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ICELAND: Migration Appears Here Too

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Nov 22 2006 (IPS) - Since May this year, there has been a huge influx of foreigners to Iceland. That is quite striking, considering that only 20 years ago Iceland was considered almost ethnically ‘pure’.

In 1985, foreigners represented only 1.4 percent of the population whereas now they make up almost 7 percent – and that is not counting those who have become naturalised.

Not only have foreigners come to Iceland, they all have jobs too, which is not always the case in other countries where unemployment among migrant workers is often a considerable problem.

Iceland has a population of 303,000. At the end of last year, 13,378 people with foreign nationality were living in Iceland. And since the beginning of this year, 6,227 foreigners, mostly men, have come to Iceland from the new EU countries. Despite the influx, unemployment in Iceland is currently only one percent.

Anyone from an EU country can now come to Iceland without a work permit. They can be here for six months if they are looking for work. But most foreigners get a job very soon after arriving, if they do not have one already set up.

Like many countries, Iceland did not initially allow free movement of workers from the countries that became new EU members in May 2004, but it opened the barriers on May 1 this year. Although new Europeans no longer need a work permit in order to work here, employers have to inform the Directorate of Labour when a foreigner from one of these countries starts work.

Ten countries joined the EU on May 1 2004 to make the EU a 25-member state. The countries were Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Bulgaria and Romania are due to join Jan. 1, 2007. The Althingi (Icelandic parliament) has decided that there should similarly be a two-year waiting period for Bulgarians and Romanians to come to Iceland.

The authorities have been surprised by the response, as has everyone else.

Because the Icelandic economy is booming and unemployment is so low, ministers and other officials welcome the new workers, saying that the economy would be paralysed if foreigners were discouraged from working here.

There has been some concern whether or not pay and conditions in Iceland will be compromised by the influx of foreigners, who earn much more in Iceland than they would at home – even if they do not earn as much as Icelanders in comparable jobs.

“There is no difference in pay in cases where wages are paid according to a set rate, for instance in hospitals,” Gudmundur Hilmarsson from the Icelandic Confederation of Labour told IPS. “But in trades such as the building industry, where Icelanders are commonly paid salaries above the basic rates, it is often the case that foreigners are paid less.”

The majority of foreigners who have arrived recently, roughly 64 percent, work in the construction industry.

Polish workers have always been popular in Iceland, and still form the bulk of the foreign workforce. About 7,500 Poles now live in Iceland, 1,394 of them in Reydarfjordur where they make up 75 percent of the workforce who are building the Fjardaraal aluminium plant.

Complaints have arisen that new foreign employees are forced to pay exorbitant rent for substandard accommodation provided by employers. And there have been allegations that companies have fired Icelanders and hired cheaper foreigners instead. But Hilmarsson says this is not common.

Most foreigners know little about Iceland before arriving, and do not envision staying a long time, but many stay on longer than they intended, and bring their families over once they have become established. Knowledge of Icelandic is considered essential for these people, and preparations are being made to teach it.

The influx of Europeans has created a downside, though. It is now much harder for non- Europeans to live and work in Iceland, as preference is given to those from the EU. An employer has to confirm that a post was advertised throughout the EU before a non- European can be given a work permit.

Likewise, people who have been living in Iceland for a while now find it harder to get their relatives into the country if they are not of European origin.

Toshika Toma, a priest who works with foreigners, is concerned about this. “If someone from Thailand or the Philippines wants to bring their parents to Iceland to live, they first have to find a job for them,” he told IPS. “And that is hard, because Europeans have priority now for vacant jobs. The law is unfair, and it shouldn’t be.”

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