Icelandic Government Invites Immigrants to Shape Policy

Iceland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour is inviting immigrants to participate in shaping policy on integration and inclusion. The ministry is inviting immigrants in Iceland to an open consultation meeting in Reykjavík this Wednesday, February 28. Polish and English interpretation will be provided at the meeting.

Last November, the government of Iceland published its first-ever “green paper” on immigrant issues. The document is a status assessment on immigrant and refugee issues in Iceland and identifies opportunities and challenges for the future. The green paper has been published in Icelandic, English, and Polish, a first for the Icelandic government.

First-ever comprehensive integration policy in the works

As a follow up to the green paper, the Icelandic government will work on a white paper on immigrant issues. This will serve as the first draft of the country’s first-ever comprehensive policy on immigrant and refugee issues. The white paper will be developed into a parliamentary resolution on immigration and refugee policy.

Immigration brings large economic benefits

The most recent OECD Economic Survey of Iceland found that immigration in Iceland is rising faster than in other Nordic countries and that it brings large economic benefits. The median age of immigrants in Iceland is lower than in any other OECD country, at between 30-35 years, and their participation rate is higher than in any other country, at over 85%. The survey emphasised that Iceland should step up its efforts to help immigrants integrate, such as through better access to services, addressing housing needs, and establishing more effective language training courses.

To gather data for the white paper, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has already held focus group meetings around the country, and the discussions from this Wednesday’s meeting will be integrated into the paper as well.

This Wednesday’s meeting in Reykjavík will take place at 5:00 PM at Hotel Reykjavík Grand.

Bill on Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers Published

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

A draft bill proposed by Iceland’s Justice Minister would permit authorities to hold asylum seekers in detention centres, including families and children. Setting up such detention centres could cost between ISK 420 and 600 million [$3.1 million-4.4 million, €2.8 million-4 million]. Humanitarian organisations have harshly criticised the establishment of such centres in Iceland.

The bill, which comes from Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, was published in the government’s consultation portal last week, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it.

According to the summary on the consultation portal, the bill proposes permitting authorities to keep “foreign citizens who have to or may have to leave the country” in “a closed residence” when they have received a deportation order or “when a case that may lead to such a decision is being processed by the government.” According to the bill, the measure would “only be used as a last resort, when an adequate assessment has been carried out and it is clear that milder measures will not be effective.”

Children detained for up to nine days

The bill would permit authorities to detain children in such centres, if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian, but would not permit the detention of unaccompanied children. The detention of children would have to conform to “stricter requirements” than that of adults.

The bill proposes permitting the detention of children in such facilities for up to three days at a time and up to nine days in total. Adults could be detained in the centres for up to eight weeks.

If the bill is approved, the legislation would take effect at the beginning of 2026.

Restricted press access and use of force

While the bill distinguishes detention centres for asylum seekers from prisons, many of the restrictions proposed for such centres resemble that of traditional prisons, including separation between the sexes, restrictions on visits, and room searches. Staff would be permitted to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary,” including physical restraints or “the use of appropriate means of force.”

The bill stipulates that the National Police Commissioner would decide whether to allow detained individuals to give interviews to media and that interviews “would not be permitted if they are contrary to the public interest.”

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The detention centre bill is the latest of several measures Iceland’s current government has taken to tighten regulations on asylum seekers. Last year, dozens of asylum seekers who were unable to leave the country for personal or political reasons were stripped of housing and services after new legislation took effect. The legislation strips asylum seekers in the country of access to state housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. The bill was first introduced in 2018 and received strong pushback from human rights organisations in Iceland, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. It was revised several times and passed following its fourth introduction to Parliament.

The detractors of the detention centre draft bill assert that it violates the United Nations Convention on Refugees, the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iceland is a party.

Icelandic Language Strengthened in “Landmark” Initiative

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, Katrín Jakobsdóttir

The Icelandic government has announced what it is calling a “landmark” initiative to strengthen the Icelandic language. The initiative includes 19 measures to support the preservation and development of Icelandic, many aimed at supporting immigrants’ language learning. Expected to cost at least ISK 1.4 billion [$9.9 million; €9.1 million], the initiative will receive additional funding over the coming years.

The initiative was announced at a press conference yesterday by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Culture and Trade Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and Social Affairs and Labour Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson. It is a collaborative project between five ministries and was developed in a cross-ministerial committee on the Icelandic language established last November. The initiative will be introduced to Parliament as a parliamentary resolution in the coming days.

Icelandic as a second language support

The 19 measures of the initiative include work-related Icelandic lessons for immigrants alongside work, improving the quality of Icelandic education for immigrants, and establishing online studies in Icelandic and Icelandic as a second language. One of the measures is supporting Icelandic language education for staff of preschools and after-school centres. The initiative also aims to provide additional support for Icelandic language technology as well as Icelandic subtitling and dubbing.

Iceland Review has regular coverage of the latest in Icelandic language programs and policies. For more on the government policy surrounding Icelandic language education for immigrants, read Nothing to Speak Of.

Does Iceland have many foreign residents? What are the wages and working conditions like for foreign workers?

reykjavík iceland esja

Yes, Iceland has a significant number of foreign residents. The latest figures from Statistics Iceland show that immigrants comprise around 18% of the total population of Iceland.

The Icelandic economy has grown quickly in the years following the 2008 banking collapse, largely driven by the tourism industry. However, given Iceland’s small population pool, the recent economic expansion is largely dependent on foreign labour.

Of Icelanders with a foreign background, Poles make up by far the largest group. As of 2022, some 20,896 were living in Iceland, or 34.2% of the total immigrant population. The second- and third-largest groups are comprised of people from Lithuania and Romania respectively.

Employment opportunities mean that Iceland's immigrant population is largely clustered around the capital region, though residents with a foreign background also make up a notable part of the Westfjords. One of the least-populated regions of Iceland, tour-related services have become a large part of this region's economy.


Though Iceland is an attractive destination for many, there are also realities to immigration.

For example, a 2018 study by the University of Akureyri found while the average monthly salary in that year for full-time workers was 721,000 ISK [$5,168; €4,727], 60% of immigrants made only 400,000 ISK [$2,866; €2,623] or less per month.

Besides statistics, there is of course also a subjective element to the immigrant experience. Iceland is a small community with a unique language. For some, this is a major attraction to life in Iceland, but for others, it can be alienating. Some may also find themselves working largely English-based jobs in the tourism and service sector, and never truly integrating to Icelandic society.

Unfortunately, there have also been increasing incidents of wage theft, in which employers withhold earnings from workers who may not be in a position to press their rights. Read about the rights of workers here, in English.

This is of course a large issue with many facets. Read our coverage of social issues, and check out our coverage of Iceland's largest immigrant population below.

Prospective immigrants to Iceland may also find this Ask Iceland Review helpful: How can I move to Iceland?

 

Are there communities for expats in Iceland?

hallgrímskirkja reykjavík

First, a word of advice: for those considering moving to Iceland, or for those who already live here, there’s much to be said for learning the language and integrating into the community. We recommend seeking out opportunities to speak Icelandic where possible, as living as part of the community will likely make your stay in Iceland much more rewarding.

That being said, we recognize that there’s a time and place for wanting to socialize with people from home, or else just a more international milieu.

Many of the major social media sites will have what you’re looking for.

On Facebook, there are two large communities for expats in Iceland: Away from Home – Living in Iceland, a private group, and The Expats’ Lounge Iceland, a public group. Both communities are relatively large and active, and are a good place to look for events such as pub trivia nights and meet-and-greets, as well as more practical information concerning visas, education, childcare, and more.

While neither of these communities are explicitly oriented towards expats in Iceland, Reddit also hosts two large communities centred around Iceland. The community r/Iceland focuses on Icelandic residents and is therefore mostly in Iceland, but many foreign residents also post and discuss current events, ask questions, and so on. The community r/VisitingIceland is geared towards tourism, but many lifelong visitors and foreign residents also use the community.

All Things Iceland is the website and podcast of a notable expat living in Iceland. Many foreign residents have found her content useful, so this may be a good place to begin looking for expat communities in Iceland as well.

There are also several YouTubers who talked about their experiences living in Iceland as an expat.

There’s no one way to become a member of an expat community in Iceland, but some of these resources may serve as a beginning point for your research. In addition to these resources, it bears mentioning that those who work for more international employers may find community through their job, and parents may also find communities through connections to other families through their preschools, for example.

Future (or current) expats may find our guide to house- and job-hunting in Iceland useful.

Conditions in the Cleaning Sector Unacceptable, Survey Finds

cleaning equipment

Living conditions for those in the cleaning sector are unacceptable, according to a new report from Varða, the Labour Research Institute. Women and immigrants dominate the sector, facing significantly worse health and financial conditions than other workers, RÚV reports.

Far worse conditions than other jobs

On Wednesday, Varða released a report on the status and living conditions of those working in the cleaning sector. The study covered members of ASÍ and BSRB unions, with unequivocal results.

In an interview with RÚV, Kristín Heba Gísladóttir, Varða’s director, stated that the situation of workers employed in the cleaning sector is worse, even much worse, than those in other ASÍ and BSRB jobs, based on all metrics used in the survey, whether financial status, mental health, or physical and job-related strain.

Kristín observed that this group often faces rights violations in the labour market, adding that international studies had shown that the outsourcing of jobs negatively impacts the workers themselves; although many respondents work for private companies, the jobs often take place in public institutions, yet the workers are not considered part of these workplaces.

Women and immigrants dominate cleaning jobs

Kristín Heba also noted the high proportion of foreigners in this sector. “Cleaning is predominantly done by immigrants, with 78% being immigrants and 22% native-born.” Kirstín added that women composed a much higher percentage of workers in the cleaning sector: “Only about a quarter are men, meaning women and immigrants primarily sustain cleaning in our country.”

Varða presented the research results to the leadership of ASÍ and BSRB on Wednesday morning under the title “Take action.” Kristín Heba told RÚV that the title referred to those working in cleaning. “But it’s also a call from the labour movement to employers and authorities to take action and rectify this situation because the living conditions of those in cleaning are unacceptable.”

Foreign Citizens in Iceland Face More Difficulties Finding Jobs

Reykjavík restaurant workers

Foreign citizens make up nearly 50% of those currently unemployed in Iceland, while they only make up 15-20% of the population, RÚV reports. This overrepresentation shows that foreign citizens in Iceland face additional obstacles when it comes to finding work, says Katrín Ólafsdóttir, assistant professor of economics at Reykjavík University.

Language skills not the only explanation

The overrepresentation of immigrants on the unemployment register is not new. It was also the case throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Gundega Jaunlinina of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ), stated it is often more difficult for unemployed foreigners to find work than for Icelanders. “Because people may not be as active in their job search and don’t know exactly where they should look and employers are unfortunately less likely to hire foreign workers,” she stated.

“It seems that Icelanders have priority, to some extent, when it comes to jobs,” Katrín Ólafsdóttir observes. “But why that is, I don’t know. This is something that I think we need to take a closer look at, what is going on there. Possibly it has to do with Icelandic language skills, or something like that. But that can’t be the only reason.”

High participation rates but little support

While foreign citizens are overrepresented on the unemployment register, immigrants in Iceland have very high economic participation rates. The latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland found that of all OECD countries, immigrants in Iceland had the highest participation rate, at over 85%. The survey emphasises that Iceland should step up its efforts to better integrate migrants and their children, including through more effective language courses, skills recognition, teacher training, and meeting immigrants’ housing needs. Other recent labour market studies have also called on authorities to ensure immigrants’ job security and mental health.

The OECD survey also found that immigration brought large economic benefits to Iceland’s economy, something Katrín underlines as well. She asserts that Iceland would not have experienced as much economic growth in recent years if it had to been for the influx of foreign workers onto the labour market. “We would never have been able to support the increased service to tourists without more helping hands,” she stated.

Unemployment low in general

Unemployment in Iceland is relatively low, with the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate standing at 3.3% in August 2023 according to figures from Statistics Iceland. The unemployment rate decreased by 0.2% between months while the employment rate increased by 0.9% and the activity rate by 0.8%. In total, some 7,600 people were unemployed in August of this year. Iceland’s population is 387,758.

Municipalities Insist State is Responsible for Asylum Seekers

Reykjavík City Hall ráðhús

It is up to state authorities to find a solution for the group of asylum seekers who have been stripped of housing and all social services in Iceland, municipal authorities insist. On July 1, new legislation took effect in Iceland that strips asylum seekers of housing and all social services 30 days after their applications have been rejected. Before the legislation took effect, Iceland’s Social Affairs Minister asserted that these individuals could seek services from municipalities, but municipal authorities now assert they are neither permitted nor required by law to provide services to the group.

Representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities met with Iceland’s Justice Minister and Social Affairs Minister last Friday to discuss the situation of asylum seekers who have been evicted from state housing due to the new legislation. Over 10 individuals from this group have been living on the streets, some for up to three weeks. Since the legislation took effect, 53 asylum seekers have been stripped of services and housing.

At last week’s meeting, municipal representatives underlined to state authorities that they believe it is the state’s responsibility to provide services to the group, and not that of municipalities. According to a notice from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, both state and municipal representatives “agreed that it is now urgent to find a solution to the people’s problem.”

A group of activists protested the government’s actions towards asylum seekers at the opening of Culture Night festival last Saturday.

8.9% Increase in Foreign Nationals Living in Iceland

pedestrian street Laugavegur Reykjavík

70,307 foreign nationals were registered as residents in Iceland as of July 1, which is an increase of 5,722 persons since December 1 of last year (or 8.9%). Iceland’s total population as of July 1 was 393,955.

Greatest Relative Increase Among Palestinians, Belarusians

According to Registers Iceland, 70,307 foreign nationals were registered as residents in Iceland as of July 1. This marks an increase of 5,722 people (8.9%) since December 1 of last year.

Significant population increases were noted among Polish, Ukrainian, and Romanian nationals. The Ukrainian resident count rose by 43.4% (982 individuals), now totalling 3,247; the number of Romanian residents in Iceland increased by 14.7% (534 individuals), standing at 4,157; and Polish residents, the largest foreign national group, grew by 7.2% (1,677 individuals), reaching a total of 24,973.

As noted by Registers Iceland, the most significant relative growth among foreign nationals was seen among Belarusian citizens, with a 46.7% rise, or 14 individuals. Palestinian nationals increased by 39.4%, or by 122 individuals.

During the same period, the Icelandic citizen count saw a minor increase of 1,062, or 0.3%. Iceland’s total population as of July 1 was 393,955.

Iceland Must Tackle Inflation and Make the Most of Immigration

Iceland’s economy is currently one of the fastest growing in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Foreign tourism and strong domestic demand are the reasons for this growth, but it is expected to slow, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland. The OECD recommends that Iceland’s policy continue to focus on bringing down inflation, strengthening productivity growth by improving the business climate, and helping migrants integrate.

“Iceland has rebounded strongly from the pandemic and has proven resilient in the face of the economic impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine across Europe and globally,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said when he presented the survey in Reykjavík alongside Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson. “Continued monetary policy and fiscal policy tightening remain necessary to return inflation to target and properly anchor inflation expectations. Establishing a one-stop to simplify access to migrant integration services, including skills recognition and Icelandic language literacy, will help to optimise the beneficial impact of the increased number of migrants on long-term growth.”

Inflation to decline but persist

Inflation has remained persistent in Iceland despite efforts to tackle it, including consistent interest rate hikes by the Central Bank. According to the OECD survey, it is projected to decline but still exceed 3% by late 2024. Economic growth is expected to moderate from 6.4% in 2022 to 4.4% in 2023 and 2.6% in 2024, according to the OECD. There are indications that Iceland is reaching its capacity for tourism, and as the industry levels off, household consumption is expected to slow and real wages to continue to weaken.

Reforms to business climate recommended

The OECD survey found barriers to entry for domestic and foreign companies to be relatively high in Iceland, despite progress in tourism and construction. It suggested structural reforms to improve the business climate, such as easing the overreaching system of licences and permits and investing in skills relevant to the labour market. Such reforms would reinvigorate productivity, which has been trending upward by only about 1% yearly, and would help with the fight against inflation, according to the OECD.

Aging population a risk to debt sustainability

When it comes to public expenditure, the survey emphasises that spending on health and long-term care is expected to rise considerably as the population ages, although from a lower base than in almost any other OECD country. The survey recommended reforms such as lifting the retirement age and reducing tax expenditures to slow the build-up of debt.

Better integration of migrants required

Figures from the OECD survey show that immigration in Iceland is rising faster than in other Nordic countries and that it brings large economic benefits. The median age of immigrants in Iceland is lower than in any other OECD country, at between 30-35 years, and their participation rate is higher than in any other country, at over 85%.

The OECD survey emphasises that Iceland should step up its efforts to better integrate migrants and their children, such as by establishing a one-stop shop for services, which would make language training courses more effective and would ease skills recognition. More support is needed for students with immigrant background, including more teacher training in multicultural education.

“Successful integration also requires meeting the housing needs of the immigrant population, including through increasing the supply of social and affordable housing,” the OECD press release on the survey states.

An overview of the survey including findings and charts is available on the OECD website.