Published in the 2014 August-September issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 04.14. Words and Photo by Zoë Robert.
Once one of the least diversified countries in Europe, immigrants now make up 8 percent of Iceland’s population.
Once a year, on a Saturday afternoon in early May, the streets of downtown Reykjavík stage a celebration of multiculturalism.
Dressed in their national costumes and accompanied by their national song, dance and music, members of Reykjavík’s diverse population—from Ghana to Mexico and Japan to Jordan—parade their way from Hallgrímskirkja church down to City Hall.
The gray building on the edge of Tjörnin, the city pond, is transformed into an exhibition center where Reykjavík’s foreign residents proudly present their countries, cuisines and traditions to the public.
This year’s Intercultural Day, the sixth so far, was the largest ever with roughly 2,000 people from over 90 nations—of the 130 represented in Reykjavík—par-ticipating in the parade, and many more taking part in the festival’s other events.
Signs of Iceland’s demographic changes can be seen in daily life throughout society. Take a walk in downtown Reykjavík and you’ll soon come across some of a growing number of ethnic restaurants in the city—from Nepalese and Korean, to Rwandan.
Diversifying the country’s restaurant menus is just one of the ways in which immigrants have been adding another dimension to Icelandic cultural life. Meanwhile, with the large increase in tourists visiting Iceland, and foreigners being employed by the service and tourism industries, English is increasingly becoming the first language of many cafés and restaurants, adding to the international feel of Iceland’s capital.
Being relatively isolated in times past, Iceland’s population used to be one of the least diversified in Europe. This changed when Iceland joined the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1994, opening its borders to immigrants from the EU.
Today there are roughly 26,000 foreigners living in Iceland, or around 8 percent of the country’s population of 325,000, a comparable ratio to the otherNordic countries (the EU average is 4 percent), up from around 2 percent in 1996. These statistics don’t give the full picture though, as there are also many individuals with a foreign background or foreigners who have taken up Icelandic citizenship.
Poles make up the largest group with roughly 36 percent, followed by nationals from Lithuania, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, the U.K., the U.S., the Philippines and Thailand.
While many foreigners come to Iceland to work, some are here to study—international enrolments at Icelandic universities have been on the rise—while others move for love after meeting an Icelander abroad.
Juan Camilo Román Estrada fits the last description. At the age of 28, he moved to Iceland in 2007 after meeting an Icelandic woman in his home country of Colombia.
Juan says his experience in Iceland as an immigrant has been overwhelmingly positive—from having a large network of Icelandic friends, to learning the language and finding work in line with his education and passions—but acknowledges that integrating can be tough.
When the chance to volunteer as a representative on the Multicultural Council of Reykjavík, an advisory board to the City Council departments, came up, he jumped at the chance. “Many policies which concern immigrants were being decided by Icelanders without clear knowledge of what was really needed,” he explains.
Originally from Jamaica, Claudie Ashonie Wilson is also heavily involved in immigrant matters in Iceland. Arecent law graduate and Vice-Chair of Women of Multicultural Ethnicity Network, Claudie says Reykjavík has in recent years been making headway in the area of policy.
“Other communities could use Reykjavík as an example because of the way it incorporates multiculturalism into policy and the school curriculum,” she says, adding that more could however be done in the workplace.
In July this year Reykjavík City Council approved the Human RightsOffice’s proposal to apply for membership of the project Intercultural Cities, operated by the Council of Europe. The project supports cities in reviewing their policies through an intercultural lens and developing strategies to help them manage diversity positively.
In his seven years in Iceland Juan says he has noticed two main changes concerning immigration. “Immigrants are more visible and more and more foreigners speak good Icelandic, things that five years ago weren’t the case.”
Armed with better Icelandic skills, Juan says he is seeing a change in the way immigrants are viewed in the labor market.
Some are concerned, however, that the influx of immigrants has the potential to form a disenfranchised underclass of people who are underpaid, have fewer opportunities with regard to housing and advancement within the workplace and are marginalized culturally. “There is still this huge prejudice towards immigrants from outside Europe, and perhaps North America or Australia.
They are seen as lacking skills, or being ignorant and needing help,” Juan says.
Rather than viewing immigrants from certain countriesas less educated, Juan, who is writing his Master’s thesis in human resources on the human capital of immigrants in Iceland, hopes to highlight the new skills and perspectives which immigrants bring to the workforce.
“More and more people are becoming aware that people that come from other countries may have other competences and other intelligences that can be very positive for the Icelandic frame of mind,” he explains. Juan also says that Reykjavík’s increasingly cosmopolitan nature means he gets to hone his language skills, something which he says he wouldn’t have had the chance to do in Colombia.
“Personally, I love the opportunity and challenge of being able to speak three languages every day. I speak Icelandic, English and Spanish every single day. I feel that really helps expand your mind.”
Barbara Jean Kristvinsson, an immigrant counselor at the Human Rights Office, agrees that foreigners have contributed to Icelandic society in various ways including in advancements in music teaching, as well as sporting successes and its food culture.
Despite this, Barbara, originally from the U.S., feels there isn’t enough equal participation from immigrants. “We need more immigrants in better positions instead of just cleaning floors and taking care of children and old people. We need immigrants in management.”
Her colleague at the Human Rights Office, Edda Ólafsdóttir, an expert on immigrant issues, echoes Barbara’s view that more needs to be done. “We need to consider ways in which we can inspire greater social inclusion,” she says.
Also from the U.S., Paul Fontaine, who moved to Iceland in 1999 and works as a journalist at The Reykjavík Grapevine, as well as a representative of a labor union, argues that immigrants are having an impact in the workplace. “Immigrants are starting to have spheres of influence in the industries in which they work, possibly by bringing in new ideas, new modes of work and new modes of organization.”
There have also been more foreigners entering politics, Claudie says. “There were several immigrants who ran in the last municipal elections in Reykjavík. I see that as a really positive thing. I also feel that they are influencing their parties’ mandates with more emphasison immigrant issues.”
Paul became the first foreigner to take a seat in Iceland’s parliament when he stepped in as an alternate MP for the Left-Greens in 2007. “It was kind of a novelty for people. What I did notice, though, is that when the discussion involved foreigners in some way that people were on edge just because there was a foreigner in the room ... We really need more foreigners getting involved in politics.”
While there is more information and support for immigrants in Iceland than when Barbara first moved to the country in 1991, attitudes, she says, haven’t necessarily changed for the better.
“When I arrived, immigration was so new that there weren’t really any negative feelings about it. People just thought ‘how weird, why would she want to live here?’ but I never really felt like ‘there are too many immigrants here, we need to close the borders now’ which I sometimes feel is the case now.”
Anti-immigrant sentiments rose to the surface ahead of the municipal elections in late May when a candidate for the Prime Minister’s Progressive Party in Reykjavík, Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, reignited the debate on the building of Iceland’s first mosque, stating that the allocation of the plot of land should be canceled.
Support for the party soared resulting in it securing two of the 15 seats on the Reykjavík City Council—instead of the zero predicted by polls prior to the statement.
Juan shares Barbara’s concerns. “People are still afraid of changing too fast and I understand this fear of losing roots or traditions. I also notice that there is a lack of knowledge on multicultural issues and understanding ‘the other.’ This was visible, for example, in the mosque issue. I see this as a huge challenge because when you combine lack of knowledge and fear of change you get hatred and prejudice,” he says.
There is little tolerance for genuine racists, though, Paul argues. “Icelanders don’t like being told what to say, they don’t like being told what to do or what types of humor are acceptable or offensive ... On the other hand, Icelanders have a big allergy to open racists. Icelanders reject extremism,” he says.
Paul points out that the root of the Icelandic word for stupid, heimskur, implies that an individual rarely leaves home and sees no further than their front yard. “I think there’s a lot of truth in that,” he says.
Whether or not Reykjavík is a multicultural city depends on your definition. Edda maintains that it is. “Reykjavík is a multicultural city for sure—there’s no question about it. Around 10 percent of the city’s population is now born abroad.”
Paul is more hesitant in his response. “It’s becoming more multicultural in the sense that you see more types of people on the street ... but I think we have a long way to go before we have genuine multiculturalism here. But I think that is in part an organic process that comes from sheer numbers. I jokingly refer to the end of Austurstræti as the Arab quarter because there is Ali Baba, Kebabhúsið and around the corner there is Habibi. But we have no Chinatown, no Little Italy, no Little Saigon, no Little Warsaw or Little Bangkok.”
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