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Finland and refugees

Anna SarasteJanuary 15, 2016

Finland last year received the largest number of refugees in its history, which has lead to growing anti-immigration sentiments. Politicians outside the conservative True Finns party have also turned against refugees.

Finns demand in demonstration to not allow refugees to cross at Finnish-Swedish border.
Finns demand at Finnish-Swedish border in a demonstration to not allow refugees to enter.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/LEHTIKUVA/J. Nukari

The arrival of 30,000 refugees last year in Finland - a country of roughly 5.5 million people - prompted more open manifestations of anti-immigrant feelings, from anti-migrant street patrols to a wave of racist statements in the public. "The change from a non-debate to a very heated one happened very suddenly," Riikka Purra, a PhD student researching humanitarian interventions and immigration told DW.

Few refugees had come to Finland before the 2015 migration movement to Europe. From 1973-2013, around 40,000 refugees moved to Finland, most of them from Chile, Vietnam, Iraq and Somalia. Of the 30,000 refugees who reached the northern European country last year, between 10-15,000 will be allowed to stay permanently.

First came the Somali civil war refugees

Previously, refugees seldomly made their way all across Europe to Finland, and most of the arrivals came through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the early 1990s it was the Somali civil war that brought the first bigger group of refugees to the North. When several hundred Somali refugees arrived by train from Moscow, politicians and media talked about the event as the 'Somali shock'.

Finland Demonstration Flüchtlinge
The #suomisayswelcome demonstration on September 12, 2015 in Helsinki.Image: Suomi says welcome/Kukka Ranta

Arshe Said, Chairperson of the Finnish Somali League, came as a 19-year old refugee to Finland in 1993. According to Said, back then some criminal acts were committed by Somali immigrants, which, he said, in the eyes of native Finns "stigmatized the whole Somali population for a long time". As an ethnic group, Somalis were singled out because their appearance and culture were very different from the Finnish one, making them an easy target.

Said described to DW the general atmosphere in Finland now to be one of fear, explaining: "The minorities fear acts of hatred and xenophobia, like the lighting of refugee shelter homes. The Finnish majority is afraid, too, of increased criminal acts committed by the new arrivals."

"I don't think we have even reached the darkest moment in the discussion yet", said Maryan Abdulkarim who is vice president of the Finnish Women's Rights Union. "When you think about a country the size of Finland, with these kind of resources, the number of refugees coming here is small. The issue is the emotional part."

Spill-over of anti-immigration sentiments to all parties

Not only the general public, but also politicians have started to convey their anti-immigration sentiments more openly since last year. Kaisa Väkiparta, who is the head of communications at the Finnish Refugee Council, expressed her discontent at how afraid political leaders are to condemn openly racist comments from their party members. "When people see that their leaders can use this kind of language, it becomes generally more legitimized," she said.

The Finnish Refugee Council organizes peer group meetings for refugees arriving in Finland.
The Finnish Refugee Council organizes peer group meetings for refugees arriving in Finland.Image: Finnish Refugee Council/Laura Böök

For example, a statement by Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä this week caused some confusion as he called the debate around the anti-immigrant street patrols "out of proportion." According to Sipilä, "everyone should understand if you bring children to their hobbies or to school," making the street patrols sound like a regular activity. Most of the street patrols openly define themselves as national socialist.

The conservative True Finns party until recently was the most prominent supporter of anti-immigration policies, with some of its parlamentarians accused of frequently using racist language. Lately, however, critical commentary on refugees and immigration has spilled over from the True Finns to almost all other parties currently represented in the Finnish parliament. PhD student Riikka Purra says: "The politicians are afraid to lose votes, if they are too immigration-friendly, since it's a topic that is very important to their electorate."

Purra believes that in the next years it will be made increasingly difficult to apply for asylum in Finland and to reunite families of refugees. "More and more, the politicians will emphasize what is beneficial for 'us' and make it less attractive for refugees to come here. The main focus has shifted to the state's interests and away from a humanitarian perspective."