Six Shelters Opened Since Saturday

red cross iceland

In response to the winter weather conditions, the Red Cross in Iceland, in cooperation with several other organizations, has opened six shelters since the weekend.

The shelters can be found in Þorlákshöfn, Kjalarnes, Selfoss, Grindavík, and Reykjanesbær. Additionally, another shelter is being opened in Hella, a small town on Iceland’s South Coast.

The recent cold snap has disrupted traffic across the nation, leaving some travelers stranded, whether due to road closures, flight delays, or other reasons.

A stuck school bus in Þorlákshöfn required using the elementary school there as a temporary shelter, and there are also reports of many travelers with disrupted plans needing to take temporary shelter at tourist destinations like the Blue Lagoon.

Some 1,000 individuals are reported as having used the Grindavík shelter.

In their official statement, the Red Cross wished to “thank our volunteers and staff very much for the quick response to these difficult circumstances.” The Red Cross also encourage people to stay at home until conditions improve. Check the Icelandic Meteorological Office for information on weather warnings and travel advisories.

The official statement from the Red Cross in Iceland can be found below.

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.”

Vesturbær Residents Come to Aid of New Ukrainian Neighbours

Residents of Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood rallied together this weekend to assist Ukrainian refugees who had been given accommodation in Hotel Saga. Residents arranged deliveries of food, clothing, and other essential items to the group of around 100 refugees who had been moved to the hotel on short notice. Nearly 600 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Iceland since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, more than one-quarter of them children.

Hotel not prepared

Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, who oversees the reception of Ukrainian refugees in Iceland, acknowledges that the facilities at Hotel Saga were wanting when refugees were moved there, but that the situation has been rectified. “There are beds in the rooms that have been taken into use. The cooking facilities are ready, were ready immediately on Friday. But it is quite right that cleaning and other such things were deficient in the common areas of the [hotel], which we fixed and completed over the weekend,” he told RÚV reporters.

Some of the refugees at Hotel Saga were relocated on short notice from Ásbrú, near Keflavík Airport, the roaring sound of nearby airplanes conducting NATO exercises caused children in the group to panic. Atli Viðar Thorstensen, director of the international department at the Icelandic Red Cross, points out that Iceland has never taken in as many refugees in such a short time, and “the scope is such that [efforts] may not always be as successful as they should be.” He says he believes authorities are doing a good job overall when it comes to receiving refugees from Ukraine, though situations like the one at Hotel Saga may come up.

Residents rally to provide clothing and food

Vesturbær resident Markús Már Efraim created a Facebook group to connect the refugees staying at Hotel Saga with others living in the neighbourhood. Locals have answered the call, arranging food for the group, donating clothing, and providing entertainment for the children at the hotel. Markús has asked would-be helpers to avoid emptying their storage lockers and simply dropping things off at the hotel, rather check first what is needed, either by looking at posts in the group or an online document that has been created where refugees can write down what they need.

As of the time of writing, residents are requesting bicycles or scooters for children and adults, as well as working to set up play dates between children at the hotel and other children living in the neighbourhood.

Disappointment as Health Minister Shelves Decriminalisation Bill

Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson has received criticism for shelving a bill that would have decriminalised possession of illegal drugs in small amounts. Kristín Davíðsdóttir, director of the Icelandic Red Cross’ harm reduction team, says the Minister’s decision to take the bill off Parliament’s calendar is a big disappointment that will negatively impact at-risk populations.

“I have to admit that this somewhat surprised me, I didn’t expect it. It seemed to us that there was a certain momentum in the whole community in support of decriminalisation,” Kristín told RÚV. “We have seen a big change just in the nation’s opinion. Around 60% of the nation describes itself as supportive of decriminalisation today. So I found it sad, first and foremost.”

Complicates operation of safe injection site

Iceland legalised safe injection sites in 2020, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that the Red Cross opened the country’s first: a mobile site that is stationed in downtown Reykjavík between 10:00 PM and 4:00 AM, while shelters are closed. The site provides clients 18 years of age and older with sterilised needles, helps them avoid overdosing, and even provides warm socks, hats, and gloves to those who need them.

The regulations on safe injection sites permits clients to carry illegal substances in small doses. However, it complicates the site’s operation if those same clients can be arrested for possession at a certain distance from the safe injection vehicle, Kristín says. “And of course it’s just never good when things are set up in this way. And especially not concerning this group. This is a very broken-down group that has a hard time trusting, has a hard time trusting the system. I think it’s incredibly important to erase any kind of doubt just in order to foster increased safety and trust in this group.”

Legal Services for Asylum Seekers Up in the Air

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

All 15 lawyers working for the Icelandic Red Cross were laid off after the Justice Ministry decided not to renew its contract with the organisation ensuring legal assistance to asylum seekers, Vísir reports. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has stated that many changes to services for foreigners in Iceland are in the works. No decision has been made on how such services will be provided after the contract expires on April 30.

The Icelandic Red Cross lawyers currently provide legal assistance and advocacy services for applicants for international protection in Iceland under the provisions of the contract with the Ministry of Justice. The services are intended to ensure that applicants’ cases “receive just and careful treatment,” according to the Red Cross website.

No decision on future services

Guðríður Lára Þrastardóttir, one of the Red Cross’ lawyers and leader of the organisation’s team on the issues of applicants for international protection, confirmed that the Justice Ministry has decided not to extend the contract past April 30. Guðríður stated she did not know the Ministry’s plans for providing such services after that date and stated that any future involvement of the Red Cross would depend on contract stipulations.

While the Minister of Justice stated that no decision has been made on whether the services will be put out to tender, Guðríður Lára stated that the Red Cross was informed a tender would be launched. She stated the Red Cross would participate “if we possibly can.”

Changes afoot in services for foreigners

The Minister of Justice stated that major changes are in the works in services connected to foreigners in Iceland, which is the reason the Ministry decided not to extend the contract. “Part of the projects in this contract are moving to another ministry. [The Red Cross] has both provided social services for asylum seekers, which now goes elsewhere, to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and also the advocacy services, which we are responsible for. So it was decided to reconsider the approach now.”

The Ministry recently reintroduced a bill that proposes amendments to immigration law, which has received criticism from human rights organisations, including the Red Cross. Members of Parliament have also levelled criticism at the Ministry of Justice for its recent decision to withhold citizenship applications from Parliament.

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.”

Harm Reduction Initiative Expands to Suðurnes Peninsula

frú ragnheiður á suðurnesjum - skaðaminnkun red cross

A harm-reduction initiative run by the Icelandic Red Cross has now expanded its services beyond the capital area – to the Suðurnes peninsula, Southwest Iceland. Frú Ragnheiður, as the project is called, provides healthcare services, needle exchange services, and counselling to individuals with addiction. A statistic on the project’s Facebook page states that 61% of the initiative’s clients are homeless and another 10% live in subsidised or temporary housing.

Frú Ragnheiður’s services are mobile, operating out of an ambulance which will now be servicing the Suðurnes peninsula in addition to the capital area. The ambulance will travel around the peninsula on Monday and Thursday evenings from 6.30pm-9.00pm. Individuals located on the Suðurnes peninsula who would like to access its services are encouraged to send a message to (+354) 783 4747 as early as possible on those days to make an appointment. The ambulance meets clients at a location of their choice and its services are confidential.

In 2019, the initiative provided services to 514 individuals, an increase of 20% from 2018. Many of those visited more than once, and total visits numbered 4,149. The Suðurnes peninsula is the second-largest population centre in Iceland after the Reykjavík capital area, with around 20,000 residents.

Opposition Parties, Red Cross Criticise Proposed Changes to Asylum Seeker Legislation

Austurvöllur - Hælisleitendur - flóttamenn - Alþingi refugees Iceland

Iceland’s Minister of Justice has resubmitted proposed changes to legislation governing international protection that she says will help shorten wait times for asylum seekers. Opposition parties and the Red Cross have criticised the changes, saying they prevent the Directorate of Immigration and the Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board from evaluating applicants on a case-by-case basis.

Critics of the amendments have focused on one article in particular concerning applicants that have been granted international protection in other countries, such as Greece or Hungary. Such applicants are most often sent back to those countries, despite living conditions for refugees that have been deemed inadequate by the Council of Europe and international rights watchdogs.

Read More: Asylum Seeker Deportations

“Exceptional individuals that have been in very special conditions, we’re talking about children with long-term illnesses, people with mental disorders and unaccompanied children as well, have had their cases processed and as a result received protection, but with this bill the Directorate of Immigration and Appeals Board’s permission to consider these factors is being removed,” Guðríður Lára Þrastardóttir, a lawyer at the Red Cross, told RÚV.

Opposition party members have also criticised this aspect of the bill, including Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir. “It means no hope for families that we have previously allowed to stay, precisely because there are special circumstances in their cases,” Þórhildur Sunna stated. “This is totally irresponsible. If we want to be considered a moral and responsible society in the international community then we don’t do this.” The Left-Green Movement, one of three parties in the government coalition, has stated it will not approve the bill without changes that make it possible to consider children’s applications on a case-by-case basis.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also submitted comments on the proposed changes. In a document submitted in August last year, the UNHCR stated it was “concerned” about some of the ways the proposal seeks to streamline asylum procedures. “In particular, the safe country concepts, and accelerated examination procedures, without sufficient procedural safeguards, as currently proposed, raise serious concerns.”

39 Snowmobilers Rescued Near Langjökull Glacier

Search and rescue teams were dispatched yesterday evening after a blinding snowstorm battered a group of 39 snowmobilers on Skálpanes by the roots of the Langjökull glacier, Mbl reports. The group dug snow shelters as they waited for rescue units to arrive.

In an interview with Mbl, Sveinn Kristján Rúnarsson, chief of police in South Iceland, confirmed that police authorities and rescue teams had come to the aid of 39 snowmobilers on Langjökull glacier yesterday evening. As later reported by Vísir, the group was on a snowmobiling tour with Mountaineers of Iceland. The snowmobilers later sought refuge in two small company vehicles. All of the rescue teams in Árnes county and South Iceland were mobilised, as were all of the ski vehicles in Árnesy county and the Greater Reykjavík Area, a total of roughly 300 rescue volunteers.

Search and rescue units arrived shortly after midnight and helped transport the group to Gulfosskaffi (Gullfoss Café) for food and drink, medical assistance, and crisis counselling, which the Health Care Institution of South Iceland and the Icelandic Red Cross provided. The first members of the group arrived at just before 6 pm this morning; it was slow going, in light of weather conditions. None of the travellers were seriously injured, although many were wet, cold, and tired. The group comprised travellers of varying nationalities.

A strong westerly storm struck Iceland yesterday. Rarik reported power outages in three separate areas in West Iceland: in Norðurárdalur; in Eskiholt near Varmaland; and Vatnshamrar in Hafnarskógur. Roads were closed in Krýsuvík, Mosfellsheiði, Bröttubrekka, Holtavörðuheiði, among others. A foreign cargo ship in Hafnarfjörður also broke off its moorings this morning.