Language is key to integration
“I have been here for 15 years and I think I am still trying to completely come into Icelandic society after 15 years,” says Georg Hanney (pictured above), who is originally from Germany. He was quick to learn Icelandic, which he says helped him a great deal. “It would also be very good if there were more understanding of how hard it is to learn the language. For some, it’s hardly even possible, unfortunately.”
Calls for better teaching
Better access to good quality Icelandic lessons is something the next government should look into assuring, according to people who work with immigrants. “It should be made more focused and the quality improved, and access to it improved as well,” says Atli Viðar Thorsteinsson, the section head for aid and humanitarian affairs at the Red Cross.
“Great care needs to be paid to Icelandic teaching. It is a huge challenge for people of foreign origin that their access to society comes up against some sort of obstacle because Icelandic teaching isn’t helping them into society well enough,” agrees Nichole Leigh Mosty, the director of the Intercultural and Information Centre.
The immigrant community in Iceland has grown quickly over the past two decades, including a hundred percent increase in just the past decade. 14 percent of the population is now made up of New Icelanders. “It is up for debate whether we have been well enough prepared when it comes to services to immigrants. There is therefore a project for the next term of parliament [after this weekend’s election] to create a policy for immigration affairs,” Atli says.
“Something not functioning right”
The proportion of foreign citizens on the unemployment register stood at 39 percent last month. Around half of all unemployed foreign citizens in Iceland are Polish. “That tells us that there is something not functioning right. It has not been tackled well enough and it is time we do so, because population growth is not about more babies being born. Strong population growth is when people move here and are empowered to actively participate in the society and development, the economy, the education system, and the workplace,” Nichole says.
Immigrants often work in tourism, construction, or as carers. “They have not learnt enough Icelandic to enable them to graduate from these sectors and advance in the workplace. And what are we to do? How can we get them into other sectors? Is Icelandic teaching one way? Is it to re-examine courses and people’s previous experience in the workplace to make it work better for them,” Nichole asks.
Adapt the system to the people, not the other way round
The further education dropout rate is higher among students of foreign origin. Efforts have been made to change this, by supporting mother language teaching and encouraging bilingualism in schools, and drafting plans for future education policies for children and teenagers with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
Nichole says there is still much that can be changed to help the children of immigrants. “Too few students of foreign origin that have gone through the school system here are going on to university. We need to adapt our teaching methods for this group of students, not adapt people to the existing system, which has been the way of things a bit up until now. By using special teaching to improve Icelandic, Icelandic teaching should instead be changed for those who speak Icelandic as a second language.”
18 refugees from Afghanistan
There are distinct problems faced by refugees and asylum seekers in Iceland. Around 200 have arrived as quota refugees during the past four-year parliamentary term, including the Syrian families who arrived last week, a written response from the social affairs ministry confirms. They were the first quota refugees since the pandemic arrived in Iceland and also the first to go through the new coordinated reception procedure that was put in place during the last parliament. The plan, pre-covid, was to welcome 85 quota refugees last year and 100 this year.
In late August, the government confirmed Iceland would additionally welcome 120 refugees from Afghanistan due to the Taliban takeover of the country. 33 have so far arrived, including 15 who already had Icelandic residence permits or citizenship.
System not bad but not perfect
Atli Viðar, from the Red Cross, says 20-30 percent of applications for international protection in Iceland are approved. The time taken to process these asylum applications has shortened during the past term of parliament in the wake of protest rallies in support of families awaiting deportation. “The processing time could still be shortened further. There are various things that could be changed when it comes to services to applicants while their cases are processed. Overall, I would say the system is not bad, but far from perfect,” Atli says.
Last year, around 630 people were granted international protection, additional protection, or residence permits on humanitarian grounds, which was 100 more than the year before. Protection cases are under the jurisdiction of the justice ministry, while the welfare ministry sees to services for those granted protection. “But there is also another type of system where one ministry could look after it all. It could be asserted that this would make processes more streamlined in this way, and less expensive for everyone. It would be interesting if the authorities looked into this in the coming term,” Atli adds.
Pole or German?
How do we, the people already living in Iceland, welcome people moving here? “There is a difference based on where people are from,” Nichole believes.
Georg Hanney agrees: “It makes a big difference for people that I am a German and not a Pole. I was asked right to my face: ‘Ha? Are you from Germany? I thought you were Polish.’ This is difficult for people who are on the other end of this prejudice.”