Achieving Integration for Immigrants in Iceland

10 de novembro, 2021

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Inadequate human and economic development, along with socio-political and environmental challenges, force millions of people every year to leave their home countries in search of more security and stability.[i] Iceland’s immigrant population has experienced extreme growth, increasing from 8% of the country’s total population in 2012 to 15% in 2020.[ii] While Iceland’s economic stability and immigration policy might seem welcoming, immigrants are often left to their own devices after arriving in the country.[iii] With an insufficiently cohesive approach to the employment, education, and housing sectors, the government has failed to guarantee the integration of vulnerable groups like immigrants within Icelandic society. Unable to integrate, immigrants risk further alienation and living a life without dignity. In this context, what are the barriers to the integration of immigrants in Iceland, and how can the government address them?


Barriers to Integration

Securing a Job

Employment is the most effective way to provide people with financial security, independence, and a sense of belonging.[iv] The Directorate of Labor, through its job center (Vinnumálastofnun), is responsible for ensuring that immigrants have adequate access to the employment market. It offers language courses, entrepreneurship seminars, and employment advice.[v]

Research shows that a lack of knowledge of the Icelandic language is the biggest barrier toward immigrants’ access to employment.[vi] This has pushed them into taking low-paid jobs in the hospitality and service sectors. Immigrants are also more likely to be unemployed and receive partial unemployment benefits.[vii]

Owning a Home

Restricted access to employment in Iceland due to language barriers also has a direct impact when entering the private housing market. Demonstrating a secure income through an employment contract, for instance, is often mandatory to rent a house. Other barriers include high rents, obtaining references from previous property owners, and the discrimination toward and stereotyping of immigrants. As a result, immigrants are often pushed to occupy spaces that are not suitable for residence.[viii]

Financial assistance programs, such as payments for reduced incomes and loans for deposits are offered by the municipal social services in the capital area.[ix] Although this removes some pressure from their already challenging situation, immigrants are left to their own devices when navigating the competitive private housing sector.[x]

The Educational Ladder

Education is another key factor toward achieving inclusive integration. It reduces the risk of poverty and marginalization by enabling immigrants to access the employment market through capacity-building.[xi] According to a study conducted by the Icelandic Red Cross, factors such as the lack of information in languages other than Icelandic, the need to fulfil specific formal requirements in higher education institutions, and economic vulnerability act as the main barriers for immigrants when pursuing studies in Iceland.[xii]

The Cultural Barrier

The inclusion of immigrants within Icelandic society is closely linked to debates surrounding multiculturalism.[xiii] That Iceland has remained isolated and homogenous until recently plays a significant role in preventing immigrants from fully integrating into society.[xiv] As Helga Ólafs from the University of Iceland points out, immigrants are hardly ever spoken to as ordinary people, and when they are, reference is often made to their condition as foreigners, alienating any other trace of their personality or purpose in the country.[xv]

The Opportunities in Integration

An integrated approach based on common values is needed to address the needs of immigrants in Iceland and unite newcomers with traditional Icelandic communities. To avoid further alienating this group and to foster resilience within Icelandic society, the government should:

Ensure equality: Promote the inclusion of immigrants in the public and private employment sectors to increase opportunities and promote a more diverse and inclusive working environment. This would benefit the whole economy. More importantly, it would provide crucial support for immigrants to rebuild their lives in their host societies. The Danish government has promoted subsidized short-term employment in the private sector in a proactive approach to facilitate contact between immigrants and employers. This has positively impacted future employment opportunities.[xvi]

Build community: Provide access to affordable, safe, and dignified housing for immigrants, as well as promoting the creation of more diverse and resilient neighborhoods, where both immigrants and locals can benefit from the cultural exchange of living in a shared community. Countries like Spain have worked toward the sensibilization of local communities and collaboration between municipal social services to better integrate immigrants into their neighborhoods through specific holistic programs.[xvii]

Promote opportunity: Eliminate barriers to education. Immigrants should have the opportunity to develop key skills and knowledge to be fully integrated into Icelandic society. This, in return, would benefit Icelandic higher education institutions through the creation of new knowledge. Higher education institutions in Sweden already offer bridging programs.[xviii]The German Academic Exchange Service offers specialized preparatory and language courses at higher education institutions in Germany.[xix]

The Icelandic government has a historic opportunity to demonstrate courage and make Iceland a society that reflects the core values of its democracy—one that provides inclusive integration for minority groups and treats immigrants not as a burden, but as agents of change. By reviewing and expanding its approach to integration policies in the employment, education, and housing sectors, the government of Iceland could prevent the marginalization of immigrant communities. This would then lead the way toward building a more equal society, where immigrants are treated as agents of positive change.


Photo by Evelyn Paris on Unsplash

[i] “Forced displacement passes 80 million by mid-2020 as COVID-19 tests refugee protection globally”, UNHCR, accessed March 10, 2021,

[ii] Vala Hafstað, “Immigrants Represent 15,2 Percent of the Population”, MBL/Iceland Monitor, September 24, 2020,

[iii] Guðný Björk Eydal, Guðbjörg Ottósdóttir, “Immigration and the Economic Crisis: The Case of Iceland”, (2009), 9-11.

[iv] “Giving a chance to all”, European Commission, accessed May 26, 2021,

[v] “Counselling, Studying and Courses”, Vinnumálastofnun, accessed May 26, 2021,

[vi] Kristín Ása Einarsdóttir, “Young unemployed migrants in Iceland” (MA diss., Háskóli Íslands, 2011), 63-75.

[vii] “Staða launafólks á Íslandi”, Varða Rannsóknastofnun vinnumarkaðarins, accessed February 24, 2021,

[viii] “Unauthorised residence and mass registration in residential housing-results of a working group”, ASÍ, accessed February 25, 2021,

[ix] “Welfare”, Municipality of Reykjavík, accessed May 31, 2021,

[x] “Greining á þjónustu við flóttafólk (Analysis of services for refugees)”, Alþjóðdamálastofnun HÍ, accessed February 25, 2021,

[xi] Dorte Verner, “Education and Its Poverty-Reducing Effects: The Case of Paraíba, Brazil”, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 3321, (June 2004),

[xii] Pimm Westra, Sigrún Erla Egilsdóttir, “The Access to Education for Refugees in Iceland”, (2019), 17-20.

[xiii] Gary P. Freeman, “Immigrant Incorporation in Western Democracies”, International Migration Review 38(3): 945-69 (2004),

[xiv] Timothy Heleniak, Hjördis Rut Sigurjonsdottir, “Once Homogenous, Tiny Iceland Opens Its Doors to Immigrants”, Migration Policy Institute (April 2018),

[xv] “Calls for Media on Cultural Diversity”, the Reykjavík Grapevine, March 15, 2021,

[xvi] Iván Martín, Albert Arcarons, Jutta Aumuller, Pieter Bevelander, Henrik Emilsson, Sona Kalantaryan, Alastair Maclver, Isilda Mara, Giulia Scalettaris, Alessandra Venturini, Hermine Vidovic, Inge van der Welle, Michael Windisch, Rebecca Wolffberg, Aslan Zorlu, “From Refugees to Workers. Mapping Labour-Market Integration Support Measures for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in EU Member States”, Literature Review and Country Case Studies by the Migration Policy Centre (2016),

[xvii] “Acceso a vivienda”, Valencia Acull, accessed May 31, 2021,

[xviii] “Higher Education’s Role in National Refugee Integration: Four Cases”, WENR, accessed May 26, 2021,

[xix] “Funding programme: Refugees in Degree Programmes (Integra)”, DAAD Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, accessed May 25, 2021,

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Jordi Cortes

Jordi Cortes is a project manager for refugees at the Icelandic Red Cross and a counselor for migrants at the Ministry of Social Affairs. His work spans from implementing social integration projects for refugees and migrants to providing psychosocial support for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and advocating for the rights of socially excluded communities.