Iceland may be far from the frontlines of the migrant crisis in Europe—certainly from war-torn Syria—but Icelanders have in the past 48 hours made it clear that they are watching and that they have seen enough suffering. Now is the time to act.
People have in their thousands been offering their support—accommodation, clothes, food, help learning Icelandic or adjusting to Icelandic society—and calling on the Icelandic authorities to resettle more refugees here.
Over 12,000 people have so far offered to support refugees resettled in Iceland on a Facebook event, Kæra Eygló Harðar – Sýrland kallar (‘Dear Eygló Harðar – Syria is calling’), set up by author and teacher Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir on Sunday, resulting in media coverage around the world. People living abroad have even been asking how they too can help.
Over 300,000 refugees have arrived in Europe so far this year. Each day brings stories of new arrivals to the continent, attempted Mediterranean crossings ended in disaster, and debate on how to best handle the unprecedented numbers of people fleeing war and poverty.
Bryndís says people are fed up with seeing news about people dying in the Mediterranean and want to help. Since Sunday, close to 900 people have signed up to volunteer with the Icelandic Red Cross—truly overwhelming.
Bryndis’ brilliant social media initiative was created after Minister of Social Affairs Eygló Harðardóttir said in an interview with RÚV on Sunday that Iceland could do more to help with the refugee crisis and asked the Icelandic public for help (little did Eygló know that her appeal would result in an explosion of offers).
The European Union had called an emergency summit on Sunday to discuss solutions to the crisis, as migrants have in some EU countries been prevented from crossing borders and the death toll on land—71 people were found dead in a refrigeration van in Austria on Friday—and sea—at least 2,500 people have perished attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015—continues to grow.
The issue isn’t new and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly spoken of the urgency of dealing with the issue. In a speech yesterday she said that “Europe as a whole needs to move” on how to deal with it, warning that “if Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”
In July the Icelandic government announced that it would invite 50 quota refugees to Iceland over the next two years. Some politicians and members of the public responded by saying that this was not nearly good enough—some have even gone as far as suggesting that Iceland should grant 5,000 refugees protection (more than 8,500 people have liked a Facebook page calling for 5,000 refugees to be welcomed to Iceland).
Prime Minister Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson has said that 5,000 is not realistic but today appointed a committee of ministers to discuss the growing pressure from Icelanders, politicians and the public, on the government to accept more than the previously announced 50 refugees.
If Iceland were to accept proportionally as many refugees as Sweden, it would need to accept around 1,500 compared to Sweden’s more than 30,000.
Þórir Guðmundsson, director at the Red Cross in Reykjavík, explained on Bylgjan radio yesterday that the number of individuals that can be resettled in Iceland depends on how many people municipalities around Iceland are willing to take on.
Þórir also pointed out that enough time must be given for the necessary preparations to be made, as has been done in the past.
Sigmundur has said that accepting refugees—whether it is 50, 500 or more—won't solve the urgent situation in southern Europe not to mention further afield. This is true. However, to the individuals given the opportunity to start a new life, to work and to build a future it makes a world of difference. Accepting more than 25 individuals per year is surely possible and as Eygló argues, resettling refugees in Iceland can ultimately strengthen our society.
Many ask not only what can we do for them but what can they do for us. The Economist argues that Europe can and should do better—and not just for moral reasons. With an ageing population, Europe is in need of people to bolster its shrinking workforce. While Iceland has one of the highest birthrates in Europe, we too can benefit from the skills, ideas and connections which refugees and other immigrants bring. “People who cross deserts and stormy seas to get to Europe are unlikely to be slackers when they arrive,” says The Economist.
Iceland has been inviting small groups of quota refugees, such as single women with children, individuals requiring medical assistance or LGBT individuals, to resettle in the country since 1956, so we have the experience. Ten arrived in Iceland in 2014 and UNHCR has urged Iceland to increase its quota.
During recent days and weeks, there have been those who have questioned why Iceland should resettle more refugees when there are plenty of people who already live here who could do with our help.
Jovana Schally, who was among a group of refugees to arrive in Iceland from Serbia in 1996, is among those to argue that we can in fact do both: help Icelanders and help resettle refugees in Iceland.
Bryndís too has a strong message for critics: “Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we'll never be able to say to: “Your life is worth less than mine.”
And on that I hope many of us can agree.
Zoë Robert – zoe(at)icelandreview.com