Icelandic Students Call for Access to Unemployment Benefits

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

The Icelandic government will set aside ISK 2.2 billion ($15 million/€13.9 million) to create 3,400 summer jobs for students in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Union of Icelandic Students has criticised the response as insufficient and called for student access to unemployment benefits.

Iceland’s Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir and Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason announced the measures intended to support student employment in the coming months. The 3,400 jobs created in government institutions and municipalities will be temporary positions, active between June 1 and August 31. “If it is found that this number of summer jobs and other resources does not reach a sufficient number of students, ways will be sought to create more jobs and/or secure other means of support,” a government notice on the initiative stated.

Students Pay Into Unemployment Funds But Cannot Access Them

The National Union of Iceland Students (LÍS) has released a statement criticising the measures as insufficient, pointing toward recent surveys that showed thousands of students had not yet found summer jobs. “If unemployment among students is actually as high as the [surveys] indicate, this remedy will be short-lived,” the statement reads.

LÍS particularly criticised the fact that since January 1, 2010, Icelandic students have not had access to unemployment benefits, despite paying into the national unemployment insurance fund. According to a Europe-wide study, 87% of students in Iceland work during study breaks and 68% during the lecture period. “A part of people’s salaries are paid into the unemployment insurance fund and the insurance fund for self-employed individuals, including the salaries of students. However, students are not entitled to payments from the fund due to unemployment, even though they have been working and payments flowed into the fund because of their work.”

LÍS has launched a petition calling for the government to ensure students the right to unemployment benefits, which at the time of writing is near to reaching its goal of 2,500 signatures.

Refugee Resettlement Cheaper Than Expected

An official review of refugee reception in the town of Mosfellsbær, just outside of Reykjavík, has revealed that the resettlement of fourteen LGBTQ+ refugees from Uganda in 2018 was cheaper than originally projected, RÚV reports. The municipality reported that the main difficulties it encountered were in trying to secure housing for the incoming residents. Otherwise, the resettlement process is considered to have been a great success.

Mosfellsbær had anticipated that the cost of resettling ten refugees would be ISK 44 million [$352,963; €310,475]. The actual expense, however, was much less: ISK 35 million [$280,810; €247,007]. One reason for the cost being less than expected was that the town had expected to provide interpreting services. All of the arriving refugees spoke English, however, which rendered this service unnecessary.

Learning new systems

In September 2015, Mosfellsbær submitted a statement to the Ministry of Welfare indicating that it would be interested in receiving refugees. Two years later, the town was given the opportunity to resettle a small group of LGBTQ+ refugees from Uganda who had been living in refugee camps in Kenya. This proposal was approved in January 2018 and the group, which consisted of ten adults and four children, arrived in Iceland two months later.

The new residents were initially supported by municipal funds. How much financial assistance each person received depended on a variety of factors, such as the size of the family and the type of residence they were given. At first, benefits were loaded onto electronic bank cards, but as many of the individuals were not familiar with online banking, these were later converted to cash payments. The report notes, however, that it didn’t take long for any of the new residents to get accustomed to the new technologies and before long, they were able to make use of online banking services and phone apps to monitor their bank accounts and access their funds.

The town also assumed the cost of educating the four children and provided all of the new arrivals with bus passes. Once all of the refugees had received their kennitölur (national ID numbers), they were able to apply for housing benefits and additional social support.

Housing difficulties

While financial matters were quick to sort themselves out, housing logistics proved to be more difficult. Only three individuals had housing ready for them when they arrived in Iceland, or shortly after. That is, two apartments were ready immediately, and one was ready a week later.

Those individuals whose permanent housing was not ready when they arrived were put up in hotels, guesthouses, or Airbnb properties in the interim. In at least one case, only short-term accommodations could be made, which meant that two people had to move several times. This temporary housing shortage resulted not only in inconveniences to the new residents but also a substantial extra expense for the municipality. It also happened that one of the arriving couples broke up shortly after their arrival in Iceland, which meant that an additional apartment needed to be sourced at the last minute.

Finding work

The new arrivals were eager to secure jobs and soon after their arrival, they were assisted in their search by a specially designated project manager. Later, they received guidance from an advisor with the Directorate of Labour. At the end of the initial adjustment period, nine of the ten adults had some form of paid employment, and three of these individuals had long-term employment contracts. The last of the adults was engaged in volunteer work twice a week.

Learning from experience

In its report about the resettlement process, Mosfellsbær acknowledged that providing housing had indeed been the biggest challenge it faced. It also noted, however, that the expectation that the refugees arriving together would want to make the transition into their new lives in Iceland together, as a group, was unrealistic. As this was not the case, the new arrivals’ social and resettlement education largely occurred on an individual basis.

Overall, Mosfellsbær reported that the community at large had been extremely supportive and that the resettlement process had gone well. On this basis, the Ministry of Welfare has asked the town to receive ten additional LGBTQ+ refugees from Kenya in 2019. Iceland has agreed to offer 75 people asylum this year, both LGBTQ+ individuals who are currently living in Kenya and Syrian refugees who are currently based in Lebanon.

The Ministry of Welfare believes that Mosfellsbær’s previous experience welcoming LGBTQ+ asylum seekers will be a great strength when accepting a second group of LGBTQ+ refugees this year. It is hoped that in so doing, Mosfellsbær will improve upon its reception process and therefore be able to effectively advise and support other Icelandic municipalities in welcoming and resettling refugees in the near future.

Nine Refugee Families Welcomed to Iceland

Syrian quota refugees arrive in Iceland

“I saw Iceland out of the airplane and it was incredibly beautiful and unlike what we’ve been told. They said it would be cold and snowy but it was nothing like that,” Syrian Mohammad al-Hajji told a RÚV reporter upon arriving to the country. His family is one of five that arrived this morning as part of Iceland’s annual refugee quota.

Nine Syrian families – 44 men, women, and children – arrived in Iceland yesterday and today, after a long trip from Lebanon, where they have been living. The families will be settled in Hvammstangi and Blönduós, North Iceland. While Hvammstangi has a population of around 600 residents, Blönduós boasts around 900.

Furniture assembly at full steam

Meanwhile, in North Iceland, local residents have been excitedly preparing for the families’ arrival. Guðrún Margrét Guðmundsdóttir, project manager via the Red Cross, says the preparation has involved a lot of work from many volunteers, who have been putting together IKEA furniture and stocking cupboards for the families. “There’s also been a great deal of gathering furniture from local townspeople and arranging it.” Margrét says locals are excited about the arrival of their new neighbours. “People stop me in the street and ask when the people are coming and there’s just general excitement. The schoolkids are extremely excited.”

Airport welcome

It was not only representatives of the Red Cross and Ministry of Welfare who welcomed the families at Keflavík airport. Syrian sisters Nour and Yasmin al-Saadi, who have been living in Iceland for over two years, came to welcome their compatriots. The sisters are both in school, and say that learning Icelandic has been a key to integrating and educating themselves. “You need to learn the language, you need to speak Icelandic with others in Iceland,” said Nour.