Why does migration to Iceland matter?

Laura Riuttala
“The Icelandic people need foreigners to survive, literally.“

Iceland is rapidly growing from a relatively small, far away island to a recognized actor among the Nordic Countries. Many migrants come to Iceland to explore opportunities, to embark on a new path in life, to work, to study, to seek asylum or as quota refugees. Visitors are welcomed, as a valuable source of tourism, work force and an addition to the gene pool.

In a recently published (8.2.2018) study by the Nordic Council of Ministers Iceland and the other Nordic countries were compared with each other in different themes, such as demography, health, labour force, and economy. These countries together comprise the 12th largest economy in the world and have many things in common, but they also vary greatly.

Even though Iceland was covered throughout the study in all the themes, more emphasis was put on its larger neighbours – Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Iceland is often ignored or forgotten in the media or academia when discussing migration in a Nordic or European context. Since it is a small nation in its population and land size, its significance has been seen little.

But Iceland is more than a popular tourist destination for honeymooners and adventure seekers. Migration is an integral part of Iceland.

Growth of people and land

Iceland has always welcomed foreigners, albeit in small numbers. The Polish are the biggest migrant group and many of them arrived several years ago. The tourism industry attracts many with its high wages.

There are more restaurants and hotels being built in Reykjavík than apartments, because the number of tourists annually exceeds the size of the population multiple times over. It is estimated that during the next 50 years Iceland’s population will grow from 338,000 to 452,000 persons mainly due to migration. This means that the growth will be faster than in any other Nordic country.

Iceland has ample space – its population density is one of the smallest in the world and new landmass keeps forming as it is situated at a point where two tectonic plates split.

In 2015 an unprecedented number of foreigners fleeing from war-torn areas arrived in Iceland, as well as in the other Nordic countries.  After that record year the number of asylum applications have decreased throughout the Nordics. Iceland is the only one with an increase in the following years of 2016 and 2017 (see chart).

The most well-known genes in the world

Iceland is one of the most homogeneous and researched nations in the world, with over 1,200 years of collected genealogy. Because of such an extensive record-keeping, every Icelander can be traced to having the same genomes with one another, meaning they share parts of their DNA.

The kinship between people can be checked from the Book of Icelanders. Now in the days of mobile technology there is even an app developed to check whether or not the person one is dating is too close of a kinship.

Besides gathering information about people’s kinship details, researchers have discovered key risk factors for dozens of common diseases indeed due in part to Iceland’s small, homogeneous gene pool. Since it is such a small country with a history of very little outside influence, it needs genes from outsiders, or else the genetic deficiencies take over.

The Icelandic people need foreigners to survive, literally.

IOM - Iceland relations

  • Iceland joined IOM as a member state in 2013.

  • IOM Finland provides Pre-Departure Orientation training for quota refugees selected for resettlement and Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration services to eligible migrants from Iceland to their countries of origin.

  • IOM Finland is also in charge of travel arrangements for persons resettling to Iceland under a family reunification scheme.

The author works for the UN Migration Agency IOM’s country office in Finland with Iceland’s Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration Programme.

The views expressed by the authors in the IOM Finland blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the International Organization for Migration.
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