Over the past month, we’ve seen the biggest U-turn in Iceland’s foreign policy in recent history. Always hesitant to accept refugees, the nation has accepted only 549 since 1956. However, the government’s announcement that it would react to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria by accepting a total of 50 individuals over a period of two years, was met noticeable public outcry. And that’s when things started changing.
The government altered its stance following the hugely successful and highly publicised social media campaign “Kæra Eygló Harðar – Sýrland kallar” (“Dear [Minister of Welfare] Eygló Harðar – Syria is calling”—read all about it here), wherein individuals offered clothes, financial aid, support, and even housing to refugees coming to Iceland. Forming a special ministerial committee that deliberated for over three weeks, the government announced on September 19 that Iceland was to admit more than a hundred refugees in 2015 alone, and devoting more than two billion ISK to the matter over the coming two years. Only a few details have been released thus far, and there are a lot of unanswered questions (such as exactly how many refugees are coming, how they will be met, if there are any conditions on their arrival, etc.), but here’s what we know so far:
500 is a tall order
Before the committee made any announcements, 22 members of the Parliament minority proposed that Iceland accept 500 refugees over a period of two years. Minister for Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson dismissed the idea, saying it was irresponsible to name any figure before analysing Iceland’s existing infrastructure, and guaranteeing access to necessities such as psychiatric help and housing.
Four to five million ISK per refugee
Once the government made its announcement, the Minister of Welfare declared that the total annual cost per refugee amounted to around four to five million ISK. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated that the proposed two billion ISK funds would be used both to welcome refugees to Iceland, and for overseas refugee aid—the money would be allotted from the 15.3 billion ISK surplus that’s expected from the proposed 2016 government budget.
The first refugees will arrive in December
To date, 25 municipalities have contacted the Ministry of Welfare expressing interest in hosting refugees. These include—amongst others—Reykjavík, Ísafjörður, and Akureyri. The latter, we have learned, is slated to be the first town to accept a group of Syrian refugees, which will arrive from Lebanon in December. Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson was initially quoted as saying that the city was capable of accepting “hundreds” of refugees, but has since noted that the municipality has yet to evaluate exactly how many it can offer refuge to.
Public opinion is in favour of welcoming refugees
A recent poll conducted by MMR showed that an overwhelming majority of Icelanders, or 88.5% of respondents, was in favour of welcoming refugees from Syria. In September alone, almost 1,300 individuals signed up to volunteer through the Red Cross, around 1,000 of which are in the greater capital area (supplanting the region’s 900 already active volunteers). A more recent poll by Gallup, however, showed that almost 60% of Icelanders don’t want to accept more than 200 refugees in the coming two years.
There’s room for more change
Iceland is known for its strict (and controversial) interpretation of the Dublin Regulation, frequently choosing to deport asylum seekers without evaluating their cases. Alongside announcing that Iceland will accept more refugees, PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson said that it would be ideal to revise the existing and outdated regulations regarding asylum seekers, bringing them more in line with international law and the protections afforded to refugees.
SPARKS TURN TO FLAMES: A Conversation With Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir
Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir is very concerned that we don’t position her on our cover as some sort refugee queen or saviour figure. She doesn’t actually want to be on our cover, or any magazine cover for that matter. This much is clear.
Iceland Becomes You: Four Former Refugees Relay Their Stories
Biljana arrived in Iceland with her mother, father, and younger sister, who was five at the time. The family were refugees even in her earliest memories, she says. Thus, coming to Iceland—where they didn’t have to fear for their safety—felt wonderful. She describes in particular the persistent memory of her first Icelandic shower—how amazed she was at the abundance of hot water, and that it didn’t come from a bucket.
So What’s This I Keep Hearing About Icelanders Welcoming Refugees Into Their Homes?
Recently, over a thousand Icelanders took to Facebook to pledge their help to those fleeing Syria, with participants vowing to provide food, money, clothes and anything else to help Syrian refugees in need. But even the most cynical person would not be surprised by those kinds of offers. What was surprising, even to optimists, was that a large number promised to take refugees into their homes.