Iceland Receives Unexpectedly High Proportion of Deaf Refugees Skip to content

Iceland Receives Unexpectedly High Proportion of Deaf Refugees

By Yelena

A screenshot from RÚV. Deaf and hard of hearing children at Hlíðarskóli
Photo: A screenshot from RÚV. Deaf and hard of hearing children at Hlíðarskóli.

More than 500 refugees have come to Iceland since the beginning of this year, and an unexpectedly high proportion of them are deaf or hard of hearing, especially among those coming from Ukraine. Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, Director of Refugee Reception at the Icelandic Red Cross says it is a challenge to find Ukrainian sign language interpreters. One of the challenges faced by deaf children who come to Iceland is the difference between Icelandic sign language and their own sign language.

Five Sign Languages Spoken at Hlíðarskóli

RÚV reported last weekend that a significant number of deaf and hard of hearing refugees had arrived in Iceland from Ukraine as well as other countries. Hlíðarskóli school in Reykjavík receives deaf and hard of hearing children of foreign origin.

“Here at Hlíðarskóli we have seven from Ukraine and we’re expecting more,” Berglind Stefánsdóttir, the school principal, told reporters. Hlíðarskóli has 602 students in total, 28 of whom are refugees. Eight of those 28 children are deaf or hard of hearing, and five of the deaf or hard of hearing children are from Ukraine.

Eyrún Ólafsdóttir, a teacher in Hlíðarskóli’s sign language department says that Icelandic and Ukrainian sign language differ from each other greatly, with the Ukrainian sign language alphabet being “hugely different” from the Icelandic sign language alphabet. Ukrainian and Icelandic sign languages are not the only ones spoken among the children in Hlíðarskóli, however: they also speak Arabic sign language, Russian sign language, and Lithuanian sign language. “And we’re expecting some Spanish children,” Berglind added.

Berglind does not know of an explanation as to why such a high rate of deaf and hard of hearing children are arriving in Iceland as compared to other Nordic countries, for example, but speculated that the quality of education at Hlíðarskóli, as well as good job opportunities in Iceland, could be some reasons.

Emergency shelter at capacity

Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, Director of Refugee Reception at the Icelandic Red Cross also did not know why a higher proportion of deaf and hard of hearing refugees appeared to be coming to Iceland than neighbouring countries, but told RÚV that they included adults as well as children. While he did not know their total number, he stated they had become around 10% of the deaf community in Iceland. For reference, the number of Icelandic sign language speakers in Iceland is around 1,500, according to the Icelandic Association of the Deaf.

Refugees from Ukraine and Venezuela make up around 80% of all refugees that have arrived in Iceland this year. The Icelandic Red Cross opened an emergency shelter last October to receive refugees upon arrival, and Gylfi says the shelter is operating at capacity. In an interview last November, Gylfi stated that he expected the number of refugees coming to Iceland to continue rising. “The actions we have taken this year have gone well in every way, but we need to stop approaching this like some sort of temporary emergency campaign, rather approach it as the general situation.”

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