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Finland received 149 asylum applications from Syrians displaced by continuing violence in the country, reveal preliminary statistics given to Helsingin Sanomat by the Finnish Immigration Service.

As expected, the figures published by the Swedish Migration Board look very different: 16,300 Syrian refugees applied for asylum in Sweden last year.  

The growing number of Syrians forced to flee the country is in conflict with the number of asylum applications received by Finland, with the figure having gone down from 183 in 2012.

The Syrian crisis escalated in 2013, forcing 1.3 million people to leave their homes during the first half of the year alone, according to statistics compiled by the UN.

Last year, the number of all asylum applications to Finland totalled 3,238, while 54,259 refugees sought asylum in Sweden. Both figures are up from 2012, with Finland receiving 3 per cent more applications and Sweden 24 per cent.

Sweden was the third most sought after destination in Europe for asylum seekers, behind France and Germany and in relation to population it received by far the highest number of applications.

In 2013, Sweden granted asylum to around 29,000 asylum seekers, Finland to 1,800. The percentage of accepted applications was similar in both countries and they usually agreed to resettle Syrian asylum seekers.

Sweden also resettled the highest number of underage asylum seekers without a family in Europe: over 3,800, while Finland took 156 underage refugees.

Compared with Finland, Sweden also handles applications at lightning speed, granting a decision in 120 days on average whereas in Finland the process takes 269 days.

When it comes to matters related to asylum seekers, Finland and Sweden are in different leagues.

“Comparing the two countries is like comparing apples and oranges. It might make more sense to compare Finland and Norway,” speculates Frank Johansson, head of Amnesty International's Finnish branch.

Based on preliminary data for 2013, Norway received just under 1,000 asylum applications from Syrian refugees.

“On the whole, it’s difficult for the Syrians to enter countries where they could seek asylum. They get turned away at the borders to Greece and Bulgaria and despite all the promises, acquiring visas to Schengen countries is like drawing blood from of a stone,” says Johansson.

“On the other hand, Finland is far away and we don’t have a Syrian community here, unlike Sweden,” he adds, explaining why the number of refugees seeking asylum in Finland decreased last year even though the Syrian conflict escalated.

Besides asylum seekers, Finland will resettle 500 Syrian refugees next year, 200 of whom will be taken within the current resettlement quota and the remaining 300 by increasing the quota.

“Considering the seriousness of the conflict, a few hundred refugees is a drop in the ocean but is on par for the course when bearing in mind Finland’s past record. And my view is that we have to be realistic regarding the numbers,” says Arno Tanner, expert from Helsinki University, who works as a project manager at the European Asylum Support Office in Malta.

Both Tanner and Johansson are realistic when considering whether Finland is carrying its share of the responsibility, noting that when it comes to asylum seekers Finland is in the periphery that do not receive a large number of asylum applications and only accept a few. Tanner, however, remarks that explaining away the small number of asylum seekers by Finland being on the periphery easily smacks of an excuse.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It serves as a reason for not receiving asylum applications and also as grounds for not admitting more asylum seekers.”

Johansson argues that Finland is sending a clear message.

”No one with authority is giving out signals that we are prepared to take more refugees.”

Janne Toivonen – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Safin Hamed / AFP