Municipalities Insist State is Responsible for Asylum Seekers

Reykjavík City Hall ráðhús

It is up to state authorities to find a solution for the group of asylum seekers who have been stripped of housing and all social services in Iceland, municipal authorities insist. On July 1, new legislation took effect in Iceland that strips asylum seekers of housing and all social services 30 days after their applications have been rejected. Before the legislation took effect, Iceland’s Social Affairs Minister asserted that these individuals could seek services from municipalities, but municipal authorities now assert they are neither permitted nor required by law to provide services to the group.

Representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities met with Iceland’s Justice Minister and Social Affairs Minister last Friday to discuss the situation of asylum seekers who have been evicted from state housing due to the new legislation. Over 10 individuals from this group have been living on the streets, some for up to three weeks. Since the legislation took effect, 53 asylum seekers have been stripped of services and housing.

At last week’s meeting, municipal representatives underlined to state authorities that they believe it is the state’s responsibility to provide services to the group, and not that of municipalities. According to a notice from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, both state and municipal representatives “agreed that it is now urgent to find a solution to the people’s problem.”

A group of activists protested the government’s actions towards asylum seekers at the opening of Culture Night festival last Saturday.

Isavia Demands Felling of 2,900 Trees in Öskjuhlíð

Perlan Öskjuhlíð haust autumn

The operator of Reykjavík Domestic Airport, Isavia, has requested that 2,900 trees in Öskjuhlíð forest be felled immediately, or 1,200 of the forest’s tallest trees, to improve flight safety. Öskjuhlíð is one of the oldest forests in Reykjavík and is on the natural heritage register. If the request is approved, it would constitute felling about one-third of the forest or at least half of its oldest and tallest trees.

Isavia sent a request to the City of Reykjavík on July 6 demanding city authorities fell trees within the approach zone to the airport from the east in order to improve flight safety. Isavia suggests two possibilities: felling all the trees within two areas of the forest, a total of 2,900 trees; or felling around 1,200 of the forest’s tallest trees.

Reykjavíkurborg. What Öskjuhlíð would look like with the 2,900 trees felled (inside the red dotted line)
Reykjavíkurborg. What Öskjuhlíð would look like with the 2,900 trees felled (inside the red dotted line).

Protected green space enjoyed by many

The forest enjoys protection both within the neighbourhood zoning plan and as a city park in the city’s master zoning plan. Öskjuhlíð is also on the natural heritage register. Felling the trees is subject to the consultation and approval of various parties, including the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

The felling would come at a significant cost, at least ISK 500 million [$3.8 million; €3.5 million] to fell 2,900 trees. That price tag would not include the necessary landscaping of the area after the trees are cut down and removed. In 2017, around 140 trees in the forest were felled to increase flight safety. Isavia put the project out to tender and footed the bill.

Öskjuhlíð is a popular site for outdoor recreation as well as the location of Reykjavík landmark Perlan. Reykjavík University is nestled at the base of the forest and religious organisation Ásatrú has facilities in Öskjuhlíð as well, where they hold regular events. The greater Reykjavík area does not have many forests to boast of, the two main ones besides Öskjuhlíð being Heiðmörk and Elliðárdalur.

Airport location a long-standing debate

Research has shown that afforestation carried out in the greater Reykjavík area since the middle of the 20th century, including in Öskjuhlíð, has decreased the intensity of storms and reduced average windspeeds in and around the city. Instead of felling trees, some have argued that the landing route to the domestic airport from the east could be made safer by extending the runway further west. That would require extending the existing runway out over the ocean, however.

The location of Reykjavík Domestic Airport has been a hot-button issue almost as long as the airport has been around. An agreement has now been made to move it from its current location in Vatnsmýri and build a residential development in its place – but a new location for the airport is yet to be determined and its relocation remains a source of tension between the sitting government and the City of Reykjavík.

Fire in Hafnarfjörður Industrial Building Used for Housing

Slökkvilið höfuðborgarsvæðisins bs / Facebook. Fire in Hafnarfjörður, August 20, 2023

Seventeen people were registered as residents of an industrial building in Hafnarfjörður in the Reykjavík capital area that was heavily damaged when a fire broke out yesterday. The building was not approved for housing. A couple and a family of four were sleeping inside the building when the fire broke out but were woken up by good samaritans who saw the rising smoke and ran over to help. No injuries or fatalities have been reported.

The fire broke out at Hvaleyrarbraut 22 around noon yesterday, and firefighters did not manage to quell the flames entirely until around 4:00 AM this morning. Duty Officer Þorsteinn Gunnarsson of the Greater Reykjavík Fire and Rescue Service said the building was heavily damaged and a part of it had been torn down in order to put out the fire.

Saved a family of four from the flames

Guðrún Gerður Guðbjörnsdóttir called emergency number 112 immediately when she spotted the fire. When she realised it was in the building where her daughter lived, she made her way in. “I ran up the stairs, jumped onto the roof and ran to the window where my daughter lives,” Guðrún told RÚV reporters. She managed to open the window and wake up her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. There was already a lot of smoke in the apartment when she reached them.

Another civilian working near the building told reporters that he had run over when the fire broke out and woken up a family of four that was fast asleep inside the building. The family managed to escape to safety. The building was also used as storage and firefighters did their best to save valuables that were stored on the lower floor of the building, though accessing the storage rooms proved difficult.

Likely more than 17 living in the building

Birgir Finsson, Acting Fire Chief of Greater Reykjavík, says 17 people were registered as living in the building, which was not approved as residential housing. He stated that it was likely, however, that even more had been living there. “Residing in commercial [or industrial] buildings is still not permitted, though there is a lot of it in the capital area,” Birgir stated.

Following a fatal house fire in June 2020, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that between 5,000 and 7,000 people were living in properties classified as commercial or industrial buildings in Iceland in 2021. The Minister of Infrastructure drafted an amendment to fire safety regulations last month in efforts to ensure more people have their actual residence registered correctly and make it easier for authorities to enter housing where fire prevention measures may be inadequate.