Posted on May 3, 2005

Foreigners Need Not Apply

IcelandReview, May 3

“You need an AIDS test,” the doctor told me, as he prepared a needle to draw blood from my arm.

This was five years ago, and I was at the doctor’s office for a physical examination, a precursor to receiving a resident permit that would, after the proper signatures from the appropriate union, enable me to write for this very magazine.

My blood would also be tested for hepatitis. Before it was all over, the nurse would prick my arm to test for TB.

Poked and prodded, the nurse then gave me a small plastic cup with a set of instructions to take home. The guys in white lab coats needed a stool sample to boot.

I left the office, filed through the waiting room past a slew of patients speaking languages my ears couldn’t recognize. They were just like me, waiting to be sampled so they too could receive a resident permit to live and work in Iceland.

Based on the fact that I’m living in Iceland and writing this article I was obviously successful in jumping over all the hurdles. But this spring, Iceland followed the lead of so many other European countries by passing a new law restricting immigration. Because of the legislation, foreigners seeking to immigrate to Iceland now have higher hurdles to jump, and there are many more of them.

Cracking Down

There are numerous aspects to the new immigration law, but the primary focus is on two areas of concern: fraudulent marriages — both fake and forced marriages — and bogus residence permits. A fake marriage is one conducted for the sole purpose of a residence permit while a forced marriage is when a woman is sold or “forced” into marriage with an Icelander.

To safeguard against these types of marriages, the new law stipulates that a foreigner aged 18-24 is not able to obtain a residence permit based on marriage to an Icelander. (Why these ages were singled out cannot be easily explained by anyone associated with the bill.) In addition, the burden to prove whether a marriage is legitimate is placed on the couple rather than the State. Finally, the police, with a warrant, may search a couple’s house if the police feel that couple is engaged in a false marriage. (These laws only apply to “foreigners” from non-EEA nations.)

While Iceland’s a pretty hip place for a writer like myself to live, are there really scores of immigrants knocking on the door trying to get in by falsifying marriages? Are women really being sold into marriages with Icelandic men?

“Icelandic authorities are aware of a considerable number of cases where…the purpose of the marriage was solely to obtain a residence permit for a family member,” Björn Bjarnason, Minister of Justice from the right-wing ruling Independence Party, who proposed the immigration legislation, writes in an e-mail.

The “considerable number” refers to two cases in particular that have been under investigation by the police. While two cases doesn’t seem like all that many, according to reports one case reaches 26 family relations, all from 18 couples arriving from the same country at the same time.

Not surprisingly in this post-9/11 world, numerous MPs on both sides of the aisle agree that there is a need to tighten immigration laws. However, there was strong opposition to the law, and it squeaked through Iceland’s parliament with 31 MPs in favor, and 24 opposed. Eight MPs didn’t vote.

“We do not have the same concerns [as Denmark] to justify this harsh law,” writes Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson, MP from the opposition Alliance Party (the Social Democrats), in an e-mail. Mr. Ágústsson, who was his party’s committee head opposing the bill, refers to the fact that Iceland’s new immigration law closely mirrors the controversial Danish law, passed two years ago. He suggests that like many Danes, Icelanders will also become entangled in the confusing web of these new immigration policies.

“The law also limits the rights of Icelanders and their spouses and families,” Ágústsson adds.

That normal every day Icelanders might be restricted by their country’s immigration policy is an obvious concern because the law is written very broadly.

Let’s say you’re an Icelandic exchange student studying in New York City. One day at a café you meet the love of your life, a 20-year-old Venezuelan woman. Bang. It’s love at first sight. Sure, you speak no Spanish and she speaks no Icelandic. But, all you need is love, not to mention the fact that you both speak English. That spring you graduate and decide to get married. You’ll move to Iceland. You can work at a bank. She’ll get a job until the two of you decide to have kids. Not so fast. She’s under 24. The powers that be say your bride won’t be able to get a permit based on marriage. You’ll have to wait until she grows older.

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, MP from the Left Green Party, suggests that Iceland needed a stronger immigration policy, but she feels this current law goes too far.

“You must make sure not to violate the rights of people who are not doing anything illegal, because then you are closing the frontiers — closing the country.”

Gimme Some of that DNA

Of all the amendments in the immigration law, the most troubling is the prospect of DNA testing for those seeking a residence permit based on family relations.

A “foreigner” can receive a residence permit because he or she has family living in Iceland. However, to put a stop to fraud, the new immigration law stipulates that the Immigration Office can ask a “foreigner” seeking such a permit to submit to a DNA test in order to prove the family relationship exists. Despite the concerns raised by various human rights organizations over DNA testing, the Minister of Justice says that the tests are beneficial to foreigners seeking residence in Iceland.

“A foreigner is not obliged to undergo such test against his will and he can always refuse,” writes Bjarnason. “On the other hand, DNA testing can be favourable for the applicant, who has the right to present such evidence when he has no documents from his home country.”

This proposition is nonsense, says Ágústsson.

“Obviously_ the party involved has the right to deny giving a biological sample but this will obviously have an affect on their application.”

Aside from the privacy issues involved with DNA testing, one must consider the way this DNA policy looks to the outside world.

“This bill makes it look like Iceland is against foreigners,” says Halldorsdóttir. We are a small nation, so the foreigners willing to come and live in our country and put up with the darkness and bad weather enrich our lives.”

In addition to calling for DNA testing, the immigration law, in order to cut down on immigrants bringing their entire family over to Iceland, now states that “foreigners” under the age of 66 can no longer apply for a residence permit based on family ties.

“This is egregious,” says American Hope Knútsson, chairman of the multicultural council, an organization that helps to protect the human rights of foreigners.

“The law breaks up families and affects the human rights of these Icelandic children who are products of these marriages,” says Knútsson, who has lived in Iceland for 30 years.

To point out the absurdity of this amendment, Knútsson notes that if one grandparent is 67, but the other is, say, 60, only one grandparent would be able to move to Iceland.

Protest Nation

Restricting permits based on marriage or family ties by setting age limits directly affects Icelanders, and is one major reason why so many young Icelanders actively protested the bill. Fuelled by youthful idealism, groups opposed to the immigration bill joined forces and presented 3500 signatures to Parliament while debate over the legislation was underway.

According to Knútsson, who was once a self-described anti-war protester back in the 60s, it was unprecedented to have across-the-board participation from the youth movements of all the political parties. “It was one positive to come out of this ugly matter.”

For Knútsson, the support from young Icelanders was easy to explain.

“Because the law could affect their lives if they fell in love with a foreigner.”

The protests seemed to make a difference. When the bill was first proposed to Parliament, the legislation went even further than the 24-year-old rule. A provision in one of the articles stipulated that a marriage would be considered fake if the couple had not been living together before marriage; if the couple did not understand each other’s mother tongue; if there was a big age difference; and if a couple didn’t know much about their mate’s family history. Also, the police could enter a person’s home without a warrant. Furthermore, DNA testing had been proposed not when suitable papers couldn’t be produced, but at the whim of the Immigration Office.

But thanks to the various interest groups that testified before the Parliament’s general committee, these aspects of the bill were revised. Now, the four criteria used to deem a marriage false were removed. As mentioned earlier, police must have a warrant to enter a couple’s home, DNA tests can only be ordered if documentation is not available. Plus, anyone denied a residence permit based on the new legislation can have their day in court.

“We were happy that we were listened to and the general committee considered our opinion,” says Tatjana Latinovic, a 37-year-old from the former Yugoslavia who is married to an Icelander, and has been living here for ten years.

Latinovic likes to point out that when she married neither her nor her husband spoke each other’s language, and she knew very little about her husband’s family history. She also says that while the interests of foreigners were taken into account, portions of the bill still are not acceptable.

“I think it goes too far in one aspect. You must be older than 24 to get a permit based on marriage. It doesn’t serve any purpose.”

Absorbing Immigrants

Thitinat is a 22-year-old from Thailand who’s been living in Iceland for over seven years. At the Thai restaurant where he works, he easily switches from Icelandic to Thai to English, depending upon the customer.

“Everything is easy to live here,” he says, responding to why he likes living in Iceland.

He has a point. Despite the harsh winters, the bleak weather, life in Iceland has its benefits — one of the highest standards of living in the world. Couple this high standard of living with Iceland’s generous social benefits, and it’s not a bad destination for those wanting to improve their plight. Thus, immigrants are knocking on Iceland’s door.

And they seem to be welcome. Despite the fact that Icelanders are hyper-protective of their notion of purity, immigrants like Thitinat who, for simplicity, goes by the Icelandic name of Nói, are treated with respect. (In the past, immigrants had to take on an Icelandic name before becoming Icelandic citizens.)

Of course there are instances of racism. Iceland is like any other country. I could list off the racist slights and slurs I hear every day, but I could also point out the many Icelanders who go out of their way to help immigrants assimilate.

“It is a positive aspect of Icelandic society that we appeal to immigrants. We have a clear and strong cultural and national identity and can absorb foreign influx in the years to come as we have done until now,” writes Bjarnason.

But it is this strong national identity that is going to cause Iceland trouble in the years to come. Sure, Icelanders have no problem with immigrants like Thitinat. At the moment, most immigrants work in ethnic restaurants or in fish factories, jobs that Icelandic youth have long since abandoned.

The multicultural mix will become more combustible when the children of people like Thitinat come of age, desiring all the same luxuries as every other Icelander, shunning the service industry for high-paying jobs at investment companies and law firms. Only when these children of immigrants begin to compete against Icelanders for so-called white-collar jobs will we truly see how tolerant Icelanders are at absorbing immigrants.