Human Rights Office

We decided to study immigration within Iceland for a variety of reasons but namely we wanted to study a country that is consistently ranked as one of the most peaceful in the world. One of the reasons Iceland is granted this title is due to its strides made with gender equality and gay rights. These topics are clearly a source of pride for Icelanders who boast that equality within Iceland is among the best. Thus, we wanted to get into contact with the Human Rights Office of Reykjavik to speak on not only these two topics, but to see how immigration fit under the human rights umbrella. We were fortunate enough to speak to two representatives who act as counselors for immigrants.

One of the counselors explained to us that in the 1970s human rights were synonymous with gender equality but that was the extent of it. Then, in 2006 there was a bigger push to go beyond the scope of gender equality and include other minority groups within the realm of human rights (e.g. LGBTQ, immigrants, etc.). It was at this point the Human Rights Office was established within the Reykjavik city government. The Human Rights Office took on more responsibility in 2009 when the Intercultural House (mentioned in a previous post) went bankrupt and the funds were then redirected to the Human Rights Office.

To provide an overview of what the office does, the counselors explained they provide a variety of services for immigrants regarding legal rights. The counselors speak a variety of languages with each counselor having their own ‘specialty demographic’ with which they work with (e.g. there is one counselor who is fluent in both Polish and Icelandic and thus interacts mostly with the Polish population). The counselors educate the immigrants about their rights, serve as a liaison between immigrants and city employees (e.g. schools, police, medical system), connect the immigrants to other services, and help with the process of applying for permits and other legal documents, etc. For example, one counselor provided support when a Polish woman came to the office after being told that she was forbidden to teach her children Polish and they were only supposed to learn Icelandic. However, the counselor informed her it is in fact illegal to forbid two people from speaking another language in a school or workplace. In this instance the counselor intervened, informed the Polish woman of her rights, and then proceeded to clear up the misunderstanding with the person who had upset the woman.

It is because of cases like this one that the Office also works to spread awareness and knowledge about the benefits of multiculturalism and immigration. For example, they present information about what would happen to Reykjavik if there were no immigrants to fulfill the ‘lower class’ jobs, which she joking called the “worst case scenario presentation.” For example, they present information about the jobs immigrants do in Reykjavik that benefit the city to demonstrate how the city would be worse off without immigrants. Additionally, one of the counselors told us some of her Icelandic friends complain that they cannot go to a coffee shop and order in Icelandic because the employee may be an immigrant and not speak Icelandic. However, when asked if they want their son or daughter to work in a coffee shop they promptly respond, “Of course not!” (We would like to point out this should not imply that all immigrants automatically attain ‘lower class’ jobs.)

The counselors reiterated the sentiments we have heard repeatedly in our research, noting one of the biggest hurdles currently for immigration is the lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding the benefits of living in a multicultural society. Rather, they believe Icelanders are looking at fellow European countries such as France and Sweden and are fearful the same immigration issues are going to infiltrate Iceland. What they do not realize is many of their beliefs are rooted in misinformation and negative media reporting.

However, it is clear things are starting to change. Much to the delight of one of the counselors, the City Council has recently approved the city’s application to the Council of Europe’s “Intercultural Cities” project. She explained to us that if approved, Reykjavik would be professionally peer reviewed on multiculturalism. Once the analysis has been conducted the program then produces a list of solutions for improvement. The counselor was especially happy about this because it shows that the government is willing to take the initiative and provide the funding for the enhancement of immigration policies and multicultural initiatives.

When asked what else this counselor would like to change, she listed a few suggestions, which we will list:
First, she told us that three ministries oversee immigration laws, which leads to a lack of cohesion and legal uniformity (the Ministry of the Interior oversees laws pertaining to border control and immigration, the Social Ministry oversees integration, and the Ministry of Education oversees language). She would like the implementation of an umbrella organization, which would oversee all immigration laws in a holistic and integrated manner.
Secondly, she would like to see more integration laws, which would aid the dissemination of information to new immigrants. For example, in Holland you are required to take a class in civics training, which provides information about the immigrants’ legal rights. Currently, immigrants in Iceland have to seek out this information on their own time.
Third, she believes free lessons in Icelandic should be offered for immigrants. Beyond the obvious benefits of learning Icelandic, the counselor explained that many immigrants arrive with their own set of personal issues and cannot find help without speaking Icelandic. For example, Iceland has excellent rehab programs for alcoholism but they are only offered in Icelandic and thus create a barrier for non-Icelandic speakers seeking those types of services.
Finally, she expressed a desire for immigrants to get involved and become more visible within the current multicultural debates. Immigrants are writing “brilliant” things online, she said, but are unwilling to publish their comments or submit them to newspapers. But speaking openly about their opinions and experiences as immigrants in Iceland she believes would serve both a political and educational purpose.

In conclusion, it was fascinating talking to these two women about their work, but also about their personal experiences with immigration (both being immigrants themselves). Overall we got the sense they are pleased with the progress Iceland has made in terms of gender equality and gay rights, but would now like to see the same type of energy devoted towards multiculturalism. Unfortunately it has not happened quite yet, but both of them are optimistic it will happen in the future.

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