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.

Fundraising Campaign Hopes to Reunify Palestinian Families

Palestine protest Feb 5 2024

An Icelandic aid organisation has initiated a fundraising campaign to assist in relocating 128 Palestinians from Gaza, addressing delays in government action regarding family reunification. The successful transfer of a family to Egypt by three Icelandic citizens underscores the practicality of such efforts, the organisation maintains.

Government inaction

A fundraising effort has been initiated by the humanitarian aid organisation Solaris to cover the costs of relocating 128 Palestinians from Gaza. According to a website dedicated to the effort, these individuals — 75 children, 44 mothers, and 9 fathers — have been “waiting for months for assistance from the Icelandic authorities,” as they have been granted residency permits in Iceland based on family reunification.

The decision to raise funds follows perceived inaction on behalf of the government.

“People living in Iceland and waiting desperately for their families have repeatedly requested dialogue with the authorities, which has almost exclusively been denied or ignored. Meanwhile, government ministers have repeatedly misled the public to divert the discussion and try to absolve themselves of moral responsibility,” the website notes

“Time is running out. In Gaza, people are in great danger. We must respond to their emergency.”

New policy needs to be formulated

In an interview with the Stöð 2 evening news yesterday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson stated that it would not be possible to start retrieving the aforementioned 128 individuals from Gaza until a new government policy had been formulated; Iceland’s infrastructure could burst under the additional strain, as the asylum-seeker system was currently costing taxpayers over ISK 20 billion [$145 million / €135 million] annually. 

“We simply cannot continue to blindly accept more people than everyone else and watch our infrastructure burst. That is the situation we are facing,” Bjarni observed. 

Not just a matter of sending documents

On a similar note, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told RÚV yesterday that the issue was complex, with three ministries working to ensure the people are brought to the country. 

According to Katrín, the Directorate of Immigration has prioritised the applications of Palestinians, and the Ministry of Social Affairs has negotiated with the International Organization for Migration, IOM, to assist in moving the people between locations. 

Katrín stated that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent documents regarding those who have received residency permits based on family reunification: “These documents are sent to the appropriate places in both Egypt and Israel. Then, due to the situation, it becomes slightly more complicated than just sending such documents; it requires sending personnel to the location.”  

Katrín added that the transport of these individuals would be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Costly, yes; complex, no

Solaris rejects the notion that reunifying families is complex, noting that three Icelandic women (Bergþóra Snæbjörnsdóttir, Kristín Eiríksdóttir, and María Lilja Þrastardóttir) — dismayed by the government’s inaction — recently managed to bring a woman and three children from Gaza to safety in Egypt. 

It took only four days.

As noted by Vísir, the Palestinian woman and the three children are related to a friend of the three Icelandic women. The man has been residing in Iceland in recent years. He received an Icelandic identification number (Kennitala) last year and applied for family reunification in April 2023.

Solaris admits, however, that relocating people from Gaza to Egypt requires significant financial resources. 

“The total cost of legally moving about 100 individuals across the border, in cooperation with service providers and contacts working with Egyptian and Israeli authorities responsible for these matters, is around ISK 50 million or [$363,000 / €337,000],” the fundraising website notes.

Protests in Front of Parliament Yesterday, Foreign Minister Accused of Possible Hate Speech

Following remarks made by Foreign Minister and Independence Party chairperson Bjarni Benediktsson last Friday regarding both the tents of Palestinian protesters and their allies in front of Parliament in particular and asylum seekers in general, protests were held in front of Parliament yesterday. Attendees gathered both to criticise the government’s policies towards Palestinian asylum seekers and to call on the government to show substantial support for Palestine.

In addition, the refugee and asylum seeker assistance NGO Solaris has said that the Foreign Minister’s remarks possibly fall under Article 233a of the General Penal Code, which is Iceland’s law on hate speech.

Family re-unification

At around 3:00 PM yesterday afternoon, protesters gathered in front of Parliament, many bearing the Palestinian flag and slogans showing support for Palestine and the asylum seekers who have been camping in front of Parliament since December 27th. Mayor of Reykjavík Einar Þorsteinsson has said that they have a license to camp on this property, and that their protests have been peaceful. RÚV reports that the license is set to expire tomorrow, January 24th, but that an extension of this permit has been applied for.

Intense but peaceful

Those camping in front of Parliament are doing so in large part because Iceland’s government has an established policy of family re-unification for those granted international protection in Iceland. The government has been criticised for not assisting in retrieving family members of asylum seekers from Gaza, while Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has contended that the government is not obliged to do so.

They have also called for a meeting with relevant government ministers, and for authorities to cease deporting Palestinian asylum seekers from Iceland. As none of these demands have been met, and with the Foreign Minister’s recent remarks calling the tents “a tragedy” as well as calling for increased police powers and tightening border restrictions, protesters assembled en masse in front of Parliament yesterday afternoon, with many just outside the entrance. Police were called at that point, but saw no cause to intervene.

Minister has “neglected his government duties”

Meanwhile, Solaris responded to the Finance Minister’s remarks with a Facebook post of their own, saying in part:

“While the minister has neglected his governmental duties and continues to refuse to meet with the Palestinian community in Iceland with regards to family reunification for their family members in Gaza, he chooses instead to use his public influence to spread misinformation about community members at their most vulnerable moment.”

They accuse Bjarni Benediktsson of conflating those exercising their legal right to apply for international protection with organised crime. They add further that his remarks may well fall under Article 233a of the General Penal Code, often known as Iceland’s hate speech law, which states:

“Anyone who publicly mocks, defames, denigrates or threatens a person or group of persons by comments or expressions of another nature, for example by means of pictures or symbols, for their nationality, colour, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, or disseminates such materials, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 2 years.”

“Free to disagree”

For his part, Bjarni Benediktsson has dismissed this accusation, stating that people are free to have differences of opinion in a democratic society, including the opinion to disagree with his opinion.

Solaris also stated that they have witnessed numerous increased examples of hate speech, including threats and encouragement of violence towards people seeking international protection, and have filed charges with the police regarding some of them.

“This is a moment where we as a community must continue to show our rejection of deplorable attempts to undermine democracy, that we stand with and for human rights, hold our elected government officials accountable for their duties and intervene in hateful discourses against vulnerable members of our society,” they write in closing.

Protesters Call to Dismantle Directorate of Immigration

“Out with the Directorate of Immigration!” This was the chant of protesters who gathered in Reykjavík’s Parliament Square yesterday and marched to the police station on Hverfisgata. The protest was organised in response to the arrest of two asylum seekers in the directorate’s offices last week that left one of the arrested men in hospital. The director of Solaris, an Icelandic aid organisation for refugees and asylum seekers, says the sooner the directorate is dismantled, the better.

“These protests come in the wake of the events we witnessed this past week, when two applicants for international protection are lured to the premises of the Directorate of Immigration on false pretences, where they are deprived of their liberty and subjected to great duress and violence and arrested and deported from the country without notice. These are actions that we have not witnessed before and a sign of increased severity on the part of the authorities towards refugees,” Sema Erla Serdar, Solaris’ director, told mbl.is.

Sema says protesters came together yesterday to show solidarity with refugees and send a message to Icelandic authorities that inhumane policy will not be tolerated. “We see it repeatedly and in fact always that the public’s stance towards refugees is very different from the government’s and there is usually a strong consensus to do better in that regard. I am convinced that the public does not support this policy that we are seeing.”

Read More: Directorate of Immigration Criticised for Withdrawing Support of Asylum Seekers

In Sema’s opinion, the Directorate of Immigration does more harm than good. It should be dismantled and reconstructed on a new foundation, with humanity and respect for people as its guiding principle. “There certainly needs to be some framework around refugee’s issues, whether that’s a special ministry or institution or something like that, that would then be part of the reconstruction. The Directorate of Immigration in its current form, which is certainly built on a dubious foundation, is simply obsolete, the directorate is doing more harm than good and it simply needs to be closed down, and the sooner the better.”