Migrant Lives

In Iceland, The Face Of Immigration Is Distinctly Polish

Although their numbers have been halved by the recent economic meltdown, Poles - who now number an estimated 10,000 - continue to be Iceland's largest ethnic minority.

A construction site in Akranes, Iceland
A construction site in Akranes, Iceland
Henryk M. Broder

"Na zdrowje," says Michal, lifting his beer glass high. "Na zdrowje," answers his friend Marek. The two men are on their second beer, but in a bit of a hurry since their wives are waiting for them at home with dinner. They will order their third drink soon.


"What else are we supposed to do here?" asks Michal rhetorically. In the small town of Akranes, just an hour's drive north of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, there are really just two ways to spend an evening: either at home or at the "Mömmueldhus" (Mother's Kitchen) restaurant at 8 Kirkjubraut Street.

The restaurant is run by Gabriela and her husband Dariusz, who, like Michal and Marek, are not Icelanders, but Polish. They belong to Iceland's 9,496-strong community of ethnic Poles. Although this is an official count (made earlier this year), it is hard to be sure of its accuracy, since Poles require neither work nor residence permits to live in Iceland. In order to stay here, Polish citizens just need to obtain a valid kennitala, the Icelandic version of a social security number.

Before the financial crisis started in October 2008, there were more than 20,000 Poles in Iceland. And although their numbers have declined significantly over the past three years, Poles remain the largest minority on the island.

Michal was born in 1981 in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, and came to Iceland in 2007. He had previously worked in a factory, and had "always dreamed of experiencing Iceland." Within three weeks of his arrival in Akranes, Michal had already found a job as a welder in a machine factory. But in 2009, the factory went bankrupt. Among those laid off were at least a dozen Poles, Michal included.

Michal used this time to take classes in business and Icelandic. Since March, he has been working in an aluminum factory in Walfjord. His wife, whom he met in Poland, works in a canning factory in Akranes. Six months ago, Michal, along with five (unemployed) friends, created a website for Poles living in Iceland: www.informacje.is.

The website is well-designed and offers a lot of information on current events, job offers and discount shopping. According to Michal, the website also tries to foster "a sense of togetherness" among Poles living in Iceland. He hopes that the site, which receives 9,000 visitors each day, will break even within the next two years.

Marek was born in 1969 in Tomaszow, Poland, and he came to Iceland out of love for a Polish woman he met in 2005 on the Internet. He divorced his wife, sold everything, and bought a one-way ticket to Reykjavik to be with her.

Their fling did not last long, but Marek found a job as a welder in the aluminum factory and met another woman, Patricia. A former flute student at the Music Academy in Krakow, she did not hesitate one moment when she was offered a teaching job at an orchestral school in Akranes.

"In Poland, I had to work 60 hours or more a week just to make ends meet. Here, I work 20," Patricia explains. She works less, earns more, and has time to care for her family: Marek, her second husband; Peter, a son from her first marriage; and Stefan, who was born two years ago. They have a spacious condominium, a Japanese family car, and a satellite dish that gives them access to over 300 TV channels, including Polish ones in case they get homesick. But Patricia and Marek have no intention of leaving Iceland.

Only their 17-year-old son Peter, who is fluent in Icelandic and plays drums in a rock band called "Made In The Time Of Crisis," says he will return to Poland after his graduation. He plans to enroll in a Polish police academy. "I want to be a private detective," he explains, adding that he finds Iceland, especially the small town of Akranes, to be "simply boring."

No crime, no corruption

His parents don't necessarily disagree, but they also see a lot of advantages to living in Iceland. "It's a safe country. There is no crime, no corruption. You don't have to worry that you'll go broke in the middle of the month." Their living room window overlooks the sea, and during the dark season, they can see the northern lights from the garden.

Gabriela, the owner of the Mömmueldhus restaurant, has no time for such frivolous pleasures. She works from early morning until late in the evening, and has done so all her working life. Born in 1975 in Gdynia in Poland, she married at 18 and had three children soon afterwards. She has worked as a telegraph operator, a cook, and a baker. Her husband, Dariusz, has been both a silversmith and a driver for an emergency medical service.

In the summer of 2005, he heard that workers were needed to build a new dam in Iceland. Two weeks later, he was working on a construction site in Karahnjukar, in the eastern part of the island. His family followed him the next spring, when he was working in a factory in Borgarnes, 30 km north of Akranes. The children were enrolled in local schools; all three of them now speak fluent Icelandic.

Gabriela found a job in a hotel in Borgarnes, but she explains that she had always wanted to run her own establishment. Last February, she took out all her savings and bought Mömmueldhus. She renovated it, added a few Polish dishes to the menu, and now is looking forward to a tourist-filled summer.

"We live like Poles, but with an Icelandic twist," she says. Every weekend, the restaurant organizes a disco or karaoke evening. Once a month, a priest comes from Reykjavik to hold a Catholic mass.

Iceland's 10,000 Poles live in a true "parallel society," only they don't know it. They speak Polish, marry each other, watch Polish TV, and cling to their own culture. One can hear and see them everywhere: on the bus, on the street, in the supermarket, and in cafés. The fact that they are not as visible as one might expect is only partly explained by the extraordinary tolerance of the native Icelanders.

The reason why Poles blend in so well into their new country is that they understand the principle of Icelandic society: work. People who do not work here are severely frowned upon. Until recently, there was virtually no unemployment on the island. The current figure of 8% is largely due to the financial crisis, and it is considered an astronomical number for the country. Economic difficulties have forced many Polish people to go back to Europe, but if the Icelandic economy recovers in the coming years, more Poles will certainly decide to come back.

In the town of Breidholt, on the outskirts of Reykjavik, a supermarket offers Polish specialties. Piotr, the owner, a former bricklayer from Kashubia, came to Iceland 10 years ago at the age of 20 to work in construction. For the past six years, he has been providing the Polish community in and around Reykjavik with food "Made in Poland." He also hosts an annual "Polish Day" and organizes a Polish "Saturday School," attended by 220 children aged six to 16.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Atli Haroarson

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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