In the light of Icelanders’ recent groundswell in favour of accepting more Syrian refugees, Reykjavík’s mayor, Dagur B. Eggertsson, was recently quoted as saying that the city is prepared to accept “hundreds” of new refugees. Curious, we called him up to gain further insight into this statement, discussing—among other things—the process of coming up with a more concrete number, the mayoral office’s role in handling refugees, and what practical steps interested citizens can take to get involved.
Dagur, thanks for talking to us. First of all—how did you arrive at the rough figure of “hundreds”?
Well, I didn’t want to give out a more exact number—I don’t think we’re at that stage yet. I was asked by a reporter if it would be in the hundreds, and I said “Yes, probably.”
The government and the ministerial committee on refugees are currently deciding on the number of refugees that will come to Reykjavík and Iceland’s various municipalities. There’s a broad consensus in the city council: we wanted to make it heard that we’re prepared to participate, and we thought that the numbers given out earlier—50 or so refugees—was too low. We have offered to enter into negotiations with the government on the matter, and do the very best we can.
Could you describe the role of the mayor’s office in this process?
First of all, I’m coordinating our efforts and operations with our specialists in the city’s Welfare department, and the Human Rights department, who’ve historically been very active when we’ve received groups of refugees. For the preparations to be more concrete, we need to know the scale the government is thinking about. I see my role as coordinating the effort, ensuring we have the necessary means to not just take on the task, but to make sure we do it properly—and not just in the short term, but over a number of years.
And I have the full backing of the city council to do so.
Who are the main players in this process?
First, you have the Ministerial Committee, who are deciding on the numbers, and determining the available finances. There’s a Refugee Committee working with them, which has the governmental authority to work alongside the UN bodies that work on refugee issues. In collaboration with them, the refugee committee makes a proposal on how many refugees will come here, and from which camps. There are three ministries connected to the process directly—the Welfare, Interior and Foreign ministries. Also the Ministry of Finance is involved, and now the Prime Minister’s office, because the Prime Minister himself is chairing the Refugee Committee.
It has been documented that the city’s healthcare system is currently struggling to cope with demand. Will refugees enter into the existing healthcare system, or will new resources be made available?
I would think that we need new resources. Refugee healthcare is actually in the hands of the state, but when it comes to schools et cetera, we are responsible. These matters are carried out in agreement between the government and the municipalities, based on the needs of the groups that are coming—whether it’s adults, or a lot of children, for example. We assess their specific needs, and the result will vary based on the situation.
What kind of housing will the refugees be occupying?
At first they could be at some kind of centre. But we’ve found that it’s best to assimilate refugees as soon as possible, and meet their needs as best we can—as we do with any other types of people in need. We envision that they will be living as normal people in Reykjavík as soon as possible.
Icelanders’ positive response to the current crisis has been reported, even celebrated, worldwide. However, there are opposing voices in Icelandic discourse as elsewhere, who are loudly and vehemently opposed to the idea of welcoming refugees to the country. What has been your experience, talking to people in the city?
In my experience, the response has been very positive. And that’s very important. The whole of our society has to do this together—you don’t need to be a refugee to know that if you’re a child coming into a new school, or an individual coming into a new neighbourhood, it’s very important to be well received by your neighbours, classmates and fellow citizens. I’m certain that the positivity of the Icelandic people will help refugees feel welcome here. I have noticed that the Red Cross is working very actively with volunteers, giving out information on how people can help. The willingness to help is certainly out there. It’s great to have the Red Cross as a partner in this—they are very experienced in these matters, not just here, but all over the world.
What should people do if they want to get involved in this process?
I would recommend that people join the Red Cross efforts, and list themselves as interested in helping there. The Red Cross will work with individuals to find out what they’d like to do, and how they’re best capable of helping, and then suggest a practical plan for involvement. This goes for people in all parts of the greater Reykjavík area, as in every other part of Iceland. I foresee that this will be a country-wide effort