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The Right to Live Demonstration and the Reality of Asylum Seekers in Finland

On the 10th of February, dozens of asylum seekers, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan, set up a demonstration parade in front of the Kiasma museum. Along with other Finns supporting them, they remain still today on the streets, in the snow and the cold, camping peacefully day and night against Finland’s migration policy, which they deem to be inhumane and unjust. For this, they call the movement Right to Live (Oikeus Elää). The demo site has now moved to Rautatientori square, but their demands on the issue continue to be the same: an end to arbitrary and unfair decisions on their asylum statuses, a halt to violent treatment, the cessation of expulsions from reception centers and their basic services, and a stop to deportations. In these past weeks, there have been several positive responses to the protest – such as a meeting with the Immigration Service’s representatives last Monday – but the reality of hundreds of refugees in Finland persists and, thus, the protest continues.

Participant at the demo site / Photo: Carla Raffin


Over the past couple of years, the Finnish Immigration Service (also known as Migri) has received a massive amount of applications – the vast majority from 2015, where the number reached 32,476. Most of them come from Iraq (20,485 in 2015, and 1,247 in 2016), followed by the number of Afghan applicants (5,214 in 2015, and 757 in 2016). The status needed to be considered a refugee is regulated by the UN Refugee Convention of 1951; however, the process towards asylum is under Finnish law, stipulated under the Aliens Act. All in all, the procedure to be granted refuge in Finland can be a long and arduous one. After requesting asylum, the applicants have an interview with the Finnish Immigration Service, where it is important that the clerks that undertake this task write down the seekers’ account of events correctly and clearly. This way, the Immigration Service can then make a decision based on the interview and evidence of the candidate. If the decision is positive, the person is then granted refugee status or a residence permit. If the decision is negative, it can be negated through either a normal or accelerated procedure. In both cases, the applicant has two more chances of proving their legitimacy as a refugee: first to the Helsinki Administrative Court and then – if the decision is still negative – to the Supreme Administrative Court. In the case of a normal procedure the candidate can wait safely in Finland for the Helsinki Administrative Court. However, in the case of accelerated procedure, the individual can be deported after 8 days from the first negative decision. In some cases, the applicant can even be extradited right away. Either way, in practice, 8 days is still too short of a time frame to manage appropriate legal and interpretation assistance in order to do the paper work to prevent an expulsion and to be able to wait in peace for the Court’s decision (which take quite some time to be resolved). Hence, already in theory, immigrants face a legal system in which they recurrently endure the threat of being deported, often without having a fair chance to first prove their eligibility to asylum.

Politician Elisabeth Rehn visiting the demo site on Wednesday / Photo: Carla Raffin


Musician Ramy Essam performed at the parade on Wednesday / Photo: Carla Raffin


In practice, however, the situation is even darker. Sadiq Bahrooz, spokesman for the Afghan activists at Rautatientori, explains that the 2015 increase of refugees caught Finnish authorities by surprise, pushing them to hire a large amount of employees for the Immigration Service without considering if they were experienced enough. Bahrooz credits the employees’ incompetence for a lot of the unjust decisions taken. As he told Her Campus at Helsinki on Wednesday morning, “they are not able to judge, they are not able to make a proper decision; that is why there are so many random negative decisions on cases in which we have proof that they were apt enough for asylum”. For example, Nour*, representative of the Iraqi counterpart at the demo site, is a clear testimony of this kind of situation: “I came to Finland about a year ago with my family and, while they all got positive decisions, me and my sister, who came under the exact same situation, didn’t – [the Immigration Service] didn’t even look at the case properly”, he told. Stories like these are so common that Right to Live, in cooperation with dozens of theaters across the country, held on Wednesday a reading of several negative decisions that the Migri had issued, demonstrating thus the kind of ridiculous excuses the office gave for denial of asylum.

Messages on the line at the parade / Photos: Carla Raffin


Sanna Rummakko, Information and Media Officer of the Refugee Advice Centre (an NGO offering legal aid to asylum seekers) explains that “the quality of the asylum decision made in Migri has fallen”. As she exemplifies for Her Campus at Helsinki, “the authorities have an obligation to find out and clarify all the relevant facts of the case and assess them sufficiently, but this requirement is not always met”. On one hand she points out that “in 2016 Migri tried to conduct asylum interviews in 3-4 hours, which in many cases is not sufficient to go through all the decisive facts of the case”. Furthermore, in many instances “the asylum seekers in 2016 did not receive enough general counseling about the asylum procedure and their position in the procedure in Finland, because there were many new reception centers with inexperienced staff”. Finally, Rummakko exposes that “the legal grounds and arguments for some of the negative decisions have been weak; for instance, the use of International Flight Alternative (the asylum seeker cannot return to home area but is required to move elsewhere in the home country) has been used too extensively and without enough argumentation in many negative decisions”. In fact, Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers, along with Somalians, seem to be quite prone to these kind of verdicts – last year, the Migri warned that these nationalities would face more difficulties in being awarded refuge because it considered that their countries’ security had improved enough. However, there are several indicators that neither of the two nations are safe enough to return refugees to. When it comes to Iraq, for example, the country is still merged on tribal fighting among Islamic extremists and Kurdish and government forces. Furthermore, according to the International NGO Safety Organisation, an estimated 3.5 million people in Iraq are displaced by violence and conflict, 3.1 million Iraqis living outside areas of government control face disruption to essential services, and the loss of livelihoods and 1.5 million in host communities are now in need of assistance. Likewise, the Human Rights Watch reports that there have been civilian abuses from all the different teams of the conflict. To give an example, just yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported the use of chemical weapons against civilians in the battle of Mosul. “So Iraq is not a safe country but the Finnish authorities still do [deportations] – I don’t know based on what they do this… I don’t understand”, exclaims Nour*. When it comes to Afghanistan, Bahrooz offers a list of indicators on why it is not safe for refugees to be sent back: Red Cross has recently stopped working in Afghanistan for security reasons, UNAMA documented a record high amount of civilian causalities in 2016, and the European Union itself advises its citizens not to travel to Afghanistan. As Bahrooz defends, “the information they provide in order to justify their decisions is not up to date – they should update the system and see that now Afghanistan and Iraq are not safe.

Participant at the demo site / Photo: Carla Raffin


Because of these flaws in the Finnish asylum legal process and because of the risk they face by being deported to their countries, Iraqis and Afghan protesters will continue to fight for their rights, especially when it comes to stopping deportations – “that is one of our main demands and that is why we are here today”, stated Bahrooz. On Monday the 27th of February, representatives of Migri held a meeting with the activists about their demands. According to Bahrooz, Migri spokespeople admitted in the meeting that there had been a large amount of low quality decisions that they would review and that they would reconsider the security situation of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Nour*, like many, is not entirely satisfied. “They agreed to mistakes – but how can we make it better? That is the question. We are waiting for them to officially answer. What is it going to be? That is why we are continuing here”, he told Her Campus. When it comes to the matter of deportations, little was commented by the Immigration Service. Bahrooz explains that Migri wiped their hands clear of the guilt as they reckoned the stopping of deportations to not be their responsibility: “they said it is the responsibility of ministries, the parliament, the politicians…”, he states. “They excused that they worked behind the law, the Finnish law… what kind of law sends people to death?” inquires Nour. Thus, although the Monday meeting was a sign of some hope, change is yet to be seen – and so the protest continues. For this, its participants usher the people to keep their eyes open for updates, to inform themselves on the refugee situation in Finland and to spread the message. As Nour proposes, “share, come here and see the reality”.  

The demonstration site / Photo: Carla Raffin


*Nour has preferred not to disclose his surname.