over a year and, before we promoted it to the public, approximately 100 people had joined the organisation, which has grown steadily ever since. Today we have about 350 members and we still have lots of applications to look at. [To become a member, one has to fill out an application and have an interview]. Many people think the majority of members are foreigners, but that’s not the case. About 30% are immigrants and 70% Icelanders, many of whom have lived abroad and know how it is to be a foreigner.
What encouraged you to start the organisation?
Our goal is to fight against racism and prejudice in society and while prejudice increases we will be there to protest things we find unjust and discriminating. We want to see how we can improve the situation before it gets even worse. What we have aimed at mostly is to offer our support. Foreigners who’ve experienced injustice come to us because they don’t know where to get help. These are people who have been victims of racist attacks out on the streets or harassment in the workplace. Many of them are also afraid to go to the police because they feel that they can’t trust the police. Therefore, many violent acts are never reported. What we are trying to do is to change this way of thinking. We try to build up trust, give advice and urge people to report crimes.
We also try to get people’s stories told in the media so the public can be more aware of the things happening in society. We have worked mostly with the newspapers DV and 24 stundir and although the media coverage is improving, many news media could do much better. If I name one example, a foreigner was stabbed downtown recently. It happened on a Sunday morning and we wrote about the attack on our website but the story wasn’t published in the papers before Wednesday, I think. We found this remarkable, because we know that if it had been the other way around, the story would probably have been on the cover the next day. The media coverage needs to be fair.
Many people think racism is not a real problem in Iceland, but it is quite obvious that there are groups out there that go around town and attack foreigners without any motive. We know of plenty of incidents but, as I said, most of them are never reported to the police.
You’ve lived in Iceland for the past 17 years. Do you sense that racism in Iceland is increasing?
Yes. When I moved to Iceland, I first lived in a small country town where people quickly learned to recognise me and got to know me. When I moved to Reykjavík eleven years ago, the experience was quite different. I’ve been called all sorts of degrading names, often because people think I don’t understand the language. I used to answer back but don’t really bother anymore. Sometimes I even wish I didn’t know the language so I wouldn’t have to listen to all the things people have to say about foreigners. But I’m glad I learned Icelandic, because then I can understand what’s going on and I encourage people to learn the language.
Over the past 10 years, things have changed for the worse. Iceland has many more immigrants today than it had 10 years ago. There are more rich people today than before but at the same time inflation has gone up and living in Iceland has become more expensive. People get angry and immigrants become easy targets. I can understand, in a way, that Icelanders are worried, and I know many people think that if too many foreigners come to the country it could lead to unemployment. But that’s not how things work. Foreigners can’t just come and take their jobs. There has rather been a shortage of workforce. Also, it doesn’t solve anything to attack one or two immigrants downtown.
One thing that some people tend to point out is that many companies look at immigrants as cheap labour and pay them low salaries because they can get away with it. They are concerned that by being willing to work for a lower pay, immigrants keep the salaries down.
Yeah, I’ve heard this before and think it is important to keep an eye on it. It’s true that many foreigners are willing to work for less pay. They come to Iceland, with perhaps nothing, so they are always making a profit. To fix a problem like this, the government, the Immigration Office and the Directorate of Labour need to work together. But the society has changed in recent years. Today, there are mostly immigrants who work the poorly paid jobs, such as in fish processing or janitorial work. There aren’t that many Icelanders who want these jobs anymore, but someone has to do it. There are around 20,000 immigrants living in Iceland and they sure don’t come here for the snow. They come here to create a life for themselves and also to assist Icelanders with various projects. I contacted Statistics Iceland to inquire about the number of construction companies and found out that in 1999, there were around 900 companies but in 2007 the number had gone up to almost 2,500. Many of these companies rely heavily on foreign workers.
People need to ask themselves how things would be if 20,000 foreigners packed up and left tomorrow. How would the situation be then? How much tax do they pay? These are important questions to think about. It is easy to say “fucking foreigner, go home” but how would the society cope if everyone did just that? Icelanders are intelligent people so I’m really surprised that some are so short sighted.
Racist groups like ‘Iceland against Poles’ and ‘Iceland for Icelanders’ have been popping up recently. Many young people are joining or even starting these groups and aren’t afraid to express their hatred, especially on the Internet. What do you feel about this development?
It’s really sad to see that young people think like this and it is important to do something now before this becomes a more serious problem. Many teachers have contacted us and asked us how to handle issues like these. What I think the schools lack the most is educational material to help children get to know different cultures. We are working on a programme to use in the classrooms, which we hope to get approved. But as it is with everything in Iceland, things take time and cost money.
Are you satisfied with the way the government has dealt with issues like violence and prejudice against immigrants? What would you like to see change?
No, not at all. Although Paul F. Nikolov [of the Leftist Green Movement] has tried to do his best, it is important that the authorities intervene right away. The Ministry of Education needs to intervene. The government needs to discuss this problem seriously and, while doing so, they should look to neighbouring countries, see how they have dealt with the issue and learn from their mistakes before things get out of hand. The most important thing is to look at the big picture: stop saying that Iceland doesn’t need immigrants because that’s just not true. The numbers don’t lie. I think everyone needs to be more open and try to get to know one another without judging beforehand. It seems everyone has an opinion on the matter but instead of spending the time on hatred, people should try to find positive solutions so everyone can be satisfied.
The Anti-Racist Movement has a meeting facility at the Intercultural Centre. The easiest way to contact them is through their website, www.antirasista.net.