Faroe Islands Support Grindavík Residents

Faroe Islands

The Government of the Faroe Islands has donated 10 Million ISK [$73,000, €67,000] to support the displaced residents of Grindavík. The collection effort has been ongoing for over a week with the Red Cross and half the amount comes from Faroese residents, half from the Faroese government budget, RÚV reports.

The Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago country some 450 kilometres east of Iceland, has a population one-seventh the size of Iceland’s, but has a history of lending a helping hand during trying times in Iceland.

Government action expected in February

The January 14 eruption near Grindavík destroyed three houses, caused crevasses to form across town, and displaced the 3,800 inhabitants for the unforeseeable future. The town had already been evacuated once before, on November 10 last year, due to seismic activity.

The Icelandic Government has promised support for the Grindavík residents, which will be presented in a February bill in Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Following a meeting of the cabinet yesterday, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told RÚV that the plans were on track and that the idea of buying up residents’ houses was still being discussed. “This is what we’ve been working on the whole week, in dialogue with financial institutions, banks, and pension funds, estimating different proposals,” she said.

Faroese support through the years

The Grindavík donation is not the first time that the Faroese people have helped out Icelanders in need. Similar efforts were made during the 1973 eruption in Heimaey, the largest of the Vestmannaeyjar islands, which led to the temporary evacuation of its community. Likewise, Faroese donations came through when the Northwestern towns of Súðavík and Flateyri were hit by avalanches in 1995, causing the deaths of 34 people. Løgting, the Faroese Parliament, also came to Iceland’s assistance during the 2008 financial crisis, lending money when credit had dried up elsewhere.

The Icelandic Red Cross has set up a page with donation options for those wishing to lend support. This includes both one-time donations and repeat subscriptions.

Risk of Overdose Rises Following Closure of Iceland’s Only Safe Injection Site

Iceland’s only safe injection site, a temporary project operated by the Icelandic Red Cross, shuttered on March 6. A Red Cross employee told RÚV such sites decrease the risk of overdose among intravenous drug users in addition to saving funding within the healthcare and social service system. Over 100 individuals used the safe injection site within the last year, many of them unhoused, during over 1,200 visits.

Ylja, as the safe injection site was called, opened in May of last year and was a temporary pilot project operated by the Icelandic Red Cross. Like safe injection sites abroad, Ylja offered a safe environment for those 18 years of age and older to inject intravenous drugs under the supervision of trained nurses, who ensured sanitation, safety, and infection prevention practices were followed. Safe injection sites are a harm reduction service that can prevent overdose and death among users of intravenous drugs. They can also connect clients to other essential services they may require.

Assists a marginalised group and saves public funds

“We need housing and the funding to pay for it, in order to operate a safe injection site. There is a lack of political will to approve it,” stated Marín Þórsdóttir, the department head of the Icelandic Red Cross’ capital area department. In 2015 and 2022, the Icelandic parliament shelved bills to decriminalise drug possession for personal use. Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson promised to submit a new, revised bill last autumn but has yet to do so.

Marín adds that with Ylja’s closure, the Red Cross loses staff that is specialised in harm reduction, primarily nurses. While operating a safe injection site requires considerable funding, Marín says it ultimately saves public funds. “We are tending to a very marginalised group that receives little service, experiences perpetual discrimination in society, and it’s just savings, both within our healthcare and social services system by having a safe injection site and assisting people with harm reduction resources.”

Read more: In Harm’s Way

Economic and social factors appear to impact drug use in Iceland, according to the research of Dr. Arndís Sue-Ching Löve, an assistant professor at the University of Iceland. Her studies show that cocaine use decreased in Iceland during the COVID-19 pandemic, but increased again last year to around pre-pandemic levels. The increase may be partially explained by increased prosperity: a similar pattern was seen before the banking collapse in Iceland.

Red Cross Names Fifteen-Year-Old ‘First Aid Person of the Year’ 

Fifteen-year-old Arnór Ingi Davíðsson was named the Red Cross’ 2023 ‘First Aid Person of the Year’ in recognition for his quick thinking and cool head last year when his younger brother Bjarki Þór, then ten, was buried in an avalanche in Hveragerði, South Iceland, RÚV reports. The Red Cross gives out the award annually on the 112th day of the year as 112 is the phone number for emergency services in Iceland.

The brothers were playing near a cliff called Hamarinn when a snowbank slid down the mountainside and buried Bjarki Þór. Arnór Ingi acted quickly, locating his brother under the snow, digging it away to uncover his face, and then calling 112 for assistance. He followed emergency service’s instructions until ICE-SAR volunteers arrived at the scene and were able to take over.

Bjarki Þór Davíðsson, age 11; Screenshot via Red Cross Iceland

Arnór Ingi said calling 112 right away is the most important thing in an emergency situation. “I’m really thankful to have had the emergency line with me, it made all the difference. Just to keep him alive and conscious.”

Hjördís Garðarsdóttir, the dispatcher who answered Arnór Ingi’s 112 praised his bravery in the moment, and the care he took to keep his brother as calm as possible. “I think he did incredibly well,” she remarked in a video that was made for the awards ceremony. “Because if you listen to the call, he goes from being extremely scared to extremely reassuring for his brother.”

Even though his brother survived unharmed, Arnór Ingi says the incident still haunts him a year later.

“Sometimes, I can’t sleep and sometimes, I’m watching a movie and there’s an avalanche and something sticks. It’s uncomfortable to watch sometimes, I get flashbacks, but I’m feeling better about it now. It’s not as bad.”

The award was a real encouragement, said Arnór Ingi. “It’s a bit of a boost—crazy to get this recognition, I’m really proud.”

Red Cross Opens Aid Station

red cross iceland

The Red Cross in Iceland has opened an aid station for refugees applying for international protection.

The aid center will be open to all, but has been created largely in response to the war in Ukraine. As such, the majority of refugees received there are expected to be Ukrainian. 

Located in a former office building on Borgartún, the aid station will serve as temporary housing until better accommodation can be provided. 

Discussion around establishing such a center has been going on since the middle of last month. Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, operations supervisor at the Red Cross, has said that everything has been done to avoid this situation, but unfortunately, it has not been possible so far to house incoming refugees at an adequate rate.

The aid center will be able to house one hundred people. It is hoped that refugees will only need to be housed there for several days before being moved into more permanent housing.

Since the start of the war, Iceland has received some 3,000 Ukrainian refugees.

More Housing Needed for Unhoused People with Addictions: ‘Living in a Tent in Öskjuhlíð Isn’t a Desirable Situation for Anyone’

Encampments of unhoused people in Öskjuhlíð, a wooded recreation area in Reykjavík, have sparked conversations about shelter and services for at-risk communities in the capital. Vísir reports.

Unhoused individuals, many of whom are dealing with addiction issues, have long resorted to camping in Öskjuhlíð when they cannot find room within one of the city’s shelters. This creates considerable community tension as Öskjuhlíð is also home to Perlan, a local attraction popular with tourists, as well as being a much-used outdoor recreation area. There are also a number of businesses and services in the area, such as a kindergarten.

The Red Cross’s harm reduction unit, known as Frú Ragnheiður, serves the unhoused community in Reykjavík, as well as people with drug addictions.

“Something we always see in the summer is people coming in to get tents and camping equipment from us,” explains Frú Ragnheiður team leader Kristín Davíðsdóttir. “And this is first and foremost because they’re looking for some peace and quiet. These are generally people who are staying in emergency shelters and naturally, there are many people per room in emergency shelters, a lot of stimuli and activity, and people just don’t have any privacy.”

‘We want people to know that there are emergency shelters and other resources available’

Sigþrúður Erla Arnadóttir, manager of the City of Reykjavík’s Westside Welfare Office says that their on-site consulting team was dispatched to Öskjuhlíð as soon as they got word that people were camping there.

“Of course we’re concerned because there are tents there and winter is coming,” says Sigþrúður Erla. “We want to be sure that people know that there are emergency shelters and other resources available.”

As for providing more housing, Sigþrúður Erla notes that there is a housing crisis all over Iceland and that this crisis has an outsized effect on marginalized populations. She says every effort is made to help unhoused individuals find suitable accommodations.

“We’re reviewing the City of Reykjavík’s strategic plan, evaluating the projects that are currently underway, and looking at trouble spots and how we can improve the services that we’re providing to this group,” says Sigþrúður Erla.

‘An emergency shelter should always be a last resort’

Many locals who Vísir spoke to expressed concern about the situation, particularly drug users’ proximity to areas where children like to play. Frú Ragnheiður’s Kristín says there’s a straightforward solution to the problem: more housing.

“If people had housing, they wouldn’t be in this situation, they wouldn’t have to be camping somewhere outside. It’s obvious that living in a tent in Öskjuhlíð isn’t a desirable situation for anyone—if “living” we can call it.”

Frú Ragnheiður is therefore calling on local authorities to put more effort into addressing the situation and providing safe housing for people with addictions. This group has gotten larger in recent years.

“There’s not enough housing,” says Kristín. “An emergency shelter should always be a last resort…But this goes to show that there is a large number of people who don’t have housing and need a place to live. And this is something that’s badly needed. Not just in Reykjavík, but all the surrounding municipalities as well.”

“Everyone Loses” in New Legal Assistance Scheme for Asylum Seekers

The Justice Ministry and Directorate of Immigration (ÚTL)’s new legal assistance scheme for applicants for international protection will lead to higher costs, longer processing times, and inferior service, a lawyer at the Icelandic Red Cross has stated. Last month, the Justice Ministry decided not to renew its contract with the Red Cross, which had provided legal assistance to asylum seekers for nearly seven years. According to Red Cross lawyer Guðríður Lára Þrastardóttir, the new scheme laid out by ÚTL is worse for asylum seekers, the government, and the lawyers providing the service. Vísir reported first.

The Directorate of Immigration published an advertisement last week calling on applications from those who would provide legal assistance to applicants for international protection. In a post on Facebook, Guðríður stated that the scheme outlined in the advertisement is “really the same as scheme that was in place before the Icelandic Red Cross took over and was considered not good at all.” She adds that the hourly rate proposed for lawyers has only been raised by ISK 1,000 [$7.48; €6.88] since 2014, and is “still the lowest rate the state pays for lawyers’ services.”

According to Guðríður, the proposed maximum hours in the scheme “do not in any way reflect the reality, and the Red Cross, which has done this work for nearly 7 years was not contacted when this aforementioned maximum time was calculated.” The scheme also does not appear to take into account the cost of interpreting services, Guðríður stated.

“This is a sad turning point,” Guðríður wrote. “In my opinion, this scheme will lead to worse quality, much higher costs, worse service, and longer case processing times. Everyone loses here.”

The changes are implemented as asylum seeker applications reach a seven-year high in Iceland. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has stated that more changes to Immigration Law are in the works. The Red Cross and other human rights organisations have criticised a proposed amendment to the Immigration Act from the Minister.

Quarantine Hotels Prepare to Scale Down

Fosshotel quarantine Reykjavík COVID-19

The number of people isolating in government-run quarantine hotels in Iceland has decreased in recent days, RÚV reports. The Iceland Red Cross, which oversees the operation of the hotels, expects to close some in the near future.

“One week ago the average was between 50 to 60 per day, but yesterday just over 20 people requested to stay [in a quarantine hotel],” Gylfi Þór Þorsteinnson, director of the quarantine hotel program, stated. “Currently we have 230 guests, which is fewer than we’ve had recently.” Gylfi added that quarantine hotel staff will soon begin preparing to vacate the hotels, as the need for them has decreased.

Despite relatively steady infection numbers, Gylfi says the number of people who request to stay at the quarantine hotels has dropped, and those that do have milder symptoms than before. “Most are in pretty good shape when they arrive and even better shape when they leave.”

Red Cross to Send ISK 25 Million to Aid Ebola Relief Effort

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The Icelandic Red Cross will be making a donation of ISK 25 million ($200,000/€178,000) to aid Ebola outbreak relief services in East Africa, RÚV reports. Ebola resurfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in May 2018 and 2,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease since then, 1,300 of whom have died.

Halting the spread of the Ebola epidemic is of the utmost importance, says Atli Viðar Thorstensen, the project manager of Humanitarian Operations for the Red Cross in Iceland. According to a press release on the Red Cross website, Iceland is collaborating closely with Uganda in its efforts to combat Ebola. The country has been involved in extensive relief efforts aiding refugees from South Sudan and DRC who are fleeing to Uganda in the wake of the Ebola outbreak. Uganda is now sheltering nearly two million refugees and desperately needs help from the international community to continue in its efforts.

“Now, when it’s clear that Ebola has made its way across Uganda’s borders, it’s obvious that even more support is needed and it’s to everyone’s benefit to impede the spread of Ebola, because we don’t want it to spread to other neighboring countries or even across continents,” Atli remarked in the press release. “In collaboration with the World Health Organization, Uganda’s government is initiating vaccinations in regions where there it’s feared that the virus could spread. The government’s focus on impeding the spread of Ebola and eliminating it is fully in keeping with the Red Cross’s work.”

The Icelandic Red Cross’ current contribution to Ebola relief efforts is supported in part by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and builds on top of previous donations that the organisation has made to the cause. In 2018, the Icelandic Red Cross sent ISK 28 million ($220,000/€198,000), bringing Iceland’s total donation to the effort to ISK 70 million ($558,000/€495,ooo).

Extended Hours at Women’s Shelter During Cold Snap

red cross iceland

The Konukot women’s shelter will stay open all day in order to provide much-needed shelter for homeless women during the current cold weather snap in Reykjavík, RÚV reports. Typically, the shelter is only open in the evenings and early morning, from 5:00 pm to 10:00 am, but with temperatures hovering between -11°C [12°F] and 1°C [34°F] this weekend, the decision was made to keep it open during the day as well.

Konukot, which means ‘Women’s Cottage,’ is a collaborative project maintained by the Red Cross and the City of Reykjavík. According to shelter director Brynhildur Jensdóttir, there’s a regular group of women who utilize Konukot on a consistent basis and thus far, usage has been normal. However, she and the shelter staff want the women to have the option of staying longer if needed when the weather is particularly cold.

The nearby Gistiskýlið men’s shelter, also run by the City of Reykjavík, will be open during its usual weekend hours, that is the standard 5:00 pm – 10:00 am schedule. Use of this facility has increased considerably with the cold, and all of the beds have been filled. Five additional beds were provided on Friday, bringing the total up to 30.