We made it! We have arrived in Iceland after an easy flight, settled into our apartment, which we’ve subleased for the next 5 weeks, and are currently sitting in a café in downtown Reykjavik drinking coffee.
We will be in Iceland for 8 weeks researching as fellows of the Kathryn W. Davis Projects for Peace Foundation. Our project, titled “A Threat to Homogeneity: Refugees and National Identity in Iceland” hopes to explore how Iceland’s homogenous population and isolated geography contribute to its peaceful reputation, and how its management of the Icelandic refugee resettlement program potentially reinforces this homogeneity.
To get a better idea of how exactly our project is focused, here are a few excerpts from our research proposal:
An advocate for humanitarian rights around the world, Iceland has invested a significant amount of money into peacekeeping operations and refugee aid. However, in terms of opening up its own borders and granting asylum to refugee populations, Iceland falls behind fellow European counterparts with its stringent immigration policies. While Iceland’s demographics and geography contribute to its homogenous population, the Icelandic government also uses lesser-known legal tactics to reinforce and uphold the country’s homogeneity.
Immigrating to Iceland is a tedious and competitive process. With the allowance of only 25 to 30 refugees per year, Iceland remains strict about opening its borders. Those who come to Iceland illegally, face time in prison and probable deportation. Handling illegal refugees in this manner is controversial as the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that refugees should be exempt from penalties for forgery, because legal documentation is often infeasible and potentially dangerous to attain for refugees. However, Iceland has worked its way around this policy by stating that refugees coming from another EU country face the possibility of deportation. Ninety nine percent of refugees come through EU countries prior to coming to Iceland.
Those refugees that come to Iceland legally also face difficulty within the framework of the Icelandic political and social structures. They are immediately placed within a community outside of the capitol city, Reykjavik, to help support the local economy, fishing. Therefore, these refugees are immediately placed on the ‘margins’ of society until they are fully integrated within the Icelandic culture. To help with this process, refugee families are initially adopted by an Icelandic ‘support family’ to help them integrate as quickly into Icelandic society.
A major barrier that immigrants face when adjusting to life in Iceland is the strong sense of national pride and solidarity among the Icelandic people. Immigrants cite their main difficulty not as finding a job, but rather becoming proficient in Icelandic. Becoming economically stable is not a source of anxiety among the refugee population; rather, it is becoming integrated into the Icelandic way of life while maintaining a sense of identity to their nation of origin. Thus, these refugees are encouraged to assimilate into the predominant Icelandic culture and put their own identity aside in order to maintain homogeneity.
With that background in mind, we decided to look into the following questions:
How do Icelanders understand the homogeneity of their country? Is the presence of refugees in Iceland commonly known among Icelandic citizens? How do the legal practices of the government towards refugees reflect the population’s outlook on the homogeneity of the Icelandic national identity? Do these legal policies represent a type of structural violence aimed at keeping Iceland a homogenous state? If tensions between Icelandic nationals and refugees exist, how can they be observed?
In order to answer these questions, we hope to combine a number of methods including personal interviews, interviews with institutions that help resettle refugees, as well as observations during events like Midsummer to understand how refugees participate in nationalistic events.
As for Iceland itself, we are loving it so far. The sun sets after 11:30pm, and rises again around 3:30am, which (combined the time change) has been interesting for our sleep schedule. We are living on the very western edge of Reykjavik, the capital city where almost all of the Icelandic population lives, in a great apartment very close to the rocky coast. It’s been about 55 degrees and, as the owner of the apartment described to us, it rains “at the drop of a hat,” which has proved to be very true. On our walk downtown today it switched between rainy and sunny at least 3 times. Today’s tasks are to find some pay-as-you-go phones, look into renting bikes, and figure out the bus system.
Check back soon, we’re hoping to update this blog weekly with research updates and photos!
Sarah & Michelle
*Photo Cred: Molly Heller