The Finnish Parliament Annex is filling up with people – human rights activists and politicians alike – who have come to attend an event organised by Amnesty International Finland in honour of the World Refugee Day on Tuesday 20 June.
The hashtag “Me Välitämme”, which is Finnish for “We Care”, illuminates the ideal that Amnesty International and a number of other attendees wish to broadcast.
This is an image of Finland as a compassionate nation with regards to refugees and asylum seekers. On a more practical level, “Me Välitamme” is the name of a current petition by Amnesty International to pressure Interior Minister Paula Risikko (National Coalition Party) to demand a higher refugee quota for the year of 2018
While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) determines who is eligible for resettlement under the refugee quota, members of parliament decide the numbers. Said numbers for Finland have largely remained unchanged for the past sixteen years – capped at a quota of 750 refugees per annum. The conflict in Syria led to a temporary exception to the rule, and the quota was raised to 1,050 for the years of 2014 and 2015. Since then, the quota has been lowered back to the original figure.
Risikko is not deaf to suggestions of raising the quota, as she herself has proposed to raise it back to its 2015 levels. Yet several of the speakers, among them Eva Biaudet (Swedish People’s Party), advocate for a manifold increase in numbers, far beyond that suggested by Risikko.
While Biaudet acknowledges that integration can be challenging, and emphasises the need for building trust among all parties, she maintains that larger refugee quotas would not intensify these challenges if properly planned.
‘By creating a system of quota refugees, we are able to plan in advance’, Eva Biaudet explains. ‘Refugees do not have to move several times in their countries of destination as the municipalities are able to plan ahead, and the people in the refugee camps are able to prepare through learning about the place that they are going.’
Thomas Bergman, representing UNHCR, agrees that current resettlement quotas do not cover present needs, as there are an estimated 1.2 million refugees in need of resettlement and only 37 resettling countries.
While Finland cannot take in all refugees currently in need of resettlement, Paavo Arhinmäki (Left Alliance) argues that Prime Minister Juha Sipilä now has the perfect opportunity to raise the refugee quota as the True Finns are no longer part of the three-party coalition government. Indeed, Ville Tapio (Finns Party) is the only speaker present that is outright opposed to raising quotas. Instead, Tapio advocates for the redirection of resources from the current resettlement programme into humanitarian aid for refugees in countries within close proximity to conflict. Both Biaudet and Bergman view this as an unsustainable solution, as life in refugee camps is supposed to be temporary.
Despite disagreements, most participants can agree that the roots of forced displacement need to be addressed. Bergman rightly points out that war and conflict are the problem, while displacement is a consequence of them. Arhinmäki argues that helping countries in conflict is not enough, but resources need to be directed towards conflict prevention.
Bergman praises Finnish efforts to maintain relatively high levels of humanitarian aid – largely directed at protecting disabled refugees. However, other development aid has been cut, and as Nasima Razmyar (Social Democratic Party) maintains, widespread hunger and a lack of education can easily lead to a humanitarian crisis. Debating numbers back and forth is quite arbitrary if the roots of conflict are not properly addressed.
According to statistics gathered by the Finnish Immigration Service, Finland’s refugee quotas have increasingly encompassed refugees of Syrian nationality since Syrians were first included in 2014. Last year, of all the refugees resettled in Finland through the quota system, all but one were Syrians.
Beyond resettlement quotas, Finland has received a total of 40,205 applications for international protection since January 2015. Out of said applications, roughly one quarter have been granted. Applications for asylum have decreased substantially in recent years, from a peak of around 32,500 in 2015 to only 5,700 last year. This could be due to the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, although a direct casual link is hard to prove. Iraqi citizens make up for the largest share of applicants, while Syrian citizens seem to be among the most likely to have been granted asylum upon application.
While the refugee quotas remain subject to disagreement, all participants present in the Parliament Annex on Tuesday could agree on one thing; that multifaceted problems should be approached with multifaceted solutions. While discussions about quotas are important, other deliberations should not be neglected for the purpose of simplifying debate.
Photo: Lehtikuva / Heikki Saukkomaa