Iceland welcomes first Syrian refugees

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson (2R) poses with a man of the first group of Syrian refugees on January 19, 2016 upon their arrival at Keflavik airport (AFP Photo/Haraldur Guðjónsson)

Reykjavik (AFP) - Iceland on Tuesday welcomed the first Syrian refugees to reach the country, as six families swapped a Red Cross camp in Lebanon for the chilly climes of Europe's extreme north.

The group were met at the airport by no less than the country's prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, whose press service said he had expressed the wish that the newcomers would soon feel at home.

The 35-strong group will stay with families in three municipalities -- Akureyri in the north and Kopavogur and Hafnarfjordur near the capital Reykjavik.

"Thank you Iceland, this is a great country," the Morgunbladid daily quoted one Syrian man as saying.

Local authorities are laying on a range of social programmes to hasten the families' integration.

"Every effort will be made to help the refugees to build a new life in Iceland and adapt to conditions here so they can actively participate in Icelandic society," the government said in a statement.

Four more families are expected soon while some more have turned down the offer to forge new lives more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) from home, the ministry for social affairs revealed.

Official statistics say just 21 Syrians emigrated to Iceland, which has a population of some 330,000, between 2011 when the conflict broke out in their homeland and the end of 2014.

Reykjavik initially said it would take in 50 refugees but then said it would increase that figure amid a campaign on social media which saw several thousand citizens pledge readiness to provide accommodation.