As the weeks have flown by (we have now been here for four weeks!) we continue to talk to many wonderful people who have taken the time out of their busy days to speak to us about multiculturalism. Everyone has been incredibly interesting and willing to speak with us frankly.
The other day we were fortunate enough to speak with a member of the Multicultural Council of Reykjavik. For some background information, “The Multicultural Council of Reykjavík consists of 7 representatives and act as an advisory board to the Human Rights council and other departments in the city that deal with immigration issues.” Thus, this organization works alongside the Human Rights council to ensure that the rights of immigrants are being upheld and also serves as an advocate for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.
The man we spoke with started off the conversation with a brief synopsis of what happens to displaced persons who make their way to Iceland. He explained to us that many of the refugees who currently reside in Iceland were actually trying to move to the United States. However, Iceland acts as a “wall” between Europe and the US and therefore many refugees are forced to apply for refugee status in Iceland since they are denied entry into the United States. Furthermore, many asylum seekers are denied refugee status within Iceland because of the Dublin Regulation, which states that asylum seekers are under the responsibility of the first country to which the asylum seeker fled. Thus many asylum seekers are sent back to the European country from which they came. However, if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, they receive full benefits of legal refugee status in Iceland, such as working documents and financial assistance.
Once granted permission to stay in Iceland, there are a variety of services available to help aid with the transition process. A few years ago the Icelandic governmental organization named “Intercultural House” was formed with the intention of supplying information and translation services for immigrants. However, with the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland, the organization was unable to keep their doors open due to financial constraints. Thus the Human Rights Office of Reykjavik City undertook the responsibility of providing services for immigrants.
However, the man we spoke to pointed out how the term “immigrants” is problematic since it doesn’t differentiate between the many different types of people and their unique circumstances. To combat this problem the Multicultural Council was formed in 2010 with the intention of creating a council that was as representative as possible to provide information and advice to immigrants. The council was formed and members from different backgrounds were elected into the Congress (one of which was the man with whom we were speaking to). Now, as stated earlier, the council works alongside the Human Rights Office and offers support and advice on immigration issues.
One of the biggest problems he identified was a lack of knowledge among the Icelandic community and government about multiculturalism and the benefits that accompany multicultural societies. He explained to us how often Icelanders have the “vision of the immigrant as the person in need, who doesn’t know anything, who is stupid.” However, he was quick to point out that just because some immigrants don’t have the skills we take for granted (e.g. computer skills, ability to find information, knowledge of services) does not mean they are “stupid.” In fact, he explained to us that immigrants have a different set of skills, which aren’t privileged in Iceland. For example, some people from other cultures have skills to cope with crises, something he argued Icelanders could learn from. If Icelanders could understand that immigrants have a different and valuable type of human capital, a community of cross-cultural learning could occur. However, many Icelanders do not view the values of a multicultural society in this light, but rather they see multiculturalism as a burden. Thus, to change the current perspective and increase awareness of the benefits of multiculturalism, he hopes to someday create a documentary about the diverse human capital of immigrants.
Overall, he told us that he was incredibly optimistic for the future. In many regards Iceland is leaps and bounds beyond many countries with respect to immigration policies and services provided by the government. However, this doesn’t mean Iceland’s work is done. The services are there, but common knowledge and acceptance of a multicultural society from the wider population is lacking. It seems as if the next big step is to increase awareness and knowledge about multiculturalism in a hope to change people’s current attitudes and apprehension towards immigration.