Palestinians No Longer Priority for Family Reunification

Palestine protest February 5 2024

On Monday, the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration decided that Palestinians will no longer be given priority in the application system for family reunifications. This decision was made in consultation with the Ministry of Justice.

Prioritisation was a "temporary measure"

Since mid-October, the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration has prioritised Palestinian citizens’ applications for family reunification. The decision was made after the Israeli army started attacks on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Applications for family reunification from citizens of other origins were consequently pushed back in the queue.

Now, the Minister for Justice, Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, says that the priority of Palestinian applications was always meant to be a temporary measure and that the increase in waiting time for other applicants is no longer justifiable. 

Just last week72 Palestinians arrived in Iceland after representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assisted Icelandic residence permit holders in Gaza to leave with the approval of Egyptian and Israeli officials. These people were then escorted from the border town of Rafah into Egypt, from where they travelled to Iceland.

Many Palestinian applications still pending

When the decision was made, about 150 applications for family reunification from Palestinian citizens were pending in the Directorate of Immigration, half of which were older than six months. Since October, 160 residence permits based on family reunification have been granted for Palestinian refugees. 

Currently, 20 applications from Palestinian citizens are still being processed, while many more applications from Palestinians do not fall under the right to family reunification. Apart from this, about 320 citizens of other countries are waiting for the processing of their family reunification grants, mainly from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile the protection of mass migration of Ukrainians was extended until February 2025. Minister for Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir says that Iceland made the decision to align with other European countries and the neighbouring Nordic countries. 

Who is eligible for a residence permit based on family reunification?

Residence permits based on family reunification can be granted to the closest relatives of a person residing in Iceland, who also has the right to family reunification

According to the Directorate of Immigration, closest relatives are spouses, cohabiting partners, children under the age of 18, and parents aged 67 and over. 

The right to family reunification is reserved for Icelandic citizens, Nordic citizens and foreign citizens with permanent residence permits. Holders of temporary residence permits obtain the right under certain circumstances, for instance, if they are under international protection, students or specialised workers.

Icelandic Lawyer Urges Action on Gaza Visa Holders

Rafah_Border_Crossing

The Icelandic government is working too slowly to rescue Icelandic visa holders from Gaza, says a lawyer representing one Palestinian family waiting to be reunited. She has submitted a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman due to the government’s lack of action in their case. The lawyer says Iceland’s government is responsible for the individuals on the basis of humanitarian law.

Wife and children stuck in Gaza

Jóna Þórey Pétursdóttir is a lawyer representing a Palestinian family who has been granted family reunification visas by Icelandic authorities. The father has been in Iceland since February 2023, but his wife and children are still in Gaza, despite having been granted a family reunification visa by Icelandic authorities last December.

“The issue is about the speed of the case and that the Icelandic government is responsible, both on the basis of humanitarian law and human rights obligations. The interest are, of course, the right to life, prohibition of inhumane treatment, and their right to family life,” she told RÚV.

Children in immediate danger

The International Court of Justice in the Hague has confirmed that there is a possibility a genocide is occurring in Gaza. As Iceland is a party to the Geneva Convention, the Icelandic government is obliged to prevent genocide and complicity in genocide.        “There are three children there and they are in immediate danger of suffering and death,” Jóna stated.

Jóna says her complaint is now being processed by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. She adds that it was submitted in order to maintain pressure on authorities and “get answers about what is really being done and to actually ensure that adequate measures are taken.”

Volunteers have helped 24 out of Gaza

Around 100 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them children, hold Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. While other Nordic countries have assisted visa-holders across the Rafah border, Iceland’s government has yet to do so. Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilians has already gotten 24 Icelandic visa holders out of Gaza across the Rafah border and continue their efforts. In early February, Icelandic authorities sent three representatives to Cairo to look into the cases, but their efforts have yet to bring any visa-holders across the border.

Palestinian Family Arrives in Iceland

Palestine protest February 5 2024

A mother and three daughters from Gaza have at last landed in Iceland, Vísir reports, having arrived last Friday. They were soon after reunited with the husband and father of this family, who has lived in Iceland for two years now.

The mother and her children are amongst the Palestinians that Icelandic volunteers currently in Egypt are trying to get out of Gaza via the Palestinian border town of Rafah. All four of them already had Icelandic residence permits.

As has been reported, there are just over 100 Palestinians in Gaza who have Icelandic residence permits and have been trying to get out of the region. While government officials either said they had no obligation to help them, or called the process “complicated”, some Icelandic civilians have taken matters into their own hands and opted to travel to Egypt themselves to help these families cross the border into Egypt.

Shortly thereafter, official from Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs traveled to Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials on how to rescue the remaining Icelandic residence permit holders in Gaza.

This marks the second family rescued by volunteers who have arrived in Iceland so far. Earlier this month, a mother and her three sons were assisted in getting out of Gaza and arrived in Iceland shortly thereafter.

What progress Icelandic government officials are making in Egypt still remains to be seen, but in the meantime, volunteer efforts will likely continue.

Nordic Countries Doing More to Help Gazans than Icelandic Ministers Said

Protestors outside US Embassy in Reykjavík

Contrary to what both Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir have previously stated on the subject, other Nordic countries have in fact assisted non-citizens in leaving Gaza and reuniting with their families. This applied to both people in Gaza who were Nordic citizens as well as Gazans with residence permits for those countries. Whether Iceland will change its current policy in light of this is not yet clear.

Family reunification

About 100 Palestinians in Gaza already have Icelandic residence permits, based on Iceland’s law on family reunification. Those with legal residence in Iceland are amongst those who have the right to also apply for their closest relations to be granted the same.

Palestinians in Iceland have been imploring the Icelandic government since the conflict in Gaza began again to help retrieve their family members from Gaza. RÚV reports that some 24 organisations in Iceland have encouraged the government to do the same.

What the ministers said

Speaking to MBL on December 29th, Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir said that as far as she knew, no Nordic countries were implementing family reunification. She elaborated on this on January 4th, saying her wording had been inexact; that she had been referring to Nordic authorities actively retrieving people from Gaza based on family reunification. The Icelandic government has no obligation to do so, she contended, and Iceland helping people leave Gaza would be to do something no other Nordic country was doing.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said on RÚV’s roundtable discussion show Kastljósið that other Nordic countries were only helping their own citizens leave Gaza. On the same show, on January 22nd, she said that the Directorate of Immigration was prioritising family reunification applications from Gaza, and whether or not to help people leave Gaza had been examined. She also said that her understanding was that other Nordic countries had only retrieved either their own citizens, or those who had gotten residence permits before October 7th and had lived in their respective Nordic country before, but that she could not confirm this information.

The reality

RÚV reached out to the foreign ministries of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, to ask what their actual policies were on people with Nordic residence permits in Gaza.

Sweden has assisted 550 people in leaving Gaza, both citizens and residence permit holders alike, according to their foreign ministry. The Foreign Ministry of Norway said that they have assisted 270 people in leaving Gaza, including 38 who were either residence permit holders or were the parents of Norwegian children. Finland does not make a distinction between Finnish citizens and residence permit holders, their foreign ministry said. In addition, close family members will receive help if they are fleeing with a citizen or residence permit holder. Where Denmark is concerned, their foreign ministry said that they have, in exceptional cases, assisted close family members of children with Danish citizenship when fleeing Gaza, if they are accompanied by their Danish children.

A change in policy for Iceland?

Following up on this report, Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir was then asked by RÚV if Iceland was going to begin helping residence permit holders for Iceland leave Gaza. She responded as before; that Iceland is not obliged to help people flee Gaza, adding that Iceland has more generous conditions for family reunification than other Nordic countries.

When asked by the reporter, “Why are these applications approved if they are not intended to help people?,” the Justice Minister replied, “This is the procedure that has always been in place […] when people apply for family reunification, they themselves have to come to this country and bear the costs of it.”

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.

Pitch Tents Outside Parliament in Protest

No Borders Iceland / Facebook. Palestinian protesters camp outside Iceland's parliament

Local activists slept in tents in front of the Icelandic Parliament on Saturday night in solidarity with Palestinian protesters who have camped there since December 27. They criticise Icelandic authorities for not doing more to bring residents of Gaza who already hold Icelandic visas to the country.

“We won’t stop or back down until our demands are met,” Askur Hrafn Hannesson, one of the Icelandic activists who slept outside Parliament this weekend told RÚV. He says over 40 people joined the group of Palestinians who have been camping outside Alþingi for nearly two weeks.

Asking to be reunited with family members in Gaza

Most of the Palestinian protesters have family members who have been granted residence visas in Iceland on the basis of family reunification but are still stuck in Gaza. The group is calling on Icelandic authorities to do more to retrieve their family members from the strip, where over 30,000 people have been killed by Israeli attacks since October 7 and conditions are life-threatening.

While Icelandic authorities say the Rafah border crossing between Palestine and Egypt is closed, a statement from the group of protestors points out that countries such as the UK, Canada, Germany, Norway, and Sweden received refugees from Gaza in December.

Three demands to Icelandic authorities

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.

Since October 7, protests and solidarity actions in support of Palestine have been held in Iceland regularly, with the next scheduled for tomorrow at 9:00 AM outside the cabinet meeting at Tjarnargata 32.

Stuck in Afghanistan Despite Receiving Protection in Iceland

Utanríkisráðuneytið

Afghans residing in Iceland have submitted 40 applications for protection on behalf of their family members in Afghanistan since June, RÚV reports. Some of the applications have been approved, but it is unclear when the individuals will arrive in Iceland. Conditions have worsened since the country was taken over by Taliban forces in August, and the United Nations reports that half of the country’s population now faces acute hunger.

The UN Refugee Agency recently urged the Nordic countries to speed up and simplify the application process for Afghan refugees that have received protection and are applying to bring family members to their country of residence. The Icelandic government’s Refugee Committee submitted suggestions in August including, among other things, prioritising these applications and increasing funding to the Directorate of Immigration in order to speed up procedure.

Read More: Iceland Must Shoulder Responsibility for Afghanistan

The Ministry of Justice could not answer RÚV’s question on when the approved applicants would arrive in Iceland. The Ministry stated it was working to bring the individuals to the country, but face challenges as Afghanistan’s borders are closed and international organisations are no longer operating within the country.