A Challenge to Provide Equal Access to Education for Immigrants

school children

There are 50 refugee children in Iceland that are not attending school as they are still waiting to receive school placements, including 20 children who have completed the required preparatory process. Minister of Education and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason said the process to place refugee children in schools has gone well overall considering the level of strain on the system. He added that Icelandic society must do more to ensure all children of foreign origin have equal access to education and job opportunities as native Icelanders.

Housing impacts schooling for refugees

Most of the refugee children who have yet to be placed in schools in Iceland have been waiting since November of last year. “I think that everyone is doing their best to make it happen as fast as possible, but it’s very clear there’s been a lot of strain on our system,” Ásmundur Daði stated.

The Minister explained the process in an interview on Rás 2 this morning. “Just to go over it briefly, when a family comes here, it’s the Directorate of Labour that sees to these issues and sends a request to schools, the family has to undergo a medical examination which takes some time, then they will be placed in temporary housing before they receive permanent housing […] that process takes a certain amount of time, and there’s been a lot of strain on the municipalities where this temporary housing is. And it’s been a challenge to get families into permanent housing.”

While it would be ideal to place children in school sooner following their arrival, Ásmundur Einar stated that there have been cases where refugee children have moved schools twice within six weeks due to changes from temporary to permanent housing, for example. Such moves are not ideal either, he pointed out.

Huge influx of children of foreign origin requires systemic changes

Ásmundur Einar stated it was not only refugee children causing strain on the educational system, but the dramatic increase of children of foreign origin in general. Between 1996 and 2022, the number of children of foreign origin in the school system increased 23 times over, to make up 11% of students today. The Minister says this proportion will only increase and the government is working on ways to improve the reception of children of foreign origin into the school system.

Asked about the possibility of setting up special schools for refugee children waiting for permanent placements, Ásmundur Einar stated such a move has been considered. “But it would need to be a holistic decision, not just for children from Ukraine and Venezuela or Syria, but for children of foreign origin. Do we want them to go to a special program to start with where they’re just learning Icelandic for a few months, participating maybe in social activities as well, but not have only children from Ukraine doing that, because we want them to go into the general school system and participate in society here.”

Immigrants and their children don’t have the same opportunities

The Minister pointed out that the representation of immigrants within Icelandic institutions is not proportional to their numbers within Icelandic society, which is over 15%. “The challenge is how do we help these children to reach the same level of success as the rest of us in Icelandic society. There should be 15 MPs of foreign origin, there should be 2-3 ministers of foreign origin. These people are not getting the same opportunities as the rest of us.”

Within the school system, children of foreign origin reportedly achieve lower grades than native Icelandic students, are more likely to drop out and less likely to attend higher education. Children of foreign origin also show less participation in sports and recreational activities. “This is a cause for concern in the long term. We need to think as a society, what can we do differently?”

For those who argue that the cost of educating children or teaching them Icelandic is high, the Minister points out that immigrants coming into the system and going straight to the labour market are individuals the country has not had to invest in, in terms of their education.

What’s Being Done About Homophobia in Iceland’s Schools?

Rainbow flags Höfði homophobia iceland

Iceland is often in the foreign media for its position on many indexes for human rights, equality, and social justice. Although the LGBT+ community enjoys many rights in Iceland, homophobia still remains a problem, especially in schools.

If you are interested in what the official policy is on LGBT+ students is in the Icelandic school system, you may find the official Reykjavík City website helpful.

Concerning specific steps taken to ensure the safety and well being of LGBT+ students in Iceland, there have been many initiatives and task forces lately to confront these problems, including a 2021 Task Force on Gender Neutral Facilities in Schools and a 2022 Task Force on the Status of Gender and LGBT+ Education in Reykjavík City Schools.

Currently, Reykjavík City has a 2019-2023 Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan, which entails both a report on the state of the rights of sexual minorities in Iceland, in addition to suggestions for improvement. Some suggestions include not assuming heterosexuality in schools, more open sexual education, and more mental health resources for students.

Reykjavík is also a part of the Rainbow Cities Network, a platform for cities devoted to improving LGBT+ issue. Among other requirements for certification in the Rainbow Cities Network, public employees must undergo training in issues relating to the LGBT+ community.

Homophobia in Icelandic schools is also a part of a broader discussion of bullying and mental health in young people, which has recently surfaced in the news.

We have also reported on a significant case of hate speech in Iceland, in which an individual was fined for his 2015 online comments that were found to be homophobic. Although originally acquitted, his comments were ultimately found to be in violation of Article 233 (a) of the General Penal Code, which forbids defamation, libel, threats, and discrimination. The court ruled that his comments were “serious, severely hurtful and prejudicial,” and he was fined ISK 100,000 (around EUR 800 at the time).


Over 75% of Icelanders Believe Immigrants Have a Positive Impact

asylum seeker program Birta

A comprehensive study conducted in early 2018 found that over 75% of Icelanders believe immigrants have had a positive impact on Icelandic society, RÚV reports. The study was conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Akureyri in North Iceland. It covers topics such as immigrants’ status on the labour market, within the school system, and their political and social engagement in Iceland.

Results a Pleasant Surprise

While foreign citizens accounted for 2.6% of Iceland’s population in the year 2000, in 2020 that figure had risen to 13.5%. Titled “Inclusive Society? Adaptation of Immigrants in Iceland,” the University of Akureyri study aimed to reveal how immigrants were adapting to Icelandic society as well as how Icelandic society was adapting in return. Many of the results were a pleasant surprise for Hermína Gunnþórsdóttir and Markus Meckl, professorts at the University of Akureyri and the two editors of the study.

While over 75% of Icelanders reported they agree or strongly agree that immigrants have had a positive impact on society, while just 4% stated they disagree or strongly disagree. Two out of three Icelanders stated they had invited an immigrant to their home. “The attitude seems to be positive and in fact more positive than one would expect in many ways. Maybe this says something about Icelandic society. In any case, this came as a pleasant surprise,” Hermína stated.

Some Schools Lack Comprehensive Policy

While attitudes toward immigrants are generally positive, Icelandic society could do better in some areas when it comes to providing them services, particularly in the educational system. The study found that many municipalities had not formulated clear policies when it came to teaching immigrants and addressing their needs. Hermína pointed out that teachers in smaller communities may lack the training and knowledge needed to adapt their methods. “This is something that municipalities need to take as more of a holistic policy and look at what kind of society we want to build up.”

Nearly 60% of Immigrants Made Under ISK 400,000 Per Month

In 2018, the average monthly salary for full-time workers in Iceland was ISK 721,000. When looking at the distribution of total wages, the most common monthly wage was between ISK 550,000-600,000. According to the University of Akureyri study, nearly 60% of immigrants made ISK 400,000 per month, significantly below national averages. Though Iceland has a gender pay gap that affects all women, women of foreign origin are much worse off in terms of wages than women who are Icelandic, according to Hermína. “This needs to be looked at systematically because we do not want inequality to increase. We want equality and equal rights for everyone here. Not just those who were born and raised here.”

Language Education is Key to Participation

Unsurprisingly, the study found immigrants who had learned Icelandic were more active in society and politics. “For example they are more likely to vote and actually participate more in society. So it’s very important that we offer people a good education in Icelandic.” The study found, however, that immigrants were not satisfied with the Icelandic language courses available to them.

According to Hermína, an important step in achieving further equality is to increase the number of immigrants working within the school system as well as in positions of responsibility.