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Ísafjörður - Integration in the Arctic North

At 66° north in the municipality Ísafjörður in the Icelandic West fjords, live close to four hundred immigrants, where the total population is slightly below 3,500. The recent flow of refugees has not reached the area but job availability has attracted labor migrants since the 90s.

The immigrants are vital for the area but lack of integration is dividing the community. Therefore the main challenge, in terms of integration, is getting immigrants and the local population to blend better.

Do labor migrants need help with integration?

The [Icelandic] Multicultural Centre, which is located in Ísafjörður, has the purpose to facilitate communication between Icelanders and foreign citizens and facilitate integration. The operation is on the national level; however, the local residents benefit from the placement and seek assistance in solving various issues when needed. Integration policy was first made in Iceland in 2007 but no integration/introduction program is in effect in the country. Immigrants' affairs are mainstreamed in the social systems where the municipalities have the main responsibility to provide service. The exception from this, are quota refugees that attend a one year program. The first group following such program arrived to Ísafjörður.

In Ísafjörður municipality, a common policy on immigrants' issues is being drafted, but up till now no such has existed. Apart from the group of quota refugees that arrived in 1996 the immigrants have moved there for economic reasons. The movement of people within the EEA is free and the larger immigrant group in Ísafjörður, as in all Iceland are Poles. The need of an integration program has not been considered urgent, since most of immigrants come due to social networks and already have jobs when they arrive.

Vital for the municipality

It is apparent that the municipality needs immigrants to thrive. The municipality has not done anything to attract immigrants specifically but is hoping to be able to stop the population decline and that more people will see it as an attractive place to live, for everyone. Immigrants are the majority of the workforce in the primary sector, fish processing and also for the company, Skaginn 3X, that specializes in producing machineries for the fish industry. Companies in need of immigrant labor have their own way of finding human resources, for example, through network of existing employees, employment agencies or by travelling to Poland in the effort to find employees.

Little incentive to learn Icelandic

Immigrants in the area have the opportunity to study the Icelandic language and can get 75% of the course fee reimbursed from their labor union. The results tend to be rather limited as many only attend the first level. Learning a difficult language after full day of work along with family duties is not a recipe for success. The lack of language skills reduces the possibilities to change jobs and weakens the immigrants' position in the society. Still many Poles have little motivation for learning the language since many needs are fulfilled within their own language in the work place, through the internet and generally within the community of compatriots on site. Many do not intend to stay long term and do not see the point of investing great effort into Icelandic, which few speak. Some prefer to learn English instead. However, many ends up staying despite the initial plans and find it difficult to break the vicious cycle.

Segregation cannot be denied

In the case study every informant recognized a division in the community, where a big part of the Polish community (217 individuals in 2015) both keeps a distance but could also inadvertently have been kept in distance. The segregation is as evident in the compulsory school, where 20% of the students are immigrants or have immigrant back ground. Too many polish students are isolated in the school reflecting the society outside of the school, a segregation that often reflects in their level of Icelandic. "They don't spend enough time in an environment where Icelandic is predominant. It is not their choice, I think they all want to have it differently," says Helga Björt Möller, teacher at the school. She argues that there are prejudices in the community, especially against the Polish people, even though it is partly hidden under the surface and not everyone will agree on it, prejudices that are not limited to this municipality. Helga Björt points out that the mixing of the separated communities in the municipality is very limited and mostly on the surface, something that both groups are responsible for. She says that it is not fair to expect the immigrants to gain good Icelandic skills and blame them for the division, if they do not get real opportunities to have interaction with natives.

Call for policy to welcome immigrants

The secondary school principal, Jón Reynir Sigurvinsson agrees with Helga Björt and Sveinfríður Olga Veturliðadóttir, principal of the elementary school, that a comprehensive policy is needed for the whole community on how to welcome immigrants and help with their integration. As things stands now there is no coordination or cooperation between the schools and the municipality on how to welcome or integrate immigrants. All say that much more can be done to cater to immigrant students or students with an immigrant background and schools could play an important role.

When the quota refugees arrived in 1996 the interaction and mixing with the existing community is considered to have worked much better. Every family within the program had support families that they could turn to and that were devoted to contribute to new residents' well-being. The experience shows that the civil society can play an important role in immigrants' integration but when no one has the responsibility to do the arrangement; it seems to fall through the cracks. It can also be difficult to reach out with help or guidance to people that feel fully capable to get around without assistance or interference.

Challenge to get all inhabitants to blend

The biggest challenge appears to be, to get the immigrants and the locals to mix better, as well as getting immigrants to change their stance on not needing to learn language because of their plans to stay only for a short time. When in reality, time passes without immigrants stepping properly into the Icelandic society so they risk missing out and risking that their descendants end up in a weaker position. The non-immigrants need to learn or understand what the society as a whole can gain from successful integration and the benefits immigrants bring to society. Important business in the region would simply not be operable without them. Not having a proper policy and a plan is a challenge that has to be faced and implementing such a policy has the potential to put everyone in stronger position.

Updated

2017-03-20

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