An increasing number of foreigners whose employment or residency situation leaves them ineligible for financial help are seeking assistance from municipal services or charity groups. Sigþrúður Erla Arnardóttir, Director of the City of Reykjavík’s Municipal Service Centre for the Vesturbær, Miðborg, and Hlíðar neighbourhoods, says there are a number of options available for foreigners who have been left stranded or unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reykjavík has six Municipal Service Centres serving residents of different neighbourhoods. The Centre for Vesturbær, Miðborg, and Hlíðar also provides services to foreigners in special circumstances as well as individuals applying for international protection in Iceland. “This means there are more foreigners that come to us than in other neighbourhood service centres due to these particular projects,” Sigþrúður explains, “and we are seeing an increase in people coming in.”
While most foreign residents in Iceland have access to unemployment benefits, some fall outside the system due to their particular employment or residency situation, Sigþrúður says. “The people that have been coming to us generally fall into one of four groups: tourists who didn’t manage to leave the country before restrictions were put in place; individuals who are not fully registered (who have a kennitala (national ID number) but haven’t managed to register a legal address) and therefore don’t have the right to unemployment benefits or financial help; foreign nationals that came to work, didn’t find any, and didn’t manage to leave the country before restrictions were put in place; and finally individuals who have been working without a kennitala or visa and need to get home.”
Legal address required for benefits
Foreign nationals can receive an Icelandic work permit and kennitala without changing their legal residence if they are working in the country for six months or less. In this case, however, they are placed on a special registry (Utangarðsskrá) intended for foreigners working in Iceland short term. Those on the Utangarðsskrá are not eligible for unemployment benefits or other financial assistance. Some individuals in this group now find themselves no longer employed but without a way of getting home.
“The Directorate of Labour and Registers Iceland are aware of this group and we are working on this together. What Registers Iceland has done in these cases is if you can prove that you’ve had an income for a certain length of time they can backdate your legal address registration. We’ve been helping people who are in this situation to collect the documents they need to submit in order to get this retroactive registration of their legal address.”
Undocumented workers seek out NGOs
“The fourth group, those that are in Iceland without a visa or kennitala, isn’t coming to service centres, rather going to the Red Cross and church help centres. At the City our procedure is that we are required to report such individuals to the Directorate of Immigration and the police. We can’t give specific numbers, but we have heard from the Red Cross and church organisations that there has been an increase in people in that situation reaching out for help.”
Individuals choose what help they receive
While Service Centre staff can connect individuals with various services, both to assist with employment-related issues or to help them return to their home country, Sigþrúður assures that the individual ultimately decides what assistance they accept. “It’s important for this group to get the best possible service. It’s difficult if you maybe don’t speak the language, to try to understand how the system works, and that’s why we want to make contact with these groups and assist with whatever ways they can get help. But the choice always lies with the individual.”
Sigþrúður stresses that for those who have lost some or all of their employment, the first step is to contact the Directorate of Labour to determine what their rights are. “But it’s very important to know if they are fully registered in Registers Iceland and if not, what they need to do in order to register fully. Then they can always contact the municipality they live in for assistance.”