Finland has decided to take in 600 Syrian refugees from Turkish camps as part of the yearly quota of 750 the country adopted in 2001.
Quota refugees differ from those who apply for asylum at the border or after entering the country. Quota refugees are selected from refugees who are already in a safe third country and have registered with the UNHCR. They are granted asylum immediately upon selection and transferred directly to houses prepared for them in Finnish municipalities. There, they start a normal life; the kids are put to school or daycare, and the adults start the integration process by learning Finnish.
A few years ago, I made a series of documentaries about quota refugees for the Finnish TV. My crew and I followed the whole process. We travelled to Iran with the 14-member selection committee and filmed the lives of some of the Afghan refugees in Tehran, the selection process and the cultural orientation course arranged afterwards, their trip to Finland, and settlement in their homes. We then followed their lives for the first five years.
At the time, more than 2 million Afghan refugees were living in Iran. They lived not in refugee camps but among the local population, earning a living as cheap labour.
The UNHCR's office in Tehran is situated in the wealthy northern part of the city, far away from the poor south, where all the Afghans were living. The UNHCR did not actively search for the most vulnerable refugees or advertise the program in any way. In fact, the knowledge of the resettlement programme was a protected secret and an intentional puzzle impossible to decipher for the vast majority of the refugees. When I asked the Italian director of the UNHCR office the simple question of “who is entitled to apply for resettlement?” she asked me to turn off the camera; “We can’t say that, because if everyone would learn what the conditions are we will have too many applications with the right criteria, and we would not be able to handle them,” she said unabashed.
The gateway to heaven was thus hidden from the masses. Only those who happened to have relatives who had already been resettled through the quota programme knew about the system and the criteria. Once registered, the applicant could list the countries they preferred to go to. Finland was hardly on anybody’s list at the time. After USA, Sweden, Germany and Norway had chosen their quotas, those who were not selected were offered to the Finnish delegation. “Would you like to go to Finland?” I asked a group of Afghan families outside the UNHCR before they were interviewed. “Yes,” they all were sure about that. “Do you know anything about Finland?” “No,” they answered without exception.
In the selection process, the panel of migration officials from Finnish ministries were trying to balance between who could integrate and who needed help most urgently, while a representative of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) was trying to identify those who were potentially a threat to national security.
At the same time when the lucky chosen ones were having their cultural orientation course on the second floor of the IOM (International Organisation for Migration) building, other Afghan families unaware of the quota programme were queuing for a repatriation program one floor below. Most of Afghanistan had been safe already for a couple of years. They were given 100 US dollars per family to go back home.
Each quota refugee, on the other hand, costs the host country much more. A group of 750 quota refugees will have cost the taxpayers about a million euros by the time they land at the Helsinki Airport. From there, the Government pays all expenses for the next 5 to 10 years. Because of its relatively small quota, Finland has accepted more refugees with chronic illnesses and disabilities who, as a result, are more costly. According to a report ordered by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy in 2013, the Government reimbursed municipalities an average of 75 million euros per year for the costs of receiving and integrating refugees between 2010 and 2012, roughly half of which arose from quota refugees.
Despite financial incentives from the government, municipalities do not want to take refugees, and when they do, they want to select the least “visible” kind, often meaning those with lighter skin. That's why it took years to find housing for Sudanese quota refugees. This, in turn, steers the selection trips away from Africa, where the most vulnerable refugees live in miserable conditions. The integration process is also slow and has its first bottleneck right in the beginning: there is a six to twelve month waiting list for the Finnish language courses.
Don’t get me wrong. The families resettled were good and decent people and deserved all the help they got. But as an example, there are still 1.7 million Afghan refugees living in poor conditions in Iran. Many of their kids cannot go to school and don't have access to proper health care. When I was filming the life of Afghan refugees in Tehran, I interviewed a local school principal on why they cannot accept Afghan kids into schools. “The system would simply collapse,” he answered. “There are simply too many of them.” He also mentioned that the Iranian government – to no avail – had asked for international aid amounting to a mere monthly ten dollars per refugee kid to be able to provide schooling for them. This means that Finland could have provided schooling for 50,000 Afghan kids every year with what is spent on only 750 refugees. In Afghanistan, where living expenses are much lower than in Iran and astronomically lower than in Finland, one can do miracles with 50 million euros. Alternatively, with this amount, 5,000 Ikea-designed top-notch shelters could be purchased for the refugee camps to provide decent housing for 25,000 people.
Taking in 600 or even 6,000 Syrian refugees also would not make a big difference when there are six million refugees or displaced Syrians living in harsh conditions. No matter how well the selection is done, it would leave lots of vulnerable people out. If the poorest and most desperate are selected, they would most probably be the least integrable, causing social problems and resulting in increased racism and xenophobia among the Finnish population. If, on the other hand, we select the most integrable, they would not be those in worst situations. Mixing humanitarian and labour migration is not only wrong, it also promotes none of the causes. Wherever the quota refugees are selected from, there would be many among the local population living in similar conditions who are not eligible for the program.
One major fallacy behind the quota system is the assumption that it could decrease the influx of asylum seekers into a country. Finland has promised to increase its quota manifold, if the illegal influx is restrained. In fact, there are indications of the opposite. The role of social networks in migration has been studied since the 1920s. The more quota (or other) refugees live in a country, the more they inspire and attract their relatives and friends to take the risk of coming. This is a major reason why Iraqis, and Afghans represent the majority of the recent influx into Finland. The most of them have relatives here.
The quota programme would be an excellent way of helping refugees if there were only 750 refugees in the world and if the system was really functional. In reality, the quota refugee program is an extremely unfair, selective and extravagant arrangement to wash away the guilt that is seldom worth the result. It's an irrational lottery scheme that should be abandoned as soon as possible.
At the same time, it's of utmost importance that the money is spent and used fairly on the whole refugee population. Even if the conditions are harsh in the neighbouring countries, they would be harsh for everyone. The cultures are also usually closer and the chances of going back home considerably higher.
Editor in Chief
picture: AFP / KHALIL MAZRAAWI - LEHTIKUVA