72 Palestinian Visa Holders En Route

bjarni benediktsson

Late last night, 72  Palestinian people crossed the border from Gaza to Egypt on request from Icelandic authorities. All of them have Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has announced that they will travel to Iceland, Heimildin reports.

Criticism over inaction

The Icelandic government has faced criticism due to the delay in extracting these individuals from Gaza, which has seen military action from the Israeli army for months. Icelandic volunteers have already been able to bring a number of people across the border to safety without help from the authorities.

Last weekend, Israeli authorities approved the list of names submitted by Icelandic authorities, according to a press release from the ministry. Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson communicated with his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz last Tuesday on this subject.

A policy exception

“This case has relied on the process speed and position of local authorities and the Icelandic delegation can only operated on the grounds of the legal, diplomatic processes that Israeli and Egyptian authorities have put in place for these cases,” the press release read.

Authorities maintain that they had no duty to step in to support the visa holders, even if they did so in this case. Bjarni added that the government is pushing to reform immigration policy to ensure that exceptions like these don’t put “additional pressure on Icelandic systems”.

Iceland and Israel Discuss Gaza Visa Holders

bjarni benediktsson

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson had a phone meeting with his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz yesterday, where the two discussed Icelandic visa holders in Gaza. Some 100 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly children, hold approved Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. Bjarni requested assistance in processing the list of visa holders, according to a press release from the Icelandic government.

Government criticised for moving slowly

Iceland’s government has been criticised for moving slowly on extracting Icelandic visa holders from Gaza. An Icelandic lawyer representing one Palestinian family waiting for reunification has submitted a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman asserting that the government is responsible for the individuals on the basis of humanitarian law. In early February, Icelandic authorities sent three representatives to Cairo to look into bringing the visa-holders across the Rafah border, but their efforts have yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilian volunteers have already gotten around 25 Icelandic visa holders out of Gaza.

Special examination needed, Foreign Ministry says

“The Icelandic government sent a list of residence permit holders to the authorities in the region in the first half of February,” the government press release states. “In communication with the Israeli government, it has been stated that the list is unique as there are no Icelandic citizens or dual citizens on it, only residence permit holders. The list therefore requires special examination on their part, and has therefore not yet been processed.”

Icelandic government ministers previously stated that Iceland has no obligation to extract Icelandic visa holders from Gaza. Ministers also stated that other Nordic countries were only extracting their own citizens from the region, not visa holders, a statement that proved to be false.

Iceland Condemns Russian Treatment of Alexei Navalny

Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Iceland’s Foreign Ministry called the director of the Russian embassy in Iceland to a meeting yesterday due to the death of Alexei Navalny. He was told that Iceland condemns Russian authorities’ treatment of Navalny. Russia’s ambassador to Iceland was asked to leave last year following the invasion of Ukraine.

Foreign Minister blames Russian government

“It was made clear to the director that the Icelandic government condemns the Russian government’s treatment of Navalny, which led to his death last week,” reads a written response from the ministry to RÚV. Russian diplomats have been called to similar meetings in Iceland’s neighbouring countries. “The Icelandic government also condemns the Russian government’s attacks on human rights and people’s freedom, as a large number of people have been imprisoned in Russia recently following Navalny’s death,” the response continues.

Iceland’s Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson tweeted about Navalny’s death last week, stating “Saddened to learn of the passing of Alexei Navalny and I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and supporters. Putin and the Russian government bear ultimate responsibility for his death.”

Cooling relations

Iceland shut down its embassy in Moscow in August 2023 and requested the Russian embassy in Iceland scale down its operations and send home its ambassador. The last time there was no Russian ambassador in Iceland was between 1948-1954. While Iceland’s Foreign Minister at the time stated that the closure did not entail a complete severing of diplomatic relations between the countries, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated it “destroys” the countries’ bilateral relations.

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.

Iceland Suspends Palestine Relief Payments

bjarni benediktsson

Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs has suspended payments to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Opposition MPs criticise the decision, calling it “harsh.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed to countries who have suspended UNRWA payments to reconsider, saying: “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

Allegations of participation in October 7 attacks

Founded in 1949, the UNRWA is the United Nations’ main agency supporting the relief and human development of Palestinian regufees in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA runs shelters for the displaced and currently distributes the only aid that Israel is allowing into the Gaza strip.

Iceland has been working with UNRWA for decades. In September last year, Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs signed a contract with the organisation for continued support until 2028.

Several Western countries have temporarily suspended financial support to UNRWA over allegations that some UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks on Israel. The staff members in question have already been fired from the organisation, which will also conduct an independent investigation into the matter.

Contrary to ruling from International Court of Justice

“It’s absolutely horrible that we’re taking part in this. And we should follow the Norwegians’ example, who have decided in light of the terrible situation in Gaza, to continue their funding while this investigation is ongoing,” Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir told RÚV.

“What is absolutely clear is a ruling from the highest court of the international community that humanitarian aid must come to Gaza,” Þórhildur Sunna continued. “And the Icelandic government’s first rection is to stop humanitarian aid to Gaza. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Social Democratic Alliance MP Logi Einarsson also criticised Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson’s decision to suspend the payments harsh. “Thirty thousand people work for the organisation, including 13,000 in Gaza and the investigation is on 12 individuals,” Logi stated. “It is therefore a very harsh reaction to punish millions of people in a complete humanitarian crisis and on the verge of starvation.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Responds to Iceland’s Embassy Closure

Jakobsdóttir and Lavrov

Iceland’s decision to suspend operations in its Moscow embassy “destroys” the countries’ bilateral operations, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has stated according to Reuters. Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs announced last week that it would shut down the embassy of Iceland in Moscow on August 1 and had requested the Russian embassy in Iceland to scale down its operations and send home its ambassador. Icelandic authorities will lay off the embassy’s locally hired staff and terminate rental contracts in Moscow.

“The decision taken by the Icelandic authorities to lower the level of diplomatic relations with Russia destroys the entire range of Russian-Icelandic cooperation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry stated. “We will take this unfriendly decision into account when building our ties with Iceland in the future. All anti-Russian actions of Reykjavik will inevitably be followed by a corresponding reaction.”

The Icelandic embassy in Moscow has had seven staff members: two sent out from Iceland and five who were hired locally. Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs told Vísir that the five locally hired staff members will be laid off according to their current employment contracts. Iceland’s Ambassador to Russia Árni Þór Sigurðsson will be relocated to the Icelandic embassy in Copenhagen. The ministry also expects to terminate its rental contracts both for the embassy offices and the ambassador’s residence.

A press release from Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs stated that “[t]he decision to close down the embassy’s activities does not imply the termination of the diplomatic relationship between the countries. As soon as conditions permit, emphasis will be placed on resuming the activities of the Icelandic embassy in Moscow.”

Icelandic Experts to Assist in Turkey Earthquake Response

TF-SIF

The Icelandic Association for Search, Rescue, and Injury Prevention (ICE-SAR) will send a group of experts to Turkey to assist in response to the earthquakes that occurred in the country yesterday morning. Together with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, ICE-SAR began preparing a group of nine people for the trip, who will be transported using the Icelandic Coast Guard’s TF-SIF plane this afternoon.

The team consists of experts in operations management and coordination, currently much needed in Turkey. As of the time of writing, some 80 international teams have announced their assistance in the disaster area. The leader of the Icelandic team is Sólveig Þorvaldsdóttir, who is experienced in managing and coordinating similar international operations.

Two earthquakes over M7 hit Turkey and affected several other countries yesterday morning. As of the time of writing, the death toll has topped 5,100 people. Syria has also been heavily affected by the quake, and other affected countries include Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Georgia, and Armenia.

ICE-SAR wished the team good luck in the challenging conditions that await them.

Iceland to Open Embassy in Warsaw This Autumn

An Icelandic embassy to Poland will be opened in the country’s capital Warsaw this autumn, Iceland’s Foreign Minister announced at a cabinet meeting last week. The embassy will also be responsible for servicing Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. Polish nationals account for around 40% of all immigrants living in Iceland.

“Political, economic, and cultural relations between Iceland and Poland have increased significantly in recent years,” a government notice on the new embassy reads. “An ever-increasing number of Icelanders trace their origins to Poland. The countries’ interests converge on important issues, such as security and defence. Increased communication between the two countries, not least due to the large number of Poles living in Iceland, has strengthened trade and cultural ties.”

The Polish government has operated a consulate in Iceland since 2008, which became a full-fledged embassy in 2013. “With the opening of the Icelandic Embassy in Warsaw, the necessary reciprocity in the political union of the states will finally be achieved, and it is gratifying to be able to take that step and emphasise how valuable the nations’ friendship is to us Icelanders,” Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated. “The Polish Embassy in Reykjavík has provided important services to the large group of Poles living in Iceland. In the same way, the Icelandic Embassy in Warsaw can provide services to Icelandic citizens and Poles with close ties to Iceland, and at the same time pave the way for Icelandic companies in these regions and safeguard Icelandic interests, for example in the EEA Development Fund.”

Read more about Iceland’s Polish community here.

Iceland Closes Airspace to Russia

Iceland

The Icelandic government has decided to close its airspace to Russian aircraft. RÚV reports that Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir announced the decision via Twitter on Sunday morning, “in solidarity with Ukraine.”

Iceland was one of several Nordic countries to close its airspace to Russia over the weekend; Denmark, Sweden, and Finland announced that they would be doing the same on Sunday. Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania have also closed their airspace to Russia and Germany has announced its intention to do so as well. It’s expected that Russia will face a total EU airspace ban shortly.

Iceland condemns Russia’s ‘brutal and unprovoked attack’ on Ukraine, sends €1 million in aid

Þórdís Kolbrún has made a number of public statements condemning Russia’s assault on Ukraine in recent days. On February 24, the first day of Russia’s invasion, Þórdís Kolbrún gave an official statement, stating that Iceland condemned “in the strongest possible terms, the brutal and unprovoked attack of Russia on Ukraine.” She continued: “Russia’s action is a flagrant violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, and is in full contradiction to the Helsinki Final Act.” That same day, she tweeted that Iceland would be sending €1 million [ISK 141.19 million; USD 1.13 million] in humanitarian support to Ukraine.

The next day, she urged the Council of Europe to suspend “Russia’s right of representation in the Council of Europe with immediate effect.”

According to information from the Foreign Ministry, Iceland will also be revoking special privileges that have been afforded Russians coming to Iceland via existing bilateral agreements, such as simplified visa processing for Russian diplomats, businesspeople, politicians, and government representatives. The ministry has emphasized, however, that these moves are “not directed at general Russian tourists, students, or others,” whose visa applications will continue to be reviewed as per usual.

Iceland’s airspace patrolled by NATO

Iceland’s airspace is patrolled by NATO as part of an ongoing mission, called Icelandic Air Policing, which is meant “to establish air surveillance and interception coverage over Iceland and maintain the integrity of NATO airspace.” NATO members maintain a periodic presence of fighter aircraft from the former US military base at Keflavík. Icelandic Air Policing typically involves member nations deploying fighter aircraft to patrol Iceland’s airspace three times a year, for periods of three to four weeks at a time.

Foreign Ministry Helping Icelanders Leave Afghanistan

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs is working to help two Icelandic couples and their children leave Afghanistan. They number nine people and are located in the country’s capital Kabul, which was recently taken over by Taliban forces. The Foreign Ministry has also been in contact with two other Icelandic nationals who worked for NATO agencies in Afghanistan, according to a notice on the Ministry’s Facebook page.

“One of the two Icelandic nationals who have worked for NATO agencies in Afghanistan has arrived in the United Arab Emirates safe and sound,” the notice reads. “The other is still working in Kabul and will leave the country with other Allied personnel. Iceland’s permanent NATO committee is in regular contact with the man. In addition to these individuals, the Foreign Ministry’s civil service is now aware of nine other Icelandic citizens who are in Kabul. They are two couples and their children. The civil service is in communication with other Nordic civil service organisations about the possibility of the families leaving the country together with other Nordic citizens.”

Read More: Iceland Must Shoulder Responsibility, Prime Minister Says

“The foreign service is in direct contact with the people, is closely monitoring developments, and provides assistance as much as possible. No further information will be provided at this time,” the notice concludes.