Volunteer Efforts Prompt Icelandic Government Action on Gaza Visas

Palestine protest February 5 2024

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.

New National Sporting Arena to be Built in Laugardalur

The Icelandic government and City of Reykjavík have agreed to build a new, national sporting arena in Laugardalur. The arena will fulfill the requirements for international competition in indoor sports and greatly improve the available facilities for schools and sports associations in Laugardalur. Construction is expected to be completed by 2025.

This was announced in a joint press release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Education and Children, and the City of Reykjavík.

The state and the City of Reykjavík have agreed to guarantee funding for the arena’s initial costs in their long-term budgets. A full cost estimate will be available after the final design and a feasibility study are both completed. The division of the total project cost will depend on the utilization of the arena and the needs of each party—the state with an eye to the requirements for international competitions that national sports teams compete in, and the city with an eye to the needs of local sports clubs and sports education.

A special committee will be established to oversee the feasibility study and construction preparations, not least how the financing will be handled.

The Icelandic government and City of Reykjavík will hold a joint competition to determine the arena’s design and overall appearance.

Preparations for a national stadium for track-and-field in Laugardalur and a national football stadium will continue. A market survey will be carried out to lay out clear options for how to proceed with the development of the national football stadium.

Schools to Remain Open this Autumn, Says Icelandic Government

Borgarfjörður eystri

Icelandic schools will open for in-person teaching at the end of this month, according to Iceland’s Prime Minister and Health Minister. RÚV reports that the state council, which consists of cabinet ministers and the President of Iceland, will meet this week to review pandemic response. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says the council will evaluate the success of the restrictions implemented over the past two weeks in response to the current wave of COVID-19 infection, Iceland’s largest since the start of the pandemic.

Teachers receiving booster shots

Primary schools and preschools have largely remained open in Iceland throughout the pandemic, though their operations have at times been subject to restrictions. The Prime Minister says this will remain the case.  “We will continue to prioritise school operations. Whether we need to keep things in mind in regards to their organisation, that’s something that we are going to discuss with those working in the field, and a part of preparing for school operations to proceed as normally as possible is, of course, the revaccination of teachers that begins today,” Katrín stated. School workers in Iceland received the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine but are now being offered a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna, as are all residents of Iceland that received the single-dose J&J vaccine.

Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir underlined that current domestic restrictions due to COVID-19 do not restrict school activities in any way. The Icelandic Medicines Agency has approved the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for the 12-15 age group and Iceland health authorities are now reviewing whether to recommend the vaccination of this demographic before the school year begins.

Government reevaluating approach to pandemic

In recent days the cabinet has scheduled meetings with special interest groups, such as educators, artists, and athletes. One of the goals of the meetings is to evaluate the need for further economic measures in response to the pandemic. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson has stated that the pandemic’s economic impact in 2021 is nothing compared to the blow it dealt last year. Current economic measures will remain in effect until the end of this year.

While vaccines are not proving as effective in preventing infection and spread of the Delta variant as Icelandic authorities had hoped, they are reducing the rates of hospitalisation and serious illness due to COVID-19 in the country. This changes the position we are in, according to the Prime Minister, and requires a reassessment of government response to the pandemic.

All But Two Ministers in Quarantine After Possible COVID Exposure

All but two government ministers have been directed to undergo two COVID-19 tests and a five-day quarantine after a group dinner at a hotel where two people were diagnosed with the virus, Kjarninn reports. It’s thought unlikely that the cabinet was exposed to the virus during their dinner, but ministers and civil protection authorities are proceeding with the screening and quarantine measures out of an abundance of caution.

Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir and Minister for Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason did not attend the dinner and do not, therefore, have to quarantine or be tested.

On August 18, ministers held a governmental meeting in the village of Hella in Southwest Iceland and then went to dinner together at Hótel Rangá. Following the dinner, contact tracers traced two active COVID-19 infections to the hotel, and are now focusing their containment efforts to three groups of guests.

The first group is thought to have been most likely to be exposed to the virus during their visit and is now in a two-week quarantine. The second group is thought less likely to have been exposed, has been tested once for the virus, and will remain in quarantine until the results of their tests are obtained.

The government ministers are part of the third group and are also unlikely to have been exposed to the virus during their dinner. The measures being taken in their case—two screenings with a quarantine period in between—are the same as those in place for healthcare workers, police officers, frontline power company workers, and key workers in the media and government.

Companies Return COVID-19 Aid Funds to Icelandic Government

origo

Six Icelandic companies have announced they will either return or stop taking advantage of the government’s partial unemployment funds intended to help companies avoid layoffs due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Mbl.is reports that none of the companies are facing operational difficulties and as a result have decided to pull out of the initiative, whereby the government pays up to 75% of employee salaries.

Computer support and services company Origo put 50 employees on the partial benefits scheme on the same day it announced an ISK 425 million ($2.9 million/2.7 million) first-quarter profit. Origo then backtracked on the decision to seek government support last Monday. Company Esja Gæðafæði ehf. decided to repay the ISK 17 million ($117,000/€107,000) it had received from the government through the initiative. Seafood company Brim, fuel company Skeljungur, and retailer Hagar have also decided to repay the government funds they received. Retail company Festi also decided to stop its participation in the scheme.

Iceland’s Directorate of Labour was criticised for failing to monitor whether companies who were taking advantage of the government funds had in fact lost profits and therefore required the funds to pay salaries. The organisation’s director has stated that the Directorate’s efforts were focused on minimising layoffs, but a review of companies who have participated in the scheme will begin in the fall at the latest.

Iceland to Loosen COVID-19 Restrictions Starting May 4

Katrín Jakobs Svandís Svavars Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörns press conference

Icelandic preschools and elementary schools will return to regular operation; salons, massage parlours, and museums will reopen; and gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed in Iceland starting on May 4. The Icelandic government announced in a press conference today which COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted in the first stage of loosening measures that were imposed to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated that the country has now passed the peak of infection.

Schools reopen

On May 4, the current gathering ban, limiting gatherings to 20 individuals or fewer, will be raised to 50 individuals. Preschools and elementary schools, which have operated at a limited capacity, will resume regular operation, and junior colleges and universities will reopen. All schools must limit student groups according to the 50-person limit.

Swimming pools, gyms remain closed

Salons, massage parlours, and dentists can reopen on May 4, but are required to maintain a two-metre distance between customers where possible. Outdoor, organised sports activities for children will be permitted as well, provided groups remain under 50 individuals and a two-metre distance is maintained between participants. Swimming pools, gyms, bars, and slot machines will remain closed for the time being. Other organised, outdoor sports will be permitted, though groups may not exceed four persons and participants must maintain a two-metre distance between themselves.

Schengen border closures to be extended

Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir stated that countries within the Schengen territory were planning to extend the territory’s border closures until May 15, and that Iceland would participate in that decision. Áslaug added that the national state of emergency would remain if force as long as any restrictions were in place.

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated that authorities were considering limiting tourist arrivals to the country as well as Icelanders’ travel abroad throughout the summer in order to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

Restrictions in place since March 16

Iceland confirmed its first case of coronavirus on February 28. The National Police Commissioner raised Iceland’s Civil Protection Emergency level from alert to Emergency/Distress on March 6 after the first community-transmitted infections of the virus were confirmed. On March 16, Iceland’s first gathering ban was put into place, limiting gatherings to under 100 people and ordering organisers to ensure a two-metre distance between individuals. Junior colleges and universities were also closed, moving teaching online. On March 24, the gathering ban was tightened to 20 individuals or fewer, and various gathering places and businesses were ordered to close, including gyms, swimming pools, bars, clubs, and salons.

Measures lifted in stages, each lasting 3-4 weeks

Authorities say the restrictions currently in place will be lifted in stages, each lasting three or four weeks. This approach will give response teams the opportunity to judge the impact of each set of actions and set the date for the next. Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir stressed the continued importance of the two-metre rule and proper handwashing “as long as this virus is somewhere among us.”

Icelandic Government Backs Venezuela’s Juan Gauidó

Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has declared that he and the government of Iceland support Venezuela’s Juan Gauidó in his opposition to President Nicolás Maduro’s government, RÚV reports. The country has struggled in recent years as poverty and crime have reached an all-time high while its economy suffers and its system of governance has turned dangerously unstable.

Juan Guaidó is the leader of the disenfranchised Venezuelan legislature who on January 23 declared himself the president of the country, causing uproar amongst Maduro’s supporters.

Maduro, who succeeded president Hugo Chavez following the latter’s death in 2013, has proved a controversial figure, as Venezuela struggles with hyperinflation, food and medical supply shortages and exceedingly high crime and murder rate. Three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years, according to a United Nations report, with numbers expected to reach 5 million by the end of the year.

“This has been a long time coming,” Guðlaugur Þór says. “We know what the situation in Venezuela is. In a country that is rich in resources, its current state is dire. The rightfully elected National Assembly [led by Juan Gauidó] has been stripped of its power. As things are now, the country is more akin to a dictatorship.”

The European Union and many countries around the world have demanded a new election in Venezuela and American president Donald Trump has threatened military intervention if the country’s situation remains unchanged.

Trump has denied Maduro’s request for direct talks who in turn has warned that Venezuela could turn into another Vietnam for the US, should the country intervene in Venezuela’s affairs.

As of now, Nicolás Maduro still has the support of Venezuela’s military, with Juan Gauidó making a concerted effort recently to turn their allegiance in his favour.

Equality Matters Moved to Prime Minister’s Office

Equality matters will be moved to the Prime Minister’s as part of a restructuring of the ministries, RÚV reports. The change will take place when the matters of the Ministry of Welfare will be split up into the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Healthcare.

The goal of the changes is to have a clearer division of labour as well as giving a clearer political focus on the matters. The current government believes that the restructuring allows them to prioritize the matters of equality, social affairs, and healthcare. Matters of structure will also be transferred from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The ministries will now be ten in total, an increase from nine. The Minister of Social Affairs will become the Minister of Social and Children’s Affairs, which is intended to reflect the government’s emphasis on children’s and youth’s matters. It is estimated that the changes will take place around the turn of the year. The changes will be proposed to the Icelandic Parliament soon.