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Student Nabeel Sulaiman is determined to complete his Master’s at Hanken despite facing deportation
Migri’s tightening regulations regarding residence permits has “spilled over onto international students”. A 45-credit annual requirement for international students is currently enforced by Migri. The result is that these students do not only have to complete their studies under more limited time restraints but face extreme repercussions when these credits are incomplete even in cases of illness.  

NABEEL SULAIMAN, 25, is a Master’s student of Economics and Business Administration at Hanken School of Economics who is now facing deportation and a two-year entry ban from the Schengen area. After falling ill in the first year of his Master’s studies he was unable to complete the 45-credit requirement demanded of Migri and as a result his residence permit was rejected.

“I arrived in Finland from Pakistan in 2013 to start my Bachelor’s at Aalto University and graduated in the spring of 2016,” Nabeel told the Helsinki Times. “After an exchange year in the States, I applied for an extended residence permit in order to begin my Master’s studies at Hanken which was granted until January 2017. Two months into my Master’s studies I fell ill and was unable to regularly attend university lectures, so I only had 12 credits by the beginning of 2017”. 

Nabeel’s illness was serious enough to warrant surgery, which was scheduled for February 2017. He visited Migri before his surgery to apply for the residence permit extension and on 10 March 2017 was sent a request to supplement his residence permit application. The letter asked for a “written clarification” of Nabeel’s academic performance stating that he “should have done a lot more credits to arrive [at the] required 45 credits at the end of this academic year”. “The first time I heard about the 45-credit requirement was when I read the supplement request,” Nabeel explains.

Nabeel submitted a written statement to Migri clarifying the lack of academic progress and included medical records from October onwards, entailing the nature of his illness and why it prevented him from attending classes and exams. It also requested an explanation of his means of support as international students are required to have a minimum of 560€ per month in order to be eligible for a permit. As they are not entitled to the financial aid provided by Kela (The Social Insurance Institution of Finland) to Finnish students, they must provide their own income. During his studies, Nabeel made a living working from home as a data analyst for an American firm. 

On 8 May 2017, Nabeel received the decision stating that his residence permit application was denied. The application was rejected based on Article 54 § 1, stating that the conditions under which the first residence permit were granted are no longer valid, and Article 36 § 2, stating that the applicant is attempting to stay in the country by circumventing the entry regulations. 

A brief explanation was added stating that because the applicant’s first residence permit was granted on the basis of studies, the main criteria for granting a permit would be the applicant’s study progress. The note mentions that the applicant did not provide sufficient evidence as to why he was unable to complete enough study credits in the autumn term. It states that his surgery was not until February 2017 and he had done nothing to show that he was unable to complete enough credits in the autumn or that the surgery would have completely prevented the applicant from completing any studies. The letter also states that “according to the applicant’s salary statements, his health problems did not prevent him from working”. 

This case raises questions regarding not only Migri’s procedures but the way in which international students are expected to complete their studies under remarkably different, and restrictive, circumstances than Finnish and EU students. “The 45-credit annual requirement is the same that Kela demands from students getting a study grant”, Leena Turku from Migri told Helsinki Times. It is therefore not based on any law, but rather on the requirements Kela has in place for Finnish students receiving financial aid. 

Finnish universities have different requirements in place to monitor their students’ study progress. Although a Finnish student would lose their financial support from Kela they would still retain their study right as long as they complete their studies within the limits of the maximum duration of studies dictated by their university. According to the Universities Act § 40-41, the “normative duration of studies for a Master’s degree…is two academic years” and a Master’s student “has the right to complete the degree in a time period exceeding the normative duration of studies…by a maximum of two years”. Under the Universities Act then, a Master’s student is granted a four-year study right during which they are obligated to complete their degree. The study right granted to Nabeel by Hanken will be valid until 31 July 2020. Migri’s 45-credit requirement places students from outside the EU in a position where they are not entitled to the same academic freedom granted to Finnish and EU students. Their 4-year right to study is essentially reduced to 2.7 years. 

When asked about exceptions to the 45-credit requirement, Turku told Helsinki Times that “a residence permit can be granted if there is an acceptable reason (illness or other personal reason, for instance) for slower progress”. Despite Nabeel having medical reasons that prevented him from attending lectures and other forms of contact-teaching, his reason was not deemed acceptable. The decision uses the fact that he was able to work through his illness as sufficient grounds to dismiss his symptoms. However, it does not take into account that Nabeel was only able to work because his occupation enabled him to work from home. Ironically, if Nabeel hadn’t been able to provide an income for himself, that in itself would be sufficient grounds to deny his residence permit application. 

In light of the decision made by Migri, Nabeel’s lawyer sent an appeal on 5 June 2017 to the Helsinki Administrative Court. If his appeal is rejected, Nabeel faces deportation and a two-year entry ban from the Schengen area which will have disastrous effects on his career, severely restricting his chances of finding employment in Europe. The decision from Migri has already impacted his future opportunities. “I’ve had to turn down good work opportunities, for example at the UN, because my right to work has been taken away. Employers expect you to have had work experience during your Master’s. I’ve spent almost my entire Master’s studies concerned with this matter”, Nabeel told Helsinki Times. 

The toll of this decision not only affects Nabeel but those around him. “When I was working, I was sending money back home, now I’ve been draining my parents’ savings to finance the rest of my studies because I can’t work, I feel as though I’m a burden to my family”, says Nabeel. 

Despite the pressure of having his entire future on the line during most of his Master’s, Nabeel has almost managed to finish his studies. With only his Master’s thesis left to complete, it is likely that he will have received his Master’s degree before a decision is made.

Migri’s obscure policies regarding international students have the potential to wreak havoc on the lives of those students who have specifically chosen Finland as their study destination. As immigration regulations have tightened under Sipilä’s government, there is a clear need for transparency in these current policies.

MARIA TIMKO

Helsinki Times

Photo credit: Christiane Kallenbach

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