Reports of Sexual Violence Decreased by 15% in Iceland

police station Hlemmur

The number of reported incidents of sexual violence in Iceland has decreased significantly, according to a newly-published report from the National Police Commissioner’s Office. In 2023, a total of 521 offences were reported to police, a decrease of 15% compared to the average over the last three years. About 45% of victims were children.

Sexual offences against children decrease

There have not been so few reports of sexual offences to police in Iceland since 2017. In 2018, 570 sexual offences were reported, an increase of 18% from the previous year. Over 600 offences were reported in 2019, 2021, and 2022. The number of reports of rape and sexual violence against children decreased significantly last year, according to the report, while reports of rape decreased by 13% compared to the average over the previous three years.

While reports of child abuse increased by 21% compared to the three-year average, reports of sexual offences against children decreased by 20%.

Only 10.3% of victims report to police

In the 2019-2023 Law Enforcement Plan, Icelandic Police have made it a goal to decrease the rate of sexual violence while increasing the rate of reporting. In a victim survey conducted in 2023 which asked about respondents’ experiences from the year 2022, 1.9% stated they had been sexually assaulted and only 10.3% of those victims had reported the incidents to police.

Survivors call for shorter processing times and harsher sentences

Those who do report sexual abuse in Iceland have complained of long processing times: sexual assault cases take around two years to go through the justice system in Iceland. A new organised interest group for sexual abuse survivors was established in Iceland last year with the aim of improving survivors’ legal standing. The group has called for shortening case processing times for sexual offences as well as less lenient sentencing for perpetrators.

Help and support through 112

Sexual violence and abuse in Iceland can always be reported via the emergency phone line 112 or on the 112 webchat. The 112 website has extensive information on how to recognise abuse and ways to get help and support in Iceland. Support is available to all, regardless of immigration or legal status in Iceland.

Deportation of Palestinian Children Suspended

Two Palestinian children who were set to be deported from Iceland will have their applications for international protection reviewed, RÚV reports. Last week, the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board overturned the Directorate of Immigration’s decision to deport the two cousins, Yazan (14) and Sameer (12), who arrived in Iceland last April with their 30-year-old uncle. Their uncle is, however, set to be deported from Iceland.

A difficult wait

Hanna Símónardóttir, Yazan’s foster parent in Iceland, says the decision to review the boys’ applications is a big relief. “But it has only cast a shadow over the fact that their uncle, who accompanied them, and was their only true close relative who is definitely alive, was deported at the same time.” She says waiting for the ruling has been difficult and urges the Icelandic government to stop the deportation of Palestinian applicants and to carry out family reunifications that have already been approved.

Families in Gaza

The boys’ families are in Gaza, and while they wait for a decision on their asylum cases, they are not able to apply for family reunification visas for their family members, Hanna stated. “The boys are incredibly worried about their families,” she stated. “They haven’t heard from them in five days, and every day they don’t hear from them, those worries get bigger. And we all know that the people of Gaza are in concentration camps and every hour can make a difference, to try to help these people get out alive.”

Uncle to be deported in 30 days

The boys’ uncle Ahmed was informed by the Directorate of Immigration yesterday that he would be deported in 30 days and has been stripped of housing and services, including legal support. Hanna calls on the Icelandic authorities to speed up the processing of the boys’ applications, to stop the deportation of Palestinian applicants in Iceland, and to act on family reunification visas that have already been approved for family members in Gaza.

Protest camp outside Parliament

Other Palestinians in Iceland and their supporters have been protesting outside Parliament since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out the family reunifications for which they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Minister Reviews Children’s Pending Deportation

Deporting children is “not something that we want to stand for as a society,” Iceland’s Minister of Children’s Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason stated when asked about the case of two Palestinian children who are set to be deported from Iceland. The Directorate of Immigration plans to deport the two boys to Greece, but the Minister has asked to receive more information about their cases.

Cousins Samir (12) and Yazan (14), came to Iceland in April after a dangerous voyage and six months in a refugee camp in Greece. They were sent from Palestine around one year ago by their families along with their 30-year-old uncle in hopes of a better life. Upon arriving in Iceland, they were both placed with foster families, as authorities believed there were grounds to investigate whether they were victims of human trafficking, which turned out to not be the case.

The boys have been living with two separate, but related, Icelandic families and also have relatives here in the country who received protection several years ago and have adapted to life in Iceland. The boys’ immediate families live in Gaza, where they are now under constant threat due to Israel’s ongoing attacks.

Directorate of Immigration to deport boys

A little over a month ago, Sameer and Yazan received the news that Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration was not going to take their cases into substantive consideration as the boys had already received international protection in Greece. They were ordered to leave the country along with their uncle, who is their registered guardian. The ruling has been appealed.

Reports from Amnesty International and statements from the Icelandic Red Cross have condemned the living conditions faced by refugees in Greece. Refugees in the country have difficulty accessing healthcare and housing and face ill-treatment from law enforcement officials even in cases where they have been granted international protection.

Family’s neighbourhood in Gaza destroyed

The Gaza neighbourhood where the cousins’ families live was destroyed by air strikes around one week ago, and two days passed before they received news that their parents and siblings were alive. The two boys have expressed their desire to stay in Iceland. “Icelanders cannot stop this war, but what we can do for people is to ease their worries about being deported tomorrow or the next day, or next week. That they don’t also have to deal with that,” Yazan’s foster parent Hanna Símonardóttir told RÚV.

Minister of Children’s Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason stated that his ministry had requested information on the case, but did not want to comment further on it until he had reviewed that information. Nearly 10,000 petitioners are calling on Icelandic authorities to grant the boys, and all Palestinians in Iceland, protection.

A Challenge to Provide Equal Access to Education for Immigrants

school children

There are 50 refugee children in Iceland that are not attending school as they are still waiting to receive school placements, including 20 children who have completed the required preparatory process. Minister of Education and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason said the process to place refugee children in schools has gone well overall considering the level of strain on the system. He added that Icelandic society must do more to ensure all children of foreign origin have equal access to education and job opportunities as native Icelanders.

Housing impacts schooling for refugees

Most of the refugee children who have yet to be placed in schools in Iceland have been waiting since November of last year. “I think that everyone is doing their best to make it happen as fast as possible, but it’s very clear there’s been a lot of strain on our system,” Ásmundur Daði stated.

The Minister explained the process in an interview on Rás 2 this morning. “Just to go over it briefly, when a family comes here, it’s the Directorate of Labour that sees to these issues and sends a request to schools, the family has to undergo a medical examination which takes some time, then they will be placed in temporary housing before they receive permanent housing […] that process takes a certain amount of time, and there’s been a lot of strain on the municipalities where this temporary housing is. And it’s been a challenge to get families into permanent housing.”

While it would be ideal to place children in school sooner following their arrival, Ásmundur Einar stated that there have been cases where refugee children have moved schools twice within six weeks due to changes from temporary to permanent housing, for example. Such moves are not ideal either, he pointed out.

Huge influx of children of foreign origin requires systemic changes

Ásmundur Einar stated it was not only refugee children causing strain on the educational system, but the dramatic increase of children of foreign origin in general. Between 1996 and 2022, the number of children of foreign origin in the school system increased 23 times over, to make up 11% of students today. The Minister says this proportion will only increase and the government is working on ways to improve the reception of children of foreign origin into the school system.

Asked about the possibility of setting up special schools for refugee children waiting for permanent placements, Ásmundur Einar stated such a move has been considered. “But it would need to be a holistic decision, not just for children from Ukraine and Venezuela or Syria, but for children of foreign origin. Do we want them to go to a special program to start with where they’re just learning Icelandic for a few months, participating maybe in social activities as well, but not have only children from Ukraine doing that, because we want them to go into the general school system and participate in society here.”

Immigrants and their children don’t have the same opportunities

The Minister pointed out that the representation of immigrants within Icelandic institutions is not proportional to their numbers within Icelandic society, which is over 15%. “The challenge is how do we help these children to reach the same level of success as the rest of us in Icelandic society. There should be 15 MPs of foreign origin, there should be 2-3 ministers of foreign origin. These people are not getting the same opportunities as the rest of us.”

Within the school system, children of foreign origin reportedly achieve lower grades than native Icelandic students, are more likely to drop out and less likely to attend higher education. Children of foreign origin also show less participation in sports and recreational activities. “This is a cause for concern in the long term. We need to think as a society, what can we do differently?”

For those who argue that the cost of educating children or teaching them Icelandic is high, the Minister points out that immigrants coming into the system and going straight to the labour market are individuals the country has not had to invest in, in terms of their education.

Government to Establish Independent Human Rights Office

The Icelandic government hopes to soon establish an independent Human Rights Agency, a watchdog organization that will have the broad mandate of monitoring, promoting, and protecting human rights in Iceland, RÚV reports. It will also develop a national plan on human rights issues, which will be used as the basis for future policymaking. This was announced in the newly published draft of the so-called Green Book on Human Rights.

Once the purview of the Ministry of Justice, human rights issues were transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister last year. It was then that Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir decided that a Green Book on human rights should be prepared. As it notes in its introduction, the Green Book “deals with the status and development of human rights in Iceland and gives an overview of key issues ahead and the best solutions for […] resolving them.” An independent agency was one such proffered solution.

New agency will operate alongside existing Human Rights Centre

The new agency will be separate from the existing Icelandic Human Rights Centre, which was founded in 1995, receives ISK 41.1 million [$289,000; €266,427] in government funding each year, and includes sixteen different member organizations, each of which “deals with human rights in one way or another.” These members include Samtökin ’78, the national LGBTQIA+ organization of Iceland, the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, Red Cross Iceland, the Icelandic chapters of Amnesty International and Save the Children, among others.

The Centre’s goal is to “work towards the advancement of human rights by collecting information on domestic human rights issues, providing information to the public, supporting research and education, and promoting discussion and raising awareness about human rights in Iceland,” and in this way, it already “operates to a large extent like a national human rights office.” However, as it does not have a legal basis, the office doesn’t meet the Paris-aligned benchmarks, thereby necessitating the establishment of a new agency. The existing Human Rights Centre will continue its work alongside the new agency.

Building on solid ground

As part of the Green Book drafting process, the government conducted a survey in which it asked Icelanders if they believe that human rights are effectively monitored in Iceland. Just under half of respondents, or 45.2%, said that current human rights’ oversight in Iceland is average, while 26.1% said that the current oversight is handled “pretty well,” 19% responded “pretty poorly.” Four percent of respondents said current oversight is handled “very well,” 4.6% said “very poorly,” and 1% responded “not at all.”

“We’re building on really good and solid ground,” said Katrín, remarking on the results of the survey. “In recent years, which I want to include in this, a lot has been done, for instance, in regards to the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. We’ve also made extensive legislative changes to ensure equal treatment and prevent discrimination. So there’s been a lot going on, but what we’ve been trying to do is map the overall situation, which hadn’t been done before.”

Katrín also said that she believed the establishment of an independent human rights agency was “definitely a prerequisite if we’re ever going to legislate the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been in the works for a long time. So we look at this work as a solid foundation for everything that is to come.”

Asked when Icelanders could expect the new Human Rights Office to start its work, Katrín said that she would probably present a bill about it in parliament’s upcoming winter session. “So I hope that it would be able to get started shortly after, probably in 2024.”

Justice Minister Says System is Not at Fault for Egyptian Family’s Deportation

Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir says the case of an Egyptian family that is to be deported tomorrow is not evidence of systemic issues when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers in Iceland. The family of six has lived in Iceland for over two years and applied for political asylum. The Judicial Affairs and Education Committee is meeting to discuss the family’s case today.

Áslaug Arna says she had investigated why the family had stayed in Iceland so long without a resolution to their case. “My investigation revealed that it is not the system’s fault in this individual case,” she stated in a radio interview this morning. Asked whether she could change policy and make the decision to allow the family to stay, Áslaug responded: “No, the Minister does not make such decisions and it would be necessary to change regulations and laws. No specific issues in the system have been identified that need to be changed in order for this family to fall within it.”

The time period the family has lived in Iceland is particularly significant: last year, new regulations issued by the Ministry of Justice mandated that visas be granted on humanitarian grounds any time court proceedings regarding asylum applications dragged on for longer than 16 months. In the case of this particular family, for reasons that were not explained by the Minister, the time that they waited to have their initial application reviewed prior to the appeal is not being figured into the overall wait time. A lawyer for the Red Cross has since called this selective time-keeping “unacceptable” and said that the current law needs to be changed.

Read More: Family of Six to Be Deported

Over 12,000 Have Signed Petition in Support of Family

The decision to deport the family has elicited harsh criticism, particularly due to the four children – Rewida, Abdalla, Hamza, and Mustafa – who have adapted to life in the country and learned Icelandic. Over 12,500 have signed a petition urging the government to let the family stay. Magnús Davíð Norðdahl, the family’s lawyer, and Salvör Nordal, the Ombudsman for Children, have both criticised the decision, particularly as it violates the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iceland is party.

The two parents, Doaa and Ibrahim, told reporters they feared being arrested upon arrival to Egypt due to their previous activities in support of the political opposition in the country. They are concerned their children would be taken from them and left to fend for themselves. “I am speaking to you for my children,” Doaa told reporters. “They will be in the street after that. Please, please, please don’t let me alone.”

The family is set to be deported tomorrow.