The Icelandic government sent three representatives to Cairo, Egypt last week to meet with local authorities and assess the situation regarding Icelandic visa-holders who remain trapped in neighbouring Gaza. Iceland’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have both said that extracting Palestinians who hold Icelandic visas from Gaza is “complicated.” Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilians working on a volunteer basis in Cairo have already gotten two families out of Gaza across the Rafah border and continue their efforts.
Around 120 Palestinians currently in Gaza, mostly children, hold Icelandic residency permits. The Icelandic government issued these permits on the basis of family reunification but has, until last week, not taken action to help the children, women, and men leave Gaza and travel to Iceland. Around one week ago, three Icelandic civilians decided to take matters into their own hands, and travelled to Cairo, from where they have helped two families out of Gaza across the Rafah border.
Visas already approved
Sending foreign service representatives to Cairo is a “positive and important step,” stated Left-Green Movement MP Bjarni Jónsson, who is also the first vice-chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. “We have already approved inviting these people to Iceland,” He added. “Already approved these family reunifications. The next thing is to keep the promise we’ve given these people.”
The volunteers in Cairo have pointed out that the Icelandic state does not have to pay to transport Palestinian refugees from Egypt as the United Nations covers the cost of their trip.
Public criticism mounts
The public in Iceland has been critical of the government’s perceived reluctance to carry out the family reunifications. Criticism mounted when it came to light that other Nordic countries had actively retrieved people from Gaza based on family reunification visas, contrary to what Iceland’s Prime Minister and Justice Minister had stated. Regular protests have been held in Reykjavík calling on the government to rescue the Icelandic visa-holders from Gaza.
Aid organisations wait for government action
Sema Erla Serdar, director of Icelandic refugee aid organisation Solaris, recently joined the Icelandic civilians in Cairo who are working to get Palestinians with Icelandic visas across the border. She told RÚV that she hopes the Icelandic government’s decision to send out representatives means it will act on the family reunifications soon. “But you can’t just talk forever, you have to let your actions speak.”
Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, the director of the Association Iceland-Palestine, agreed that the outcome of the representatives’ trip is yet to be seen. He stated, however, that it was clear the civilian efforts in Cairo had put pressure on the Icelandic government to act on the family reunifications.
“All of the answers we have received so far from the authorities have always been that it would be so complicated and impossible and that they had no obligation to do it. So it is clear that these brave women and their trip to Egypt is what finally makes the Ministry for Foreign Affairs take action,” Hjálmtýr stated.