The situation concerning immigration is a total disaster in Norway, Denmark and Sweden while things are somewhat better in Finland. This we all know. But what about the fifth Nordic country? Many foreigners see Iceland as a place where immigration is not a problem. Unfortunately, this is not the reality. Iceland is moving in the same direction as other western countries. The flow of immigrants, legal and illegal, asylum seekers and foreign workers to Iceland has been growing fast. Icelanders are victims of the same political correctness that brands everybody as “racist” and “xenophobe” who dares to question multiculturalism. Even those who merely call for an open and informed debate on the issue have been stigmatised.
The only difference is that mass immigration and multiculturalism are rather new phenomenons in Iceland – no more than 15 years old – and as a consequence this evolution has been a bit behind most other Western countries, where these developments have usually taken much longer. Compared to those countries Iceland has a rather small Muslim population, with immigrants mainly coming from Southeast Asia (Thailand and the Philippines) and Eastern Europe (Poland and the former Yugoslavian territories). Nevertheless the number of Muslims in Iceland is growing rapidly. The Muslim Association of Iceland (only for Sunni Muslims) had 341 members in 2005 according to Statistics Iceland. When it was founded in 1997 it had 78 members.
Now the MAI claims that in total around 700 to 1,000 Muslims are living in Iceland. It also claims that growing numbers of Icelanders are converting to Islam, with some 100 converts in recent years. Of course these numbers must be regarded with some scepticism since they come from an association which may quite easily see political benefits in exaggerating them. Muslims in Iceland, for instance, have for some years been calling for the building of a mosque – preferably in the capital city of Reykjavík. Nevertheless, the figures are probably not so far from the truth.
Over 20,000 foreigners are now estimated to be living in Iceland legally, according to official statistics, about 6,6 percent of the general population. In other words, Iceland has reached a level of immigration comparable to Norway, Denmark and Sweden, in a much shorter time. A news report from the Icelandic National Broadcasting Corporation (RÚV) in September 2002 already stated that the number of immigrants in Iceland was growing faster than in the other Nordic countries and twice as fast as in Denmark.
Several thousands of those 20,000 foreigners living in Iceland are foreign workers, especially from Eastern Europe, who come to work for a short time (usually six months), mainly in the fishing industry in small towns and villages, but also in the building sector. Owing to the economic upswing in the country in recent years and very low unemployment (today 1,4%), increasing numbers of foreign workers have come to the country, especially from Poland. Many of these people choose to remain in the country and settle here, bringing in their families as well. As a consequence, foreigners now constitute large parts of many small towns and villages in Iceland, especially in the Westfjords, and in some cases even comprise one third of the population or more. In some primary schools in the countryside children with immigrant backgrounds form a large segment of the pupils, sometimes even the majority.
Indeed, Iceland is in a similar situation as Germany after World War II. The foreign workers are mainly seen as guests who will only stay in the country for a short time and then leave. The economic point of view has been dominant. It seems to be quite easy for people who come to the country as a foreign workers to remain in the country if they so wish. Little effort has been made to assimilate these people. In an interview with the Icelandic National Broadcasting Corporation last March a woman of Polish origin who has lived in Iceland for 12 years, warned that Poles in Iceland are not assimilating well enough due to their large and growing numbers in the country.
Owing to political correctness almost all debate on immigration in Iceland has been silenced. For example, the board of the Akureyri branch of the youth organization of the governing Independence Party issued a resolution in 1999 suggesting that all foreigners seeking Icelandic citizenship should first be required to pass an exam in Icelandic. The board was decried as “racist” and forced to resign. Fortunately this has been changing somewhat in the past couple of years, not in the least because of what has been happening on the European mainland, such as the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, the riots in France in November last year and the Danish cartoon case, but also the actions taken by the Danish liberal-conservative government since it came to power in 2001.
In the past couple of years the government has taken some measures to tighten the immigration laws. For example, all foreigners granted residence and work permits, must now attend classes in Icelandic. However, no exams at the end of those classes are required, which means the authorities have little information on how successful they are. The granting of residence and work permits has been growing fast and so has the granting of Icelandic citizenship. The number of asylum seekers has also grown fast in recent years, but very few who come to the country on their own initiative are granted asylum since they have usually already applied for asylum in another Schengen member state and been refused. Iceland has on the other hand accepted hundreds of refugees at the request of the United Nations, mainly from former Yugoslavia.
Unemployment among foreigners in Iceland is reported by the authorities to be less than that among Icelanders themselves. If this is true it is probably due to the fact that no one can get a residence permit and a work permit in the country unless they have a job waiting for them and can support themselves and their dependents. No statistics, however, seem to be available on whether or not foreigners are a burden on Icelandic welfare as in some other countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and in other Western welfare systems. I have personally made a number of attempts to get this information since I believe it is extremely important for the whole debate to have the correct figures on the table. But the only answer I have received from the authorities is that this information is not collected and if I want it I must personally pay for the whole research.
In March 2004 the then director of the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration and now director of the Icelandic Coast Guard, Georg K. Lárusson, said the IDI had reasons to believe that several hundred illegal immigrants were living in Iceland. He said many of those individuals were believed to be living with relatives or fellow countrymen who are staying in the country legally. People of foreign origin constitute a fast increasing proportion of welfare beneficiaries in Iceland, in some cases more than one third. Most of these are Asian. In many cases the individuals in question are not able to show any identification papers when receiving the benefits.
There is no doubt that Iceland’s membership of the borderless Schengen area is the main reason for this huge increase in people staying illegally in the country. People who somehow manage to enter the area can easily travel to Iceland, or for that matter to any other Schengen member state without IDs. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are estimated to enter the Schengen area every year. Iceland has also increasingly been used to get people into the Schengen area through arranged marriages. Trafficking is another problem, but Iceland has been used as a transit to smuggle people to America, primarily the United States. Fortunately the government has taken steps to tackle this.
Ghettos are already developing in at least one of Reykjavík's suburbs where immigrants, especially with Asian backgrounds, have settled in vast numbers. At the same time many Icelanders are reported to be moving out of these suburbs. Some conflicts have already occurred between gangs of immigrant youths and native youngsters, but the authorities still insist this has nothing to do with race or descent. Meanwhile foreigners are also a growing number of those sentenced to prison in Iceland.
The numbers mentioned in this article may not sound significant to the ears of most other Europeans. But one must always bear in mind that the total Icelandic population is only 300,000 people. 20,000 immigrants in Iceland are therefore equivalent to 4 million in the United Kingdom; 600 illegal immigrants is comparable to 120,000 in the UK; 900 Muslims in Iceland corresponds to 180,000 in the UK. And considering in how short a time this has occurred the development is huge and happening at a very fast rate.