Iceland News Review: Drama in the East and Joyful Reunions

INR

In this episode of Iceland News Review, political intrigue in the east of Iceland, the economy looking bright as wage agreements are signed, Palestinian families reunited at last, an effort to bring our folk tales home, and much more.

Iceland News Review brings you all of Iceland’s top stories, every week, with the context and background you need. Be sure to like, follow and subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode!

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.

Hera to Represent Iceland in Eurovision

A screenshot from RÚV. Hera Björk during the Söngvakeppnin final, March 2, 2024

Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV), The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, has decided that singer Hera Björk will represent Iceland with her song Scared of Heights at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö in Sweden this May. According to an announcement from RÚV, Hera was the undisputed winner of Söngvakeppnin, Iceland’s preliminary competition.

Only two days ago, RÚV launched an independent inquiry into the voting process of Söngvakeppnin. Several voters reported glitches in RÚV’s voting app. Some who attempted to vote for Hera’s main competitor, Palestinian Bashar Murad, shared screenshots of error messages or indications that their vote had gone to Hera instead. The songwriter for Bashar’s song, Wild West, submitted a written request for an independent inquiry into the error.

Few votes in question

RÚV says that both songs were affected by the voting app glitch and that Hera’s victory was dominant as she received some 3,500 more votes than Bashar. According to the voting app’s developers, only 748 votes were in question. “The votes possibly affected due to this glitch were even fewer than originally thought and it’s clear that this had no impact on the final results,” RÚV’s announcement read. “Hera Björk is the undisputed winner of Söngvakeppnin 2024.”

Saddened by the discourse

Iceland’s participation in Eurovision has been criticised in light of Israel’s ongoing participation in the competition during its military action in Gaza. Bashar’s participation was seen by many as a statement to oppose the war, but he was also subjected to racist comments during the process. Hera’s songwriter, Ásdís María Viðarsdóttir, known professionally as Ásdís, said that she wanted Bashar to represent Iceland and that her conscience didn’t allow her to participate further.

Hera said that she was saddened by the discourse. “Both in terms of how people talked about me and my supposed viewpoints, but even more so about how Bashar was treated,” she said.

Program Director Skarphéðinn Guðmundsson said that RÚV was aware of the discourse surrounding the competition. “We encourage everyone to support Hera and her team,” he said. “She will be a fantastic representative for us.”

72 Palestinians Arrive in Iceland, Many Residence Permit Holders Still in Gaza

Miðborg Reykjavíkur - tekið úr byggingakrana

The 72 Palestinians with Icelandic residence permits who were brought out of Gaza last week have arrived at last in Iceland, RÚV reports. Many, however, have yet to escape.

A cheerful, tearful reunion

These 72 people–24 adults and 48 children–arrived in Iceland last Friday after a long journey from Gaza. Representatives from Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who had been in Cairo since early February, compiled a list of names of Icelandic residence permit holders in Gaza for the approval of Egyptian and Israeli officials. These people were then escorted from the border town of Rafah and into Egypt, from where they traveled to Iceland.

Employees from the Directorate of Labour, the Red Cross and the City of Reykjavík welcomed these new arrivals at Keflavík International Airport. From there, they traveled to Reykjavík where they were greeted by a throng of relatives and well-wishers, in reunions marked by tears of joy, laughter, and many hugs.

Many still in Gaza

About 50 of these arrivals will be staying in Red Cross housing, at least initially, with about two-thirds of them to live in the greater Reykjavík area, and the remaining third to live elsewhere in southwest Iceland.

However, this does not mark the end of the matter.

While the Foreign Ministry has announced that their work in Cairo has concluded, there are still some 32 Palestinians with Icelandic residence permits who are still in the region. Information from the Directorate of Immigration did not specify how many of these Palestinians are in Gaza, but it is estimated that most, if not all, of them are.

These 32 people were granted their residence permits after the Foreign Ministry compiled its list of names, i.e. February 10th. Despite this, the Ministry has said that it has met its obligations but would be monitoring the situation in Gaza.

Icelandic civilian volunteers have been very active in assisting other Palestinians with Icelandic residence permits with getting out of Gaza, and it is therefore likely they will also be assisting these addition Icelandic residence permit holders.

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”.

Hera Björk Wins Amid Eurovision Controversy

A screenshot from RÚV. Hera Björk during the Söngvakeppnin final, March 2, 2024

Hera Björk has won Iceland’s Söngvakeppnin, but it is still unclear whether she will represent Iceland in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Hera won Iceland’s pre-Eurovision competition with her song Scared of Heights last Saturday, beating out Palestinian contestant Bashar Murad in the final. Some have called for an independent investigation into the voting process after reports of glitches in national broadcaster RÚV’s voting app.

Iceland falls on bookmakers’ lists

Five acts performed in the televised Söngvakeppnin finals last Saturday evening, with Hera Björk and Bashar Murad voted as the two finalists. Prior to the final, Eurovision bookmakers had considered Bashar as most likely to become Iceland’s Eurovision representative and had placed Iceland in third place on their Eurovision betting odds lists. Since Hera’s win was announced, Iceland has fallen to eleventh place.

Glitches in voting app

Several Söngvakeppnin voters reported glitches in National Broadcaster RÚV’s voting app on Saturday. Some who attempted to vote for Bashar shared screenshots of error messages or indications that their vote had gone to Hera instead. Vodafone Iceland stated that any glitches were not due to a systemic issue on their end. RÚV is looking into the matter, but director of Söngvakeppnin Rúnar Freyr Gíslason has stated that the total number of votes affected by potential glitches were not so great as to influence the final outcome. The composer of Wild West, the song Bashar performed, has called for an independent investigation into the matter.

Icelandic musicians call on RÚV to not participate

There have been calls to boycott Eurovision among the Iceland public this year due to Israel’s participation in the contest. These calls have been echoed within the Icelandic music community as well. Over 550 musicians in Iceland signed a petition calling on RÚV to boycott the competition if Israel is permitted to participate. The signees include a plethora of well-known artists such as Emilíana Torrini, Bríet, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Páll Óskar, and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (Of Monsters and Men). The Icelandic Association of Composers and Lyricists also released a statement urging RÚV not to participate in the contest.

RÚV Director Stefán Eiríksson has previously stated that the broadcaster would leave it up to the winning musician of Söngvakeppnin to decide whether or not to participate in Eurovision in Malmö, Sweden this year.

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.

Palestinian Refugees Arrive with Volunteer Help

Keflavík Airport

Eleven Palestinians arrived to Iceland yesterday, all of whom already had Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. They were assisted in crossing the border into Egypt by Icelandic volunteers in the area, Vísir reports.

More to be assisted

Among those who arrived is a father with three children, one of whom is a boy injured during the Gaza conflict. Three mothers with a child each are also in the group. One of the children is a chronically ill girl. “She’s been without medicine for a long time,” said Gunnhildur Sveinsdóttir, one of the volunteers arriving back from Cairo.

Gunnhildur said that the group of volunteers has been in touch with the Ministry of Social Affairs and that the International Organization for Migration had escorted the refugees after they crossed the border into Egypt. The volunteers in Cairo are still looking to help 17 more people cross the border and are hoping that this will come to pass in the next few days.

Hard, exhausting work

Gunnhildur added that the volunteers pay for their own expenses while on the mission. They have helped the refugees get accommodation and necessities when in Egypt, while supplying the local authorities with information about Icelandic visa holders. “It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “You arrive back pretty exhausted, but it’s absolutely worth it. The stay in Cairo was good and we were well received.”

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.

Volunteers Help 12 More Palestinians Escape Gaza

Protestors outside US Embassy in Reykjavík

Twelve more Palestinians, comprised mostly of children, have been assisted by Icelandic volunteers in fleeing Gaza. All of them are Icelandic residence permit holders.

Part of a continuing effort

As reported, Icelandic civilian volunteers have been traveling to and from Egypt since early February, traveling to the Egyptian border with Gaza near the town of Rafah in an effort to help the over 100 Icelandic residence permit holders there get out of Gaza and come to Iceland. The matter is especially urgent as Israeli forces have been actively bombarding the town.

One family arrived last week, about a week after another Palestinian family reunited here, and there has been an ongoing fundraiser to help assist with extraneous expenses in their travel and arrival.

Mostly children, sick and injured

Sema Erla Serdaroglu, the founder and president of the refugee and asylum seeker rights group Solaris, announced on Facebook that another group of Palestinians, twelve in all, had been assisted by Icelandic volunteers in getting out of Gaza.

As with previous Palestinians assisted by Icelandic volunteers, all of them have residence permits in Iceland, but in this case most of them are reportedly sick and injured children and their family members. In addition, another 17 Icelandic residence permit holders in Gaza are reportedly next in line to leave Gaza–of them, 14 are children.

“History will judge you”

Sema concluded her post by praising the efforts of all volunteers involved, and the Icelandic public who have been supporting their efforts, while criticising the Icelandic government for “standing by”, adding, “We will never forget. We will not forgive. History will judge you!”

Three representatives of the Foreign Ministry of Iceland went to Cairo earlier this month, ostensibly to meet with Egyptian officials about retrieving the remaining Icelandic residence permit holders from Gaza–following an example already set by other Nordic countries–but as yet there have been no major developments on that front.