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by Euro Reporter
2013-10-27 13:23:48
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“What a bubble I've been living in": Discovering multicultural Finland

Investigative journalist Sam Kingsley shares his take on the outcome of an undercover documentary which tested how Finns really react to different groups in society. Kingsley and his native Finnish researcher quickly realised that life in Finland can take on a different tone, depending on colour and perceived ethnicity. “At first I wasn't sure whether discrimination was even a problem in this country, but now I realise why we're making this programme”, said Teemu, our researcher, after his job interview.  The second employer out of six had just confided that they'd rather hire him - a native Finn - for the vacancy than an immigrant. We were filming undercover while a group of researchers - one Finnish, one Russian and one Somali – attempted a series of tests to see whether Finnish people treat them differently because of their ethnic background. All researchers had the same cover story, with similar education, job experience and financial status, but with one vital difference – a name that made each researcher's ethnic origin very clear.

It soon became obvious that the basic things we all do at some point in our lives – looking for a job or a house, asking for help in the street, even getting into a nightclub - can become considerably more difficult or even impossible if you are noticeably Russian, have a Muslim-sounding name, or have dark skin. We lost count of how many people said to our native Finnish researcher, “You seem like someone I can trust”, sometimes after only seconds of speaking with him. They'd then cheerfully invite him to a job interview or a flat showing, or gladly hand over their mobile phone for him to borrow. By contrast, when people heard our Somali researcher's name or saw his black skin, a great many of them decided that they didn't trust him at all. Some were happy to tell him so directly – “Sorry, I wouldn't dare”, said one passer-by when asked if she would lend her phone. “Don't even dream of it”, said another. Interestingly, our Russian researcher's name didn't seem to put people off over the phone. But when he deliberately ramped up his Russian accent to talk to people in the street, or doormen outside the bars, the reception he got was much frostier.

There were some positive discoveries, though. When we repeated some of our tests in Lieksa, a small town in North Karelia which has gained a reputation for its unwelcoming attitude towards Somalis, we found that people were open, trusting, and far more colour-blind than in the capital city. In fact, local Somalis and Finns alike told us that Lieksa's bad name is no longer applicable. As background research for this programme I spent six intensive weeks listening to the experiences of people of foreign backgrounds, some brought to Finland as children, others who'd made the choice to come here as adults. White-skinned westerners like me – almost without exception -- told me they feel welcomed and well-treated here. For others, though, the reality is different. Nearly every single non-white person I spoke to told me they'd been approached by a stranger in public and told to 'Go back to your country' or otherwise verbally abused. One young Middle-Eastern man told me he gets comments like that about once a week while he's travelling to or from work.

So what has the experience of making this programme revealed about Finnish society?  In a country which prides itself on its equal and fair society, I was struck that so many people feel it's acceptable to deny someone access to a flat or a job – or treat them with mistrust or hostility – simply because of their ethnicity. Our Finnish researcher says it's shown him he's been living in a bubble, that things he takes for granted are not so easy for people who don't look or sound like him. And our Russian researcher was surprised at just how much it affected people's behaviour when he made it plain to them he was Russian. “It's because we're still not used to having foreigners in Finland,” is the justification I've heard many times. But it's now decades since the first asylum seekers arrived here, and in every part of Finland you will find youngsters of foreign background who were born and brought up in this country, and who think of themselves as Finnish. In Helsinki, where most of our tests were conducted, you'd be hard pressed to go for a day without coming into contact with at least one person of a foreign background.

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Cracks in Finland's 'Triple A' image

Finland's image as an island of fiscal virtue in an ocean of European profligacy has eroded to the point that many ask if it can keep its stellar credit rating. Fitch confirmed Finland's top "AAA" rating on Thursday, but warned that it could be lowered in future, in case for example of a "failure to tackle the trend decline in potential growth". The Nordic eurozone member has long prided itself on the extremely strict fiscal management that has allowed it to avoid ever breaking EU fiscal rules. The budget deficit has consistently remained below three percent of gross domestic product, while public debt has been held within 60 percent, as required by the Maastricht Treaty. Strict fiscal management has allowed Finland to remain the only country in the eurozone with a "triple A" rating and a stable outlook from all three major credit rating agencies Standard and Poor's, Moody's and Fitch. Even Luxembourg and Germany, the eurozone's other two paragons of fiscal virtue, can no longer boast that. Finland lost its top rating in the 1990s but regained it in 2002. Since then, the ratings agencies have regularly praised the country for its well-functioning political system, based on a tradition of political consensus and moderate spending.

But the economists have their doubts if Finland is really as strong as it used to be. "The rating agencies have been lagging behind," warned Aki Kangasharju, the chief economist at Nordea Bank Finland, telling AFP that in his view Finland no longer deserves the highest rating. "The country's industrial base has collapsed in a way never seen before, and the tradition of political consensus is in tatters," he said. Two pillars of the modern Finnish economy, the forest industry and electronics, are in serious difficulties. A drop in the demand for paper, caused by a growing conversion away from traditional print media towards electronic media, has forced many factories to close down. Meanwhile, the dramatic decline of Nokia from the position of global leader in mobile phones has broken the momentum in a sector that had been driving growth for more than a decade. Finland's exports were virtually stagnant last year from the year before. But wages still rose 3.5 percent in nominal terms, draining competitiveness. "There is no area that could be an engine of growth," said Fitch analyst Enam Ahmed. He justified the "AAA" rating with a reference to its finances, which he described as "robust," saying they "give Finland a certain margin to absorb unexpected shocks."

The credit ratings sector's optimism may not last if the economy continues to sink. Gross domestic product is expected to contract in 2013 for the second consecutive year, after dropping 0.8 percent in 2012. Unemployment is at a relatively high level, especially as the workforce shrinks. Population ageing is among the fastest in Europe. Finland is gradually sinking deeper into debt. In September the government said the country would cross the EU threshold of 60 percent in 2014, while as late as 2011 the public debt was only 49 percent of GDP. Helsinki tried to respond with a government plan in August to put more Finns to work. The retirement age was to go up, time spent at university was to go down, and incentives to enter the job market were to be boosted for the unemployed and young mothers. In its statement Thursday, Fitch said a failure to address obstacles to future growth could contribute to a future downgrade. "Addressing labour market rigidities and measures to improve the country's competitiveness would lift long term growth prospects, thereby supporting the ratings," it said. The government has promised more detailed measures by late November. "The situation is open-ended. There are no details on a number of reforms," said Juhana Vartiainen, head of research at the government's National Institute of Economic Research. The political outlook is not ideal for asking the Finns to sacrifice more. In polls, the parties of the left and right forming the coalition government have been challenged by the Finns Party, populist and eurosceptic, which constantly criticises austerity.

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Helsinki seeks to attract overseas investors

On world maps, Finland – a country of 5.4m people on the Baltic sea – and its capital city, Helsinki, look to be on the fringe of things. But appearances can be deceptive, says Micah Gland, chief executive of Helsinki Business Hub, a public body set up in 2007 to attract more overseas investors and entrepreneurs to Helsinki. “We are around eight hours’ flying time from both New York and Beijing,” says Gland, who is tasked with making Helsinki one of the top five European locations for foreign investment by 2020 (it is currently 12th, according to IBM Plant Location International). “Plus St Petersburg is next door and we have good connections to the rest of Europe.” There is still only a trickle of expat professionals moving to Helsinki and investing in bricks and mortar. (For the moment, this trickle is led by young Russian entrepreneurs looking for a safe haven to site their businesses.) Yet the city’s fast growth may change this. According to Hannu Penttilä, deputy mayor with responsibility for city planning and real estate, Helsinki has a population of 600,000 and will add 50,000 new residents between now and 2021; this year alone Helsinki is set to grow by 10,000 people (greater Helsinki has a population of 1.4m).

Housing in the city is marked by the country’s tradition of egalitarianism. Only 39 per cent of homes in Helsinki are owner-occupied or available for rental at market rates. With two-thirds of the land in public hands, the city’s real estate authorities have a prominent role. For example, to the northeast of the city centre at the Arabianranta housing estate – the immaculate low blocks of flats containing social rentals – homes controlled by housing associations and owner-occupied housing (the market rate for these is about €4,000 per sq metre) are impossible to tell apart from the outside. All have balconies fitted with protective glass panels, plus artwork in shared areas, such as mosaics from pieces of ceramic made at the nearby Arabia factory, set into the outside walls. “Young couples like to live in the city and we are responding to this pronounced trend towards urban living,” says Penttilä, whose plans to meet the demand include a number of unusual prototypes, such as the group of 40 floating houses at a scheme called Kalasatama, northeast of the downtown district. In a new “neighbourhood of lights”, where developers will agree to include artistic lighting features on new buildings to brighten up the long winter nights, residents will be able to warm up in waterside saunas.

 


          
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