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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Iceland 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavik. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Iceland. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Iceland country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Iceland at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Reykjavik as being a LOW-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Based on information from the Icelandic National Police, local news sources, and previous reporting, crime continues to be lower than in most developed countries and countries of similar size and demographics. The low level of general crime and very low level of violent crime is due to the high-standard of living, lack of tension between social and economic classes, small population, strong social attitudes against criminality, high level of trust in law enforcement, and a well-trained, highly-educated police force.

The Reykjavik Metropolitan area continues to see increasing levels of petty crime and minor assaults directly connected to the increasing number of tourists it attracts. Reykjavik also has higher than average (for Iceland) reports of domestic violence, sexual assaults, automobile theft, vandalism, property damage, and other street crimes, which is typical for any large urban area. These numbers are still very low when compared to the United States or Europe. Police attribute most of these crimes to juvenile delinquents, drug users, immigrants, and tourists. According to the police, the rise in pickpocketing is a direct result of an influx of immigrants/asylum seekers coupled with the increasing presence of tourists. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Iceland has had a homicide rate of less than one per year for the last several decades. In a notable deviation from this trend, Iceland registered four homicides in 2017, but only one again in 2018. The Commissioner of Icelandic National Police considered 2017 an aberration and not evidence of increasing violence.

The Government of Iceland has taken steps, including a reorganization of the Icelandic National Police, to detect and combat trafficking in persons before it takes a foothold in Iceland. Officials are concerned that the growth in the construction and tourism industries could result in an influx of trafficked persons.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit, and Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Cybersecurity Issues

In 2015, Iceland unveiled its National Cyber Security Strategy to protect important elements of the cyber infrastructure and develop solutions to growing cyber threats that pose a hazard to the government, the economy, and the citizenry. In 2018, the new government pledged to increase its capacity to prevent and respond to cyber security threats, implement legislation based on international norms, and establish closer collaboration and coordination on cyber security between Iceland, partner nations, and leaders in the information technology industry. After cyberattacks in 2013 and 2015-2016, there have been no major cybersecurity incidents.

Iceland enjoys wide internet freedoms. Accordingly, its well-educated populace is online to a high degree. This permissive environment fostered the growth of WikiLeaks. Public sentiment continues to support legislation and actions ensuring maintaining internet freedom.

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Though Iceland has a fairly modern highway system, roads are not constructed for speed. Many roads outside of the main highways are undeveloped and often composed of unpaved, loose gravel. The primary risk factors when driving outside of populated areas are single-lane bridges(marked with a sign “Enibreid bru”), unexpected animal crossings, poor surface maintenance, lack of emergency lane/shoulder space, icy/windy road conditions during the winter (October-April), and tourists inexperienced at driving in Icelandic weather conditions.

Familiarize yourself with Iceland’s traffic laws and practices, which include stopping for yellow traffic lights, no right turns at red lights, and giving the inside lane the right of way when exiting traffic circles. Icelandic law requires drivers to keep headlights on at all times. Talking on cell phones while driving is prohibited, except when using a hands-free system. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense. The use of seatbelts is mandatory in both the front and rear seats.

Avoid travel into the highlands and interior during the winter or during inclement weather unless using well-equipped, off-road capable (4x4) vehicles under the supervision of experienced guides. Interior roads usually close during the winter. Occasionally, even main roads in more populated areas may close due to heavy snow. Many routes in the interior of the country are impassable until July due to muddy conditions and swollen rivers caused by snowmelt. See www.road.is for road conditions.

Iceland possesses one of the highest car-ownership rates in the world. This does not cause much traffic congestion, however, due to low urban density.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions

Because of high vehicle ownership, demand for public transport services remains low. Public transportation is relatively underdeveloped, and many areas are poorly served compared to other capital cities. Limited but effective services are available in major urban areas.

Nationwide coach and bus services link the major towns and cities, although many Icelanders use domestic flights to get from one major town to another. Strætó BS, the public bus system, operates its services in metropolitan Reykjavík. Strætisvagnar Akureyrar is the public bus system in Akureyri. Iceland is also investigating the feasibility of building a light railway system to service the Reykjavik metropolitan area.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

In 2015, Keflavik International Airport (KEF) announced a 25-year Master Plan to accommodate the rapid increases in tourism to and through Iceland. KEF had a record setting 9.75 million passengers in 2018.The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the government of Iceland’s Civil Aviation Authority as compliant with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of Iceland’s air carrier operations.

Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Maritime Security Conditions

Despite being an island nation, Iceland has limited international sea services, featuring regular ferry service from the Faroe Islands (Denmark) and local ferry services operated by Eimskip between Þorlákshöfn, Landeyarhofn, and the Westman Islands.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Reykjavik as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. According to the Icelandic National Commissioner of Police, there is no known international or transnational terrorist threat against U.S. interests in Iceland. Iceland is party to the Schengen Agreement, which eliminates all internal border controls between member states. Lack of stringent border control can facilitate the movement of international terrorists, a concern with terrorist activity throughout Europe in recent years. There is no known domestic terrorist threat against U.S. interests in Iceland or local activity regarding regional terrorist organizations.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Reykjavik as being a LOW-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. In 2016, Iceland experienced its largest public demonstrations in history, as over 22,000 people protested outside the Prime Minister’s office in Reykjavik. This multiple-day, non-violent protest came after revelations from the Panama Papers showing that several senior Iceland officials (including the Prime Minister and Finance Minister) had large investments in foreign corporations to circumvent Iceland’s austere capital controls. The public outcry over these revelations forced the Prime Minster to resign. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

Terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany, coupled with the ongoing crisis in Syria, has heightened concerns in Iceland about migrant/asylum seeker/refugee issues, with special emphasis on the transiting foreign fighter issue. While general sentiments have been strictly tolerant, religious and ethnic tensions have increased, especially toward Muslim immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Iceland’s issues center on concerns over increased immigration and the perceived increase in crime attributed to immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

Icelanders are also concerned about the expansion of Islamic cultural and religious institutions, including opposition to plans for building of the country’s first mosque at a prominent location in Reykjavik.Local media reported a single incident of a potentially religiously motivated hate crime in 2019. In July, a woman accosted a group of three Muslim women outside a grocery store in a suburb of Reykjavik, shouting at the group before spitting in their direction and attempting to grab their hijabs.

In July and September 2019, a small contingent of neo-Nazis, mostly Swedish and belonging to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), distributed white nationalist propaganda in the country. While the number of Icelandic members of the NRM is unknown, authorities believe it to be small. On September 5, police monitored an NRM demonstration in downtown Reykjavik. The demonstration caused a local outcry, and a counter-protest the following day drew a significantly larger number of attendees.

Anti-U.S. Sentiment

The U.S. Embassy has witnessed a number of relatively minor protests over the last few years, mainly featuring non-violent demonstrations concerning U.S. foreign policy. The 2016 U.S. presidential election caused several small, non-violent demonstrations in Reykjavik.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Always consider weather conditions, which can change rapidly. The biggest threat to travelers is extreme weather (e.g. gale force winds, snow, ice, and dramatic temperature changes) that can cause adverse traffic conditions and death by exposure to those who are unprepared.

The sandy beaches along the southern coast have become a popular tourist destination. Take extra precautions and be very aware of your surroundings, as sudden large waves and strong riptides have taken the lives of several tourists in recent years.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. Iceland’s restless volcanic activity has had an impact on air travel in the Atlantic/Arctic corridor. Beginning in 2014, a series of earthquakes and volcanic activity has centered on Bárðarbunga, one of seven active volcanoes in Iceland. The impacts of a larger possible eruption remain unclear, though in a worst-case scenario, extensive flooding or aviation disruptions related to ash emissions could occur. Volcanologists consider the latter scenario unlikely, though they continue to monitor volcanic areas closely.

Critical Infrastructure

Iceland’s low-cost power generation and advantageous cold weather conditions permit a growing data-storage industry poised for expansion. Since 2013, Iceland has been part of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence to develop its ability to augment and defend its cyber security infrastructure. 

Iceland has excellent hazardous material (HAZMAT) response capabilities to address industrial accidents. Iceland also has established a well-respected search and rescue (SAR) system, staffed by volunteers nationwide.

Economic Concerns

After the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland implemented capital control measures, which among other effects substantially reduce financial crimes and the illicit movement of money through Iceland. However, nearly all capital controls are now removed; this will likely bring with it both the positive and negative effects associated with the increased flow of currency and financial assets.

Personal Identity Concerns

Iceland is a leader in human rights, with a very progressive and accepting society related to gender, sexual orientation, and disability issues. The law guarantees religious freedom, and discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or other factors is illegal.

In 2018, police investigated seven potential cases of hate crimes as defined under Icelandic law, more than half of which were classified as racist/xenophobic; police only prosecuted one case. The police take a proactive approach to the issue, with a great emphasis on engaging the Eastern European, Islamic, and asylum-seeker communities.

Two laws prohibit sexual harassment. The general penal code makes sexual harassment punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. The law on equal status defines sexual harassment more broadly as any type of unfair or offensive physical, verbal, or symbolic sexual behavior that is unwanted, affects the self-respect of the victim, and continues despite a clear indication that the behavior is undesired. The law requires employers and organization supervisors to make specific arrangements to prevent employees, students, and clients from becoming victims of gender-based or sexual harassment. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

LGBTI+ activists continued to note the lack of explicit protections for LGBTI+ individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics, in hate crime laws. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

For the first time, a synagogue is in the process of registering as a religious organization. There were no reports of discrimination or institutional challenges to its registration. Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The law provides that persons with disabilities have access to buildings, information, and communications. By law, persons with disabilities are free to hire their own assistance providers and tailor assistance to their needs. Disability rights advocates complain that authorities do not fully implement the law and regulations. While violations of these regulations are punishable by a fine or a jail sentence of up to two years, one of the main associations for persons with disabilities contend that authorities rarely, if ever, assess penalties for noncompliance. All government buildings in Iceland are wheelchair accessible, as are most museums, malls, and large shopping centers in the capital area. The public bus system and taxis provide transportation services for individuals with disabilities. Many stores in the old downtown area in Reykjavik, such as around the popular shopping street of Laugávegur, are not wheelchair accessible. Many sidewalks in downtown Reykjavik lack curb ramps, and the streets are steep. Hotels outside Reykjavik and smaller hotels in the capital are not all accessible to individuals with disabilities. There are very few paths or marked trails at natural attractions found outside urban areas. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crimes

Drug-related trends include a continuing increase in the cultivation of marijuana for domestic consumption and enterprising smuggling attempts to use Iceland as a transit point from the EU to North America.

The Icelandic National Police Organized Crime Division links criminal organizations to the manufacture of methamphetamine, money laundering, and extortion. Authorities have made inroads into disrupting this activity through increased domestic enforcement and engagement in the exclusion and deportation of outside criminal support elements from the EU.

Police have identified several small organized crime groups and outlaw biker gangs (most notably, chapters of the Hell’s Angels, Bandidos, and Outlaws motorcycle clubs) operating to smuggle drugs into Iceland. Since 2013, authorities have increased pressure on these organizations, including denying entry and deporting known members and associates of these organizations, substantially reducing their reach and effectiveness. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the police have continued to employ additional resources and enlist the support of external law enforcement agencies in the fight against organized crime, with positive results.

Kidnapping Threat

While uncommon, most kidnapping cases involve drug-related debt collection and domestic/parental disputes involving multinational couples. There have been no reported cases of political kidnappings. In 2017, Iceland investigated its first potential abduction/murder case. The case involved the homicide of a 20-year old Icelandic woman, allegedly by foreign sailors, whom she met over social media. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics

Other Issues

Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Though whale meat and other products that utilize whale parts are sold throughout Iceland, the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to bring back whale products to the United States. Any importation of products containing whale to the United States will result in the seizure of the goods and possible criminal prosecution. Penalties include jail time and fines of up to $10,000. Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response

The emergency line in Iceland is 112. Icelandic Emergency Response has a smartphone application that allows travelers to notify a central emergency response center of their whereabouts; this can drastically reduce response time in the event search and rescue operations become necessary. Victims of crime may also visit a local police station for assistance: Metropolitan Police, Hverfisgata 113 – 115, 101 Reykjavik; Tel: (+354) 444-1000. For local first responders, refer to the Embassy’s Emergency Assistance page. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

Police/Security Agencies

The National Commissioner of Police Office serves as the operational and administrative headquarters for Iceland’s nine administrative police districts, each lead by a chief of police. The police have a national counterterrorism unit (the Viking Squad), which consists of specially trained officers who can respond quickly to large-scale emergencies.

Iceland has just over 700 active duty and reserve police officers, almost of all of whom are unarmed while on duty. Since 2015, Icelandic law has equipped marked police vehicles with side arms under a strict system of control and use. While the police have adequate training and operate professionally, they are understaffed and underfunded compared to the area and number of people they must protect. Iceland’s very low crime rate permits the police to maintain an average response time on par with other European cities. Be prepared for dramatically varied emergency response. Specifically, the police do not generally respond to traffic accidents unless there are injuries or the road becomes blocked.

The Icelandic Coast Guard (ICG) is Iceland’s maritime law enforcement arm. It receives assistance from the voluntary search and rescue organization, Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg(Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, or ICE-SAR), with approximately 4,000 on-call volunteers.

The national police, the nine regional police forces, and the ICG fall under the purview of the Justice Ministry. Iceland has no military.

Medical Emergencies

The medical emergency line in Iceland is 112. To obtain non-emergency medical assistance in Reykjavik metropolitan area, dial 544-4114 during business hours. Outside of normal business hours, dial 1770. Icelandic healthcare is of a high Western standard. All operators speak English. A nurse will offer advice, suggest an after-hours clinic, or send a physician to make a house call. For information on after-hours dental care, call 575-0505. Each town has at least one Apotek (pharmacy), identified by a green plus sign. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

Patient transport by air is of great importance because of Iceland’s many sparsely populated areas, long distances, and transportation difficulties during the winter. The Ministry of Health and Social Security (MHSS) has contracted out air emergency services since 2001. The service for the western, northern, and eastern parts of the country centers on Akureyri, the location of the nation’s second-largest hospital. There is one dedicated air ambulance, which is well equipped and capable of transporting two patients. Staff includes an EMT-I or EMT-P from the Akureyri Fire and Rescue Service, including a physician from University Hospital in Akureyri or the local health authority, if needed.

When use of ordinary airplanes is not possible, Icelandic Coast Guard emergency helicopters may be available. The Coast Guard operates three rescue helicopters (Aerospatiale Super Puma) based in Reykjavík. The primary mission is search and rescue, on shore and at sea. Staff includes two pilots, a rescue technician, a navigator, and a physician.

Consider obtaining regular travel insurance and medical evacuation (medevac) insurance to cover all types of incidents. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Iceland.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

There is no Country Council in Reykjavik. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Europe Team with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

Laufásvegur 21, 101 Reykjavik

Hours: 0800-1700, Monday-Friday, excluding U.S. and Icelandic holidays

Embassy switchboard: (+354) 595-2200.

After hours: (+354) 595-2248

Website: https://is.usembassy.gov/

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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