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.

One in Four Preschool Children Has Foreign Background

school children

Of the nearly 20,000 children attending preschools in Iceland, 26% have a foreign background. This includes children who were born outside of Iceland but also children born in Iceland who have one or two parents that were born abroad. The data, released by Statistics Iceland today, also shows vastly different rates of preschool attendance between regions.

In December 2022, the number of children attending preschools in Iceland had increased by 3.3.% (635 children) from the previous year. A total of 11% were born in Iceland but had one parent born abroad, 9% were born in Iceland and had both parents born abroad, while over 3% were immigrants and over 3% had a foreign background by some other definition. A total of 73.4% of preschool students had no foreign background.


Record percentages with foreign mother tongue and foreign citizenship

The data shows that 16.8% of all preschool children had a foreign mother tongue, more than ever before. As in recent years, Polish was the most common of the foreign mother tongues, with 1,063 children speaking Polish. The second most common mother tongue was English (356 children) followed by Spanish (166 children). The greatest increase was in the number of children speaking Ukrainian, from 16 to 58. The number of children with foreign citizenship has increased to 9.9%, more than ever before. The largest increase was in the number of children from Asia and South America.

Only 19% of one-year-olds attend preschool in southwest region

The proportion of 1- to 5-year-old children attending preschools decreased by one percentage point from the previous year, from 88% to 87%, as the number of children in preschools did not increase at the same rate as the number of children in that age group in the country. When one-year-olds are considered, attendance varies greatly between regions. While overall, 54% of one-year-olds attended preschools in December 2022, in the east that figure was 82% and it was 74% in the Westfjords. The proportion was by far the lowest in the Southwest region, with just 19% of one-year-olds attending preschool. Incidentally, the southwest region has a higher rate of foreign residents than most other regions.

The OECD Economic Survey of Iceland released earlier this month recommended Iceland’s policy focus on helping migrants integrate, including increasing support for students with immigrant backgrounds and more teacher training in multicultural education. The survey pointed out that immigration has brought significant economic benefits to Iceland with an influx of young people with high participation rates in the labour market.

Multicultural Festival Celebrated as Part of ‘Friendship Week’ in Vopnafjörður

The East Iceland village of Vopnafjörður will celebrate its second annual Multicultural Festival on Saturday, with international food, dance exhibitions, games, international cartoons for children, and more. Austurfrétt reports that just under 10% of the fishing village’s population is of foreign extraction, with full-time residents hailing from 20 different countries around the world.

As of September, 670 people called Vopnafjörður home. Sixty of these residents are originally from another country. Poles make up the largest subset of foreign residents, followed by Bulgarians. The village is also home to people from Sweden and Pakistan, among other nations.

Flags representing all the nationalities living in Vopnafjörður at the village’s 2020 Multicultural Festival. Photo: Vopnafjörður, FB.

“People have always come here from abroad,” says Þórhildur Sigurðardóttir, who oversees multicultural and diversity initiatives for the larger municipality. Þórhildur explained that the village has a history of attracting foreign workers, but it’s only recently that the makeup of the fulltime population has been so diverse.

“There are people with Faroese roots, and then Danish women came to work here. I think one of them is still left. Otherwise, there weren’t many [other nationalities] here even six years ago. For a long time, it was just one woman from Poland. But that’s changed completely.”

Vopnafjörður held its first Multicultural Festival in 2020, at which time, there were people from 22 countries living in the village. The following year, a Children’s Cultural Festival was held instead, but still with a multicultural focus. During that festival, kids were taught how to count to five in 13 languages and flags were raised for each of the nationalities living there.

This year, the Multicultural Festival is just one part of a week-long ‘Friendship Week,’ sponsored by a local youth club and programmed entirely by teenagers. Friendship Week runs from Friday, October 7 to Sunday, October 16 and will include a variety of events, including a parade, a potluck-style cake buffet, a movie night, a ‘goodwill marathon,’ in which residents are encouraged to do good deeds for one another (such as raking leaves, folding laundry, dog walking, etc), an intergenerational game night, and more.

Stykkishólmur Works to Improve Integration of New Residents

Stykkishólmur - Stykkishólmshöfn - Breiðafjörður - Snæfellsnes

The West Iceland municipality of Stykkishólmur (pop. 1,193) wants to be more accessible for new residents, especially those of foreign origin, RÚV reports. The municipal authorities have appointed a task force that will work toward this goal, placing its focus on immigrants. The measures are aimed at the community as a whole, including businesses, social organisations, and municipal services.

“The women’s club, the Lions Club, the sports club,” are just a few examples of organisations that the task force will assist in making more open to new residents, Stykkishólmur mayor Jakob Björgvin Jakobsson stated. The proportion of immigrants in Stykkishólmur is close to the national average, or around 15% of all residents. Nearly one quarter of children in the municipality are bilingual or multilingual, or 23%.

According to Jakob, Stykkishólmur hopes to set up a procedure to help new residents adapt. That procedure would include subsidies for children to join local sports activities and meetings and interviews with other locals that could help new families adjust. “These are the procedures that we are implementing here in Stykkishólmur with the emphasis on multiculturalism.”

Living Art Museum Aims to Reflect Iceland’s Diversity

Nýlistasafnið/The Living Art Museum

The Living Art Museum in Reykjavík, Iceland, has sent out an open call for its autumn exhibition for the year 2021. The call is particularly directed at individuals and groups who have traditionally been excluded from fine art institutions in Iceland, such as the LGBT+ community, Icelanders of foreign origin, mixed Icelanders, immigrants, and “people who find themselves voiceless within the socio-political structure.”

“With this open application process, we want to counteract any kind of discrimination that takes place in our society today, such as racial inequality, and the suppression of marginalized groups and cultures,” a press release from the Museum reads.

The idea to direct the open call to marginalised groups and individuals came from the Museum’s staff and board earlier this year in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests occurring around the world. “This struggle […] led to a great deal of introspection by the board of the Living Art Museum. As a result, it has become clear to the museum’s management that we have not been able to fully reflect the diverse growth that characterizes art and human life in Iceland.”

“It is important that all cultural institutions in the country undergo a substantial self-examination. What kind of space are these institutions creating? And for whom?” the Museum states, and the project representatives say they hope the initiative serves as a guiding light for other institutions in Iceland

To go over the open call submissions, the Museum’s board is putting together a special selection committee “in order to ensure diversity and counteract hidden bias.” The deadline for submissions is October 4. All the application details, including translation of the text to Arabic, Polish, and Icelandic can be found here.

Discuss Racism in Iceland via Björk’s Instagram Page

Icelandic musician Björk’s Instagram account will host a live discussion in English on racism in Iceland at 6.00pm GMT tonight. The discussion will be held by Chanel Björk Sturludóttir and Diana Rós Hạhn Breckmann, two Icelanders of mixed origin, and will focus on “how the BLM movement has had an impact here too,” according to a post on Björk’s Instagram.

Chanel produced a radio show for Iceland’s National Broadcaster RÚV last year called Íslenska mannflóran focusing on Icelanders of mixed origin and deconstructing the concepts of nationality, race, and multiculturalism. She is also a co-founder of Hennar rödd (Her Voice), an annual event that creates a platform for women of multicultural ethnicity to share their experiences of Icelandic society. Diana, a fashion stylist, has been vocal against cultural appropriation in fashion.

Over 3,000 people attended a Black Lives Matter solidarity meeting in Reykjavík earlier this month. The event was organised by African Americans living in Iceland. A meeting was also held in Ísafjörður, the Westfjords, on the same day, where some 100 people attended.

Poles Apart

Polish community in Iceland

Nearly one half of all immigrants in Iceland come from a single country: Poland. Polish nationals were among the first foreigners to start settling here in the modern era, initially drawn by work in fish processing plants. In the early aughts, a boom in construction drew them in even greater numbers. In recent years, younger Poles have been flocking to the country for jobs in tourism and other industries. Their community as a whole now numbers 20,000.

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North Iceland Municipality Develops Multicultural Policy

One fourth of Skútustaðahreppur municipality’s residents are foreign citizens, RÚV reports, compared to around 13% in Iceland’s overall population. It’s a recent demographic development driven by the tourism industry. The municipality has been preparing a special multicultural policy to better welcome and integrate its newest residents.

Skútustaðahreppur contains Mývatn lake, one of the most visited sites in North Iceland. The stream of tourists to the region has led to a population boom in recent years. “Over 40% since 2013, which is a little bit refreshing but has been a bit of a strain on our infrastructure,” says Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, the municipality’s mayor, who says the increase can largely be explained by tourism. “Foreign labour is the basis. We are in the unusual position that a quarter of the population here are foreign residents and therefore it’s very important to welcome them into our community,” Þorsteinn stated.

The municipality’s new multicultural policy has been in preparation for almost a year, and addresses issues such as local services to residents and how Skútustaðahreppur schools can support students of foreign origin. The policy also explores how the municipality can provide a good quality of life for all its residents.

Skútustaðahreppur is not the only Icelandic municipality working to better address the needs of its foreign residents. The neighbouring municipality of Norðurþing employs a multicultural representative in a part-time position. The municipalities of Norðurþing, Skútustaðahreppur, and Þingeyjarsveit are all considering creating a full-time position in the field.

Propose Equal Reception for All Refugees

A new proposal put forward by the Minister of Social Affairs would ensure that asylum seekers who have been granted asylum in Iceland be afforded the same protections as the so-called “quota refugees” who resettle in the country as part of international agreements, RÚV reports. While quota refugees receive housing, financial assistance, and community support services upon arrival to the country, asylum seekers who arrive on their own currently do not qualify for such services, even once they have been granted asylum by the Directorate of Immigration. Municipal authorities and the Icelandic Red Cross have criticised the discrepancy in treatment of the two groups.

The new proposal was the project of a committee that was appointed to review the refugee reception process this fall. Under the terms of the new proposal, local municipalities would shoulder more of the responsibilities related to refugee services and the role of the Multicultural Information Centre would also be enhanced.

Ásmundur Einar Daðason, Minister of Social Affairs and Equality, presented the proposal along with project manager and committee member Linda Rós Alfreðsdóttir. “The biggest changes are that individuals who receive [asylum status] through the Directorate of Immigration and have, up until now, been on their own, will go into the same system that the quota refugees do, in which they have support in learning Icelandic, getting themselves settled, and adapting to society,” says Ásmundur.

Currently, the government advertises when quota refugees arrive, requesting for volunteer municipalities to receive and resettle the newcomers. But no such effort is made for refugees who arrive on their own. Under the terms of the new agreement, this would change. The Multicultural Information Centre, which is located in Ísafjörður, would be in charge of pairing municipalities with newly-arrived asylum grantees, and would also provide advice to municipalities on refugee- and resettlement-related issues. It would still be up to the asylum seekers whether or not to accept an invitation from a municipality to resettle there. Additionally, the Directorate of Labor would ensure Icelandic lessons and social education to newly arrived asylum grantees.

Ásmundur is pleased with the committee’s proposals and is looking forward to seeing them become a reality. “This is a fundamental change that’s been in the works for a considerable amount of time,” he said. “It’s really gratifying to see it getting started now.”

Propose a “One-Stop Shop” for Immigrants

Several MPs are proposing the establishment of a “one-stop shop” for new immigrants in Iceland, Kjarninn reports. Left Green Movement MP Kolbeinn Óttarsson Proppé is the main proponent of a bill to that effect, which the group plans to introduce in the coming parliamentary term.

Immigrants currently account for nearly 12% of Iceland’s population of 353,000. Their number has never been higher, and never increased as quickly as in the past 18 months. Kolbeinn says the institution would be a place where new residents could go for information regardless of where they are from or where in Iceland they have settled.

“Whether its of one’s own accord or of necessity due to bad circumstances, everyone benefits from getting the best guidance about their new community,” the project proposal stated. “Improved access to information makes people’s change of circumstances easier and at the same time contributes to people becoming active in society much earlier.”

Regional organisations performing such work have sprung up of late in Iceland, such as the Multicultural Centre in Ísafjörður in the Westfjords. Kolbeinn hopes the new institution would collaborate with regional governments, the Icelandic Red Cross, and trade unions to support immigrants in the process of adapting to their new home.