Iceland: the Accidental Melting Pot? Pt 1

22 May 2008, the Independent:

Why are we asking this now?

Because Iceland has just been named the world's most peaceful place by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which has compiled an index based on 24 indicators of external and internal measures of peace – including the fact that it has no army and has the lowest ratio of citizens in jail of all the 140 countries surveyed ...

Iceland's men may be descended from the Vikings, but genetic studies show that most of its original female settlers were Celts from the support families of Irish monks who were the first settlers in the 8th century. Ever since women have played a key role in Iceland, which in 1980 was the first country anywhere to elect a female head of state (she was also a single mum). The strong female influence is said to have minimised belligerency.

But peaceful isn't the same as happy, is it?

True, but Iceland does well in other international comparisons, too. According to the UN's Human Development Index it is the world's most developed country, and one of the most egalitarian. It has excellent education and health care. Life expectancy for men (80.55 years) is the highest in the world. They do well on countless indicators from mobile phone use (they have more than one each) to car use (of which everyone over 17 has, on average, one each too) though that is not very good for their carbon footprint, which is higher than that in France or Spain. But it has more than just one of the highest standards of living in the world. Iceland is the fourth happiest country in the world according to a University of Leicester psychological survey, which found that the key determinants of happiness were health, wealth and education, in that order ...
No wonder Iceland has the happiest people on earth
John Carlin, the Observer:
Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together - loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers - and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos. But no ...

Oddny Sturludottir, a 31-year-old mother of two, told me she had a good friend who was 25 and had three children by a man who had just left her. 'But she has no sense of crisis at all,' Oddny said. 'She's preparing to get on with her life and her career in a perfectly optimistic frame of mind.' The answer to why the friend perceives no crisis in what any woman in a similar predicament anywhere else in the western world might consider a full-blown catastrophe goes a long way towards explaining why Iceland's 313,000 inhabitants are such a sane, cheerful, successful lot.

... a society that is culturally geared - as its overwhelming priority - to bring up happy, healthy children, by however many fathers and mothers. A lot of it comes from their Viking ancestors, whose males were rampant looters and rapists, but had the moral consistency at least not to be jealous of the dalliances of their wives - tough women who kept their families fed in the semi-tundra harshness of this north Atlantic island while their husbands forayed, for years at a time, far and wide. As a grandmother I met on my first visit to Iceland, two years ago, explained it: 'The Vikings went abroad and the women ran the show, and they had children with their slaves, and when the Vikings returned they accepted it, in the spirit of the more the merrier.' ...

'Patchwork families are a tradition here,' explained Oddny, who was off work, at home, on the Thursday morning we met, looking after her youngest child. 'It is common for women to have kids with more than one man. But all are family together.'

I found this time and again with people I met in Iceland. Oddny's case was not atypical. When a child's birthday comes around, not only do the various sets of parents turn up for the party, the various sets of grandparents - and whole longboats of uncles and aunts - come too. Iceland, lodged in the middle of the North Atlantic with Greenland as its nearest neighbour, was too far from the remit of any but the more zealously obstinate of the medieval Christian missionaries. It is a largely pagan country, as the natives like to see it, unburdened by the taboos that generate so much distress elsewhere. That means they are practical people. Which, in turn, means lots of divorces.

'That is not something to be proud of,' said Oddny, with a brisk smile, 'but the fact is that Icelanders don't stay in lousy relationships. They just leave.' And the reason they can do so is that society, starting with the parents and grandparents, does not stigmatise them for making that choice. Icelanders are the least hung-up people in the world. Thus the incentive, for example, 'to stay together for the sake of the kids' does not exist. The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them and, likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody for the children will be shared.

The comfort of knowing that, come what may, the future for the children is safe also helps explain why Icelandic women, modern as they are (Iceland elected the world's first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a single mother, 28 years ago), persist in the ancient habit of bearing children very young. 'Not unwanted teen pregnancies, you understand,' said Oddny, 'but women of 21, 22 who willingly have children, very often while they are still at university.' At a British university a pregnant student would be an oddity; in Iceland, even at the business-oriented Reykjavik University, it is not only common to see pregnant girls in the student cafeteria, you see them breast-feeding, too. 'You extend your studies by a year, so what?' said Oddny. 'No way do you think when you have a kid at 22, "Oh my God, my life is over!" Definitely not! It is considered stupid here to wait till 38 to have a child. We think it's healthy to have lots of kids. All babies are welcome.'

All the more so because if you are in a job the state gives you nine months on fully paid child leave, to be split among the mother and the father as they so please ...

... 'You have to be not only tough but inventive to survive here,' said Svafa. 'If you don't use your imagination, you're finished; if you stand still, you die.'

As the Vikings showed, part of that imagination means getting out into the world. That is what Svafa did (she studied for a PhD at the London School of Economics, lived in the US, spending a total of 10 years abroad) and what practically all Icelanders do. Very few do not speak excellent English. But now that Iceland has become prosperous the invitation is out to the world to come to Iceland. Reykjavik University has staff from 23 countries and the idea, after a planned move in two years to what Svafa describes as a new space-age campus, is to expand the foreign presence both in terms of teaching staff and students, and convert the university into a hub of global business education. Reykjavik University is already entirely bilingual. 'Students who only speak English can come and do postgraduate studies here.' Does nobody worry about losing the Icelandic language, when, after all, so few people speak it? 'Not at all,' declares Svafa. 'Our language is safe.' Not prey to the nationalist neuroses of other small countries (though practically none are smaller than Iceland), Iceland's obsession is with embracing the world, not fearing it ...

Icelanders know how to identify the best and incorporate it into their society. I talked about this to the Icelandic prime minister, Geir Haarde, whom I met at an official event at a steamy public swimming bath, a popular meeting place for Icelanders, like pubs for the British. Easygoing as everybody else I met, and without anything dimly resembling a bodyguard anywhere near him (there is almost no crime in Iceland), he agreed on the spot to sit down and do a quick interview.

'I believe we have blended the best of Europe and the United States here, the Nordic welfare system with the American entrepreneurial spirit,' he said, pointing out that Iceland, unlike the other Nordic countries, had exceptionally low personal and corporate tax rates ...

... Icelanders will continue to receive not just free, top-class education but free, top-class healthcare, private medicine being limited in Iceland chiefly to luxury procedures, such as cosmetic surgery.

... Someone called it bumblebee economics: scientifically, aerodynamically, you cannot figure out how it flies, but it does, and very nicely, too.' ...

Asvaldur, who was born in 1928 in a fishing town in Iceland's wild far east ... Today, he has a full-time job looking after his invalid wife. The blessing is that he receives money from the state to do so, a big reason (consistent with the culture of family cohesion) why most old people in Iceland live not in residences but at home ...

They are all sure to be receiving a fine education ... 'we must challenge the children with a broad educational foundation, teach them in a warm, creative environment ...'

Dagur, like the many people I spoke to in Iceland who were proud of their country, was confident but not complacent; content but ambitious - and open to the world in all its diversity. That was manifest even at Asgeir's school, where I came across children from China, Vietnam, Colombia, even Equatorial Guinea.

When I was talking to Svafa about the better influences from the rest of the world that Iceland seemed to have wisely plucked, or just happened to have, we mentioned, as the prime minister had done, the humaneness of Scandinavia and the drive of the United States. We also discussed how the Icelanders - who have excellent restaurants these days and whose stamina for late night partying must come from the Viking DNA - seemed to have much of southern Europe's savoir vivre. Then I put it to her that there was an African quality to Iceland that the rest of Europe lacked. This was to be found in the 'patchwork' family structures Oddny had spoken of. The sense that, no matter whether the father lived in the same home or the mother was away working, the children belonged to, and were seen to belong by, the extended family, the village. Svafa liked that. 'Yes!' the pale-skinned power executive exclaimed, in delighted recognition. 'We are Africans, too!'

Partly by dint of travel, partly by accident, Iceland, we agreed, was a melting pot that had contrived to combine humanity's better qualities, offering a lesson for the rest of the world on how to live sensibly and cheerfully, free from cant and prejudice and taboo. Iceland could not be less like Africa on the surface; could not be further removed from the lowest country in the UNDP's Human Development Index, Sierra Leone. Yet the Icelanders have had the wisdom to take, or accidentally to replicate, the best of what's there, too. Without any hang-ups at all.
Wow, Iceland is open to the world in all its diversity, an accidental or intentional melting pot with no hang-ups. A lesson for the rest of the world. John Carlin has planted the flag of diversity and liberalism on the most peaceful country and claimed it to be a successful global village.

Icelandic culture provides plenty to be envious of: a strong sense of cohesion, tradition, community care and higher birthrate. It provides plenty of food for thought: heavy drinking but non-violent, high divorce rate but happy families. No argument that there may be some lessons for us.

John Carlin makes it sound like Iceland's peace is due to their pragmatic and global outlook. But are Icelanders really open and welcoming to the world's diversity? And what is responsible for their peace?

Even Up There: Muslims Want Mosque in Reykjavík
Hjörtur Gudmundsson, Brussels Journal, 2006-09-07:
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 ... Muslims in Iceland, for instance, have for some years been calling for the building of a mosque – preferably in the capital city of Reykjavík ...

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 ... 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 ...

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 ...

In March 2004 the then director of the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration ... 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 ...

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.
Worried about the increase of racism
Anti-Rasista, 14 Jan 2008:
There is a good reason for being very worried about growing racism in this country. "I think we are experiencing that", says Jóhann R. Benediktsson sheriff, at Keflavik airport in his conversation with DV today. Crime records where foreigners are involved have made things worse and brought up intensive discussions and hatred against them.

As asked, Johann says he is aware of the organization "Iceland for Icelanders" in Reykjanesbær, which DV has brought up. He says he takes all the negativity in the discussion of foreigners very seriously. "I think the discussion is a based on badly informed people and is very typical for that matter. It's now in our hands to face and handle this discussion and give people the right information and facts.
November 07, 2006
‘Liberal Party’ Pushes Immigration Issues To The Forefront:
Last week has seen an onslaught of political debate in Iceland regarding remarks made by members of “The Liberal Party” on the explosive issue of immigration. In an article published in Blaðið last Wednesday entitled ‘Iceland for Icelanders?’, the struggling party’s latest addition, Supreme Court lawyer Jón Magnússon, voiced his concerns about what he perceives to be a ‘relentless stream of foreigners’ to Iceland and calls for a tougher immigration law.

In the piece, Magnússon emphasises that he has “[…] nothing against Poles or other Christians from our part of the world. For example, I really like Danes, Swedes and Norwegians […]. If you try and fight the increased stream of immigrants to the country, that has nothing to do with disrespecting other nations or racial prejudice.” He goes on to say that he would not want to see Muslims immigrate to Iceland, and that the country now faces “[…] the greatest threat an independent Icelandic nation and Icelandic culture has thus far seen.”

The party’s Vice President, Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson, followed Magnússon’s lead and continues to echo similar sentiments in talk shows and blog-posts, stating that he is concerned with increased unemployment, faltering wages and a rise in crime and poverty following unregulated immigration. In a recent blog-post, he stated that he had received tremendous support from Icelanders since the debate started.

“The Liberal Party”, formed in 1998, currently has three MP’s and has thus far mostly been known for its stance against Icelandic fishing regulations ...

... the leaders of all Icelandic political youth movements, save for “The Liberal Party’s” voiced their disappointment about the politicians’ racially and religiously prejudiced statements.
"I really like Danes, Swedes and Norwegians". You mean you prefer people who simply look like you? How refreshingly honest.

A third of Icelanders for Nationalist Party? 20.04.2006:
One third of Icelanders might vote for a nationalistic political party, suggests a Gallup poll, conducted on behalf of a former member of Iceland´s parliament.

According to, Ásgeir Hannes Eiríksson, a representative of the now defunct Citizen’s party, who served in parliament from 1989 to 1991, had Gallup conduct the survey.

Eiríksson claims that he would not form a new nationalist party himself, but would support those that might form a political party advocating policies to reduce the number of immigrants coming to Iceland.

Eiríksson was a guest on the news show Kastljós on RÚV-TV last night. He said that he wanted to stem the flood of foreigners to the country. He said that an increased number of foreigners would strengthen organized crime within Iceland. “Naturally I want Icelanders to enjoy Iceland... and to have advantages within their own country.” He said that the immigrant problem would materialize on May 1, when East-Europeans could move freely to Western Europe, including Iceland ...
We Have Enough with Caring for Ourselves”, 28/05/2008:
Magnús Thor Hafsteinsson MP for the Liberal Party and former chairman of the office of social affairs in Akranes, was against the arrival of 30 refugees from Iraq to Akranes this summer ...

“This is impossible.We are talking about 60 people in two years in a village where the budget is tight. To even think of bringing people in from refugee camps, who have experienced so much and have to be under constant care of the administration of social affairs, is nonsense. This would mean that the total amount of foreigners in Akranes would rise to ten percent of the entire population, ten percent of which would be refugees.” Hafsteinsson wrote.

Hafsteinsson ends his article by concluding “It is our main duty as a community to care for our own people[…] I’m not going to look into the eyes of our people and make budget cuts while accommodating around hundred immigrants at the same time. If the community of Akranes wants to help people; we should rather aid the Red Cross or those organizations that work in refugee camp, instead of bringing the problem to our town” ...
The Liberal Party, wikipedia:
The party has, before the 2007 parliament elections, moved from being primarily focused on issues of fishing quotas and small fishing communities towards immigration. It is the only political party in Iceland that supports strict restrictions on immigration and consequently, the party has been accused of xenophobia.
In the Name of Art, 25/05/2008:
Last weekend my friend, who was visiting from Berlin, and I drove along the south coast via Vík and Skaftafell to Jökulsárlón for a bit of sightseeing.

I’d driven along this section of Route 1 several times before, and knew that my friend would appreciate the cross section of Iceland’s varied and dramatic landscape: green pastures, tumbling waterfalls, rocky mountains, glaciers and lava fields. I’d seen it all before, but this time I was in for a bit of a surprise.

On the return trip amongst the fields and backdrop of snow-tipped mountains stood two billboards displaying the infamous right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) 2007 election campaign poster showing three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag.

The Icelandic version translates as: “Ensure safety, Our sanctity, My home” and the party’s logo which includes the words “Swiss Quality.” Reaction? Shock and disbelief, of course. I would never have imagined seeing this image amongst the backdrop of the pristine Icelandic countryside ...

Anyway, after seeing the Monday evening news, we have since learnt that the posters were actually put up by a Swiss artist, Christoph Büchels, as part of the current Reykjavík Arts Festival ...

So, how is this relevant to Iceland? First of all Iceland has had its own troubles regarding anti-immigration and racism. Around 700 people, mostly teenagers, registered for the MySpace website, called “Association against Poles in Iceland” in the first 24 hours of it going online earlier this year, an Icelandic man was arrested in relation to a self-described “Pro-White Website for Icelanders,”, containing racist propaganda, and the re-release of children’s story “Ten Little Negro Boys” caused much heated debate, while a recent poll shows that almost 60 percent of teenagers either strongly agree or agree that there are too many immigrants living in Iceland.

While these posters were obviously set up to provoke debate, considering the current climate regarding issues concerning immigrants, it begs the question whether this is a case of art gone too far ...

The issue of the acceptance of foreigners is timely, with the recent circulation of petitions against the decision to welcome 30 Palestinian refugees to Akranes.

But, has Büchels’ stunt given us a taste of what could happen if racist attitudes and so-called free speech are allowed to flourish in this country? For the time being I pity the tourists and foreigners living in Iceland who were not able to understand the media reports that the posters—at least this time around—were in fact in the name of art.
The Suspect is a Foreigner, 20.04.2008:
In recent months foreigners in Iceland have been routinely making the news—and for all the wrong reasons.

Whether it is for drug smuggling, violent attack, rape, or even murder, residents of foreign origin—mainly Polish—have been making the headlines ...

Like many other foreigners, she is tired of the negative coverage of immigrants and the impact a few negative stories can have on the reputation of foreigners—notably the Polish community—as a whole.

In particular, this sentiment has been fueled by sensational news stories about foreigners involved in criminal activity. Let’s take some examples from recent headlines:

“Poles Fight with Bladed Weapons and Fire Extinguishers” ...

“Foreigners Take over Drug World” ...

“Custody of Poles Confirmed” ...

“Poles Hire Private Detective” ...

In an article on about the causes of increased opposition to foreigners in Reykjanesbaer, southwest Iceland, the only person quoted was Kamilla Sigtryggsdóttir, a member of anti-immigration association Iceland for Icelanders.

She said: “Poles and Italians come here and take all the construction work from us. […] “Then these people dare attack us.” ...

The media monitoring company Fjölmidlavaktin has now demonstrated that this sentiment does indeed reflect a trend of increased negative reporting about immigrants in Iceland...

... With headlines like the aforementioned: “Poles Fight with Bladed Weapons and Fire Extinguishers,” is it really any wonder that many contribute the increase in violence in Reykjavík to the recent increase of foreign-born residents in the country?

... a recent study by Statistics Iceland that Icelandic residents of Polish origin committed the fewest crimes in Iceland in 2006 compared to other residents—even fewer than Icelandic natives ...

... With an increase in foreigners, there is bound to be an increase in interest and coverage by the media, but do negative events or behavior concerning foreigners need to be covered in such a sensational fashion?
Pure Body – Pure Nation, April 13, 2007:

Eiríkur Bergmann is an Associate Professor and director of the Centre for European Studies at Bifröst University. He recently published a book called Opið land – staða Íslands í samfélagi þjóðanna, or Open land – Iceland’s Place in the International Society. In his book, Bergmann examines the relationship between Iceland and the outside world ...
Tell us a bit about the book.

What I try to do in the book is to look at the relationship between Iceland and the outside world and try to find common roots for Iceland’s position on issues relating to foreign policy, such as the EU, the relationship with the US and the former US military base in Keflavík, globalisation, and immigration issues. I believe there is a common root for Iceland’s conservative position on foreign policy that can be traced back to Iceland’s struggle for independence.

There is a certain nationalism in our ideas about the Icelandic nation that are different from other European nations because nineteenth-century European liberalism never reached Iceland in the same way it did other European countries. European liberalism was based on the demand for freedom of the individual, the demand for freedom of commerce, etc., but here in Iceland the focus was not on the individual – rather on the nation as a whole, almost as an organic bodily whole – which gives us a slightly different idea of the Icelandic nation. I think that this in some ways explains our fear of immigrants, the idea of the purity of the organic body that is the Icelandic nation.

You have claimed that Iceland has the strictest immigration policy in the free Western hemisphere, please elaborate a bit.

In order to reach that conclusion, you have to look at how the immigration policy appears in Icelandic laws, the part that is directed at influx restrictions, and stipulates who can actually enter the country. These regulations are really twofold. On one hand, there are mutual regulations adopted from the EU through the EEA agreement, which stipulate that citizens from the EU area all have employment rights here. This is a decision that was taken jointly by the European nations in Brussels; Icelanders never made that decision for themselves. After the enlargement of the EU, this applies to the countries in Eastern European that have recently joined the EU as well.

But once you look beyond the joint European regulations and towards people outside the EU – i.e. the part of the regulations that we can decide for ourselves – then you have the strictest immigration policies in the free democratic world. We have adopted Danish and, to some extent, Norwegian immigration regulations. We have applied the strictest parts of their regulations, including highly debatable clauses like the 24-year clause stipulating that an immigrant’s spouse must be 24 years old to acquire a residents’ permit. There is also a 66-year rule, stipulating that an immigrant’s parents must be 66-years old to acquire a residents’ permit. It could be argued that these laws are in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, but the issue has never been put to the test.

In addition, there is the strange decision by the Icelandic government that work permits for foreigners are issued to the employer, not the employee, which means that foreign workers are dependent upon their employers and are not able to move freely. This could also be regarded as a violation of human rights, since the employee does not have freedom of occupation, which is supposed to be guaranteed according to the Icelandic Constitution.

On top of that, Icelanders do not accept refugees seeking asylum. I have not been able to find another western country that does not accept asylum seekers. Only one person has been granted asylum in Iceland; others have been refused based on the Dublin Convention. Iceland always applies the strictest resources and when you add these facts up, the conclusion is that Iceland has the strictest immigration policy in the free democratic world. I have at least not found an example of stricter policies.

You mentioned two possible violations of human rights conventions in Icelandic immigration laws. Why do you think law-makers have taken such extreme measures for immigration laws?

There is an underlying fear of foreigners and immigrants in our society. Some people fear that large groups of foreigners will come streaming to Iceland and somehow disrupt the fabric of our society. In reality, there is nothing to support this fear. If you look at the position of immigrants in Icelandic society, you will see that there are about 25,000 people of foreign nationality in Iceland. Immigrants are about 6% of the Icelandic population, but they are about 10% of the active work force in the country, which tells us that the level of employment among immigrants is much higher than the current level of employment in the country, which again tells us that foreigners are coming here to work.

Many of them are only working here temporarily on big building projects that are underway and that explains the great influx of foreign work force right now, but there is nothing that suggests that this will continue, not unless people want to build an aluminium smelter in every town ...

In addition, all studies suggest that immigrants financially benefit the Icelandic society ... The question then is, what explains this fear that we are witnessing in the public discourse.

The only explanation I can find is rooted in our ideas about the Icelandic nation. Historian Guðmundur Hálfdánarson has shown that in Iceland a different kind of idea of nationality developed, different from the rest of Europe where more liberal ideas developed which focused on freedom of the individual and freedom of commerce. Here, a more conservative idea of nationality developed, where the onus was not on freedom of the individual, but freedom of the nation, where the nation is personified as an organic bodily whole, or a body of its own. A great influx of foreigners changes that body. It becomes a different body, and people start to fear things such as diseases and politicians start talking about looking for tuberculosis in foreigners and so on. I think that is rooted in this idea of nationality and the fear that the national body will become impure and deteriorate with the influx of foreigners.

What you are saying is that there is no logical reason for this fear of foreigners, but rather it is all based on the Icelandic ideology of nationality?

Yes, I think that is at the heart of it. You cannot find any factual support for this fear, other than the idea of the composition of the nation and the fear that it will change. But this is in line with a certain axis of conflict that has always been present in Iceland. That is the conflict between what we might call “isolationists” and “internationalists.” Almost every controversial issue regarding the relationship between Iceland and foreign countries has been affected by the conflict between those two groups, whether is was over membership of EFTA, membership of NATO, the EU, fear of globalisation, protecting the pure Icelandic language, protecting the pure Icelandic agriculture, etc. The immigration issue is the conflict about the pure Icelandic nation.

There has always been a conflict between those who want to open up society and those who want to close it, and right now there is a conflict between the isolationists and internationalists over the immigration issue. I believe Iceland still has a chance to develop a successful co-existence of immigrants and natives, but you do not do that by stirring up the peace with immigrants like some Icelandic political parties have done. You do that by forming and installing an active and integral assimilation policy. Such a policy does not exist in Iceland right now. The Minister for Social Affairs recently introduced an assimilation policy which mainly focuses on the language barrier. There are other things needed for successful assimilation.

What are you thinking about specifically?

We need to address such issues as ghetto formations for example ... We can see the first signs of this development in certain neighbourhoods here in Reykjavík, and this is what we need to eliminate here in Iceland. We can do that by installing an official policy for distributed residence of immigrants, where we would encourage immigrants to move to certain neighbourhoods by granting them financial incentives ... That is how we manage society. Another thing that needs to be done is to provide financial incentives for civil society to get immigrants involved in its operations. The government pays large sums of money to organisations like sports clubs or the scout movement ...
What a grand ideology it is that has to pay people to come together. What a grand state of denial it is. It's as sad as the "buy a friend" scheme.

But Bergmann does raise some interesting points. There is apparently no economic reason for their anti-immigrant sentiment. He then describes the unique Icelander concept of nationalism. Nothing unique about it though, it's just so old fashionably natural that it looks unique and foreign to outsiders. It's just what happens when a racially homogeneous group acknowledges that cohesion is a desirable attribute to maintain.

He mentions that commerce and liberalism were bound, not to the individual, but the whole. Different from the current West, where the individual reigns supreme. The West is poorer for this radical liberalism.

National geographic has a story on the industrial developments taking place and the conflict they have created:
Iceland happens to be situated right on top of the intersection of two of Earth’s tectonic plates, straddling a volcanic boundary called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Consequently, a third of all the lava that has erupted from the Earth in the past 500 years has flowed out right here, and there are so many natural hot springs that almost all the homes and buildings are heated geothermally. On the surface, meanwhile, sit giant glaciers and the abundant rivers that flow from them. This hot-and-cold combination, of churning activity beneath the surface and powerful rivers above it, makes Iceland one of the most concentrated sources of geothermal and hydroelectric energy on Earth—clean, renewable, green energies that the world increasingly hungers for ...

The thing is, very little of that energy has been tapped, because it's stranded in the middle of the nowhere between continental Europe and Greenland. So, since the 1960s, the government has been wooing heavy industry to Iceland with the promise of cheap electricity, no red tape, and minimal environmental impact. But - except for two small smelters and a ferrosilicon plant - getting companies to come here has been a hard sell. The labor force is very small, highly paid, and probably overeducated. Add to that the remoteness of the place, the long, dark winters, and the inhospitable weather. Only an industry requiring the most intensive use of energy, and which could get a heckuva good rate for it over a long period, would find it economical to set up shop all the way in Iceland. The most obvious fit was the aluminum industry. And so it was- to the alarm of environmentalists who want to save that rare land and the thrill of industrialists who want to use some of it to finally produce something - that the paths of aluminum smelting and unspoiled Iceland were fated to cross.
Erik Davidek, Aug 11, 2006:
Between my Icelandic language courses, the hours that I have spent at immigration, and my time hanging around downtown, I have had the chance to talk with fellow immigrants from around the world about their experiences in Iceland. One unfortunate matter that seems to always pop up is the racial discrimination that so many of them feel they have encountered during their stay. For the most part, I have managed to avoid this, thanks no doubt to the fact that I look like a younger, chubbier American version of Bubbi Morthens. But it’s not hard to figure out that the ever-increasing number of people coming to Iceland from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe might be easier to classify as “different” by the locals ...
Oops, you mean that Icelanders accept you, a white American, more so than other races? So that means they prefer people who simply look like them? Refreshingly honest, but unfortunately Erik then goes on to tell Iceland that it's the fate of every country to deal with the race issue. Yeah, like America and every other melting pot are shining examples to follow. Who is the authority here: the most peaceful country on earth, or the immigrant from one of the most violent countries on earth? The USA finished 97th in the peace index. Iceland should pack this righteous dunce on a plane back home to his haven of 'peace'.

Foreigners are taking their jobs, 11 Jan 2008:
Part of the members of IFI lined up for a photograph yesterday. "Polish people and the Italians come over here to take away all out construction work and people also come over here and takes all the work in fish, there is. Then there are the black people who don’t even work, they just comes here and get lost somewhere, this is disgusting. And then these people dare to attack us. I am putting my foot down, there will be no more, this is enough", says Kamilla Sigtryggsdottir, one of the members in "Iceland for Icelanders" in Reykjanesbær, where there has been a big conflict between Icelanders and foreigners.

In DV today there are discussions with people in the organization Iceland for Icelanders, in purpose to understand what it is that causes increscent hatred against foreigners, that reached its maximum limit when a four year old boy was killed after being hit by a car, belonging to a Polish person. There are up to 100 people in the organization IFI in Keflavik, but the organization has also spread around the country.
Ah, the melting pot boils over yet again. How often do we see this? Tensions simmer just below the surface until something finally triggers off blind rage: the French riots, lifesavers getting bashed at Cronulla, a murder-rape in Italy, etc. The melting pot is really a pot of repressed discontent.

Tim Murray,
... they have always pursued true National Socialist objectives. They know they are keepers of a precious culture that is 1200 years old and have no right to let that be absorbed or diluted by the influx of other cultures.

As matter of fact, whenever a foreign word invades the language, a special government commission replaces that word with a Norse neologism. Anyone who becomes an Icelandic citizen through marriage must change his or her name to old Norse names. Thus the language spoken today would have been entirely intelligible to Eric the Red a millenia ago, and he could have read the Icelandic Bible that sits in my living room.

Icelandic libraries are full of Norse sagas, poems, ghost stories and debates. The food they eat is second to none. Fish and lamb and all the deserts my grandmother made for me, and coffee made like no one else did. Only you hold the sugar cubes in your tongue when you drink it. Point being, there is nothing “deficient” in Icelandic culture that needs “enrichment” from the immigration of other cultures that would threaten it and also rob the people of their irreplaceable low-density living.
Hmm, well so far John Carlin's thesis is looking shaky. It seems like a lot of Icelanders are opposed to immigration and far from "obsessed with embracing the world". Before part2 let's have a look around Iceland ...

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