Diversity in Iceland

After a week in Iceland, we are settling in very nicely.  With the recent purchase of blackout eye-masks and some towels stuffed in the gaps between curtains, we are finally getting some sleep during Iceland’s perpetual summer daylight.  As for our research, we are making headway with planning and organizing some meetings with people we hope to interview.

After getting to know the city better and getting a feel for how small the Reykjavik community really is, we are planning to broaden our research scope a bit to include questions surrounding the integration of immigrants in addition to refugees.  While our project will still aim to answer the questions we initially posed about Iceland’s refugee resettlement program, including issues of immigration will provide us with a larger population to study that faces many of the same issues that refugees in Iceland face.

One of our main reasons for studying Icelandic national identity stems from our interest in the country’s homogenous population and isolated location.  Because of Iceland’s remote location, boats of hopeful migrants do not set sail for the shores of Reykjavik as often happens across the Mediterranean, such as the recent incident surrounding a boat of migrants headed for Italy.

However, having a smaller number of immigrants and refugees does not mean that Iceland does not struggle with the same identity issues that other European countries currently face.  Icelanders have a strong sense of Icelandic culture, history, and national identity, which can cause dispute when diversity grows on the island. So, we are curious as to how those that do not identify as white, Christian, or an Icelandic native are treated in a country that prides itself on preserving tradition and culture.

With these questions in mind, we decided to first look at how different religions are represented and practiced within Iceland. One does not have to delve into the figures and numbers to understand that Iceland is a proud to be a Christian country. The focal point and largest building in Reykajvik is a Lutheran Church, Hallgrímskirkja, which you can see from virtually every corner of the city. Thus it is not surprising that a vast majority of Icelanders consider themselves Christian with roughly 75% of them following the Lutheran denomination. However, Icelanders will be quick to point out that they do not practice the faith diligently. Rather, it stands as a mere icon of heritage. But, we wonder, what about those in Iceland that do not believe in Christianity? Where are they?

A friend of ours, Tyler Smith, recently sent us this fascinating article titled Iceland is About to Get Its First Mosque. The article explains that only just recently the City Council approved Iceland’s first mosque however a few Islanders have been less than supportive of the idea. As indicated by hateful Facebook posts and an incident in which someone placed three pig heads and bloodied pages of the Quran at the site where the mosque is about to built, not all of Iceland is onboard with religious diversity. While it is important to keep in mind that these incidents only reflect the viewpoints of a few individuals and by no means reflect the views of the general population, it still something to take into consideration with regards to our research. Hopefully we can uncover more information about this event with those we speak to in the future.

Thus, to get a better grasp of what it is like to live in Iceland as non-Christians we are reaching out to members of religious organizations such as the Muslim Association of Iceland, the Russian Orthodox community, the Jewish community, and the Buddhist community, to see if representatives would be willing to speak to us about religious diversity within Iceland.

That being said, we have been repeatedly humbled by how many people are willing to help us with this project. On numerous occasions we have had people go out of their way to send us articles, get us into contact with people who many be able to talk to us, and pose interesting questions for us to ponder. We could not be any more grateful for all the help and support we have received just within the last week. And if you think you might have an article, contact, or question that pertains to our research we would love to hear from you! You can comment on our blog or send either one of us an email (found on our about page).

Until next time!


       The local Icelandic Lutheran church in our neighborhood.




Halló Iceland!

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