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Immigrants in Finland: Part 1
by Edna Nelson
2009-06-03 08:49:57
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Not too long ago before her departure to Sweden a friend and I got into a little chat about the economy. The conversation quickly progressed from the idea that economic woes could lead to more supporters of privatizing the mostly public Finnish health and social services industry, to the rise of Fascism, or rather the potential rise of Fascism/Nationalism in Finland. The weird thing is that my friend, who grew up here was the one who couldn't stop talking about it, in fact, she got so deeply into detail about the potential situation that she scared me, terribly.

A few nights later I received an e-mail from her apologising for having scared me. She said that at the moment she didn't realize how it might effect me to hear how racist and xenophobic people who consider themselves to be ”Real Finns” might become when faced with hard times. She said for her it is just an idea or a fantasy, and that at the time of our conversation she forgot that for me, it would be an issue of life or death. Something I would experience, rather than observe. When I said I was scared by her words, it wasn't so much that she was saying the people in Finland could grow more xenophobic, but that someone I trusted was finally saying something I feared already. The real problem was that neither of us could find a solution. Maybe the thing she was really apologising for was not trying to find one...

These day's on the YLE English website there is a Special Report about how Immigration is becoming a larger issue on the Finnish Political scene than it has previously been. According to very trustworthy columnist Erkki Laatikainen the issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible because Finns are frustrated and have no venue to express their qualms with the Immigration situation in Finland. In fact they are so frustrated that they have started voting for the ”True Finns” party which does not overtly state it's opposition to immigration in Finland but rather supports what they consider to be smart immigration policy and the protection of the rights and quality of life of those who would consider themselves ”Real Finns”. The reports range from statistics about how satisfied Finns are with the number of foreigners in Finland to how mismanaged services for those who experience discrimination are. On top of that a well meaning teacher in my Finnish course for immigrants made a point to let us know that the Finnish media is writing a lot of negative things about immigrants and that we should keep our eye on things so that we can write the papers and give our side of the story. The reason she recommended that we started a writing campaign is because there is really no one else to advocate for us, and if no one speaks up, who knows when things will lead.

When things get to the point that a teacher is standing in a classroom telling people who struggle to get through simple Finnish texts that we should be watching the Finnish media and writing to editors because we're in trouble, we're in trouble! How could immigrants who don't feel comfortable with the language understand or engage a media supported campaign against us? Most people don't even write letters to editors in their best language, so how can a person or group be expected to write in what might be their worst? Or even know that there is a campaign going on against us? Of course most immigrants don't have to read the paper, or be told that Finnish attitudes are mixed at best, but when multiple parties who are in the dominant group are telling you that you should watch your back, what's a person to do?

Being a news head and really into how the media talks about immigrants I have noticed a few articles that are blatantly anti-immigrant propaganda. I have seen things that make it seem like the only folks on bread lines are the ones who moved here from another country, articles that suggest that you won't be able to get served in a restaurant without speaking English and even an article that was written about tattoos that certain artists refuse to do that was accompanied by a very provocative positioning of a KKK tattoo alongside Mike Tyson's face. Because I don't have such a fantastic command of the language, and can miss some of the nuances and journalistic statements I have to ask a friend what the articles I see are really about, but there is something about the energy in showing symbols of hate in a certain way that words can never excuse, although these articles and images may have disturbed me I had no idea how to respond. Showing friends was the best I could do.

The most frustrating element of is noticing this and not being able to give voice to any of it within Finnish society because of the language. There have been situations where I have felt completely disempowered by strangers simply because they are insulting me in Finnish and I don't know how to respond. The scary thing is that no one will stand up for me. Another teacher in my course, a woman who was fantastic and the most humanistic seeming of all the teachers I've seen so far destroyed my faith in things when she stood in the middle of the room proclaiming that ”Finns are not racist, they just don't know.”

Last summer there was a swastika in a tunnel by my house. It was there for months, and at times I felt like the only one who noticed. No one made any calls or efforts to have it removed. I waited for a while, and then finally tried myself. I didn't know where to start but somehow I found the number for the Ombudsman for Minorities and asked what I should do. I asked my aunt, my teacher, and my friends before this and got no answers about how to get the symbol removed. It took one e-mail to the right person to get it removed in a matter of days. Clearly the problem in that case was not the infrastructure or the government per say but the society and the people who ignore and are unaffected by the experiences of those who are usually considered outsiders within this country.

It's interesting how easy it is for people who feel immune to a type of discrimination have an easy time informing its target, but a hard time actually doing something about it. Why aren't there programs organized by people who speak Finnish well to help immigrants have a voice in society? Or groups monitoring xenophobia in the media? Maybe it is because many people think that the only reason folks immigrate to Finland is being a refugee, having no place better to go. Maybe it's because people don't think it's their problem. Regardless of the reason, it is important for people to understand how paralyzed those of us living in Finland without having a strong command of the Finnish language might feel when we are informed that the winds are getting stronger all around us. The Finnish media might be producing the propaganda, but it's the people who are eating it up.

The policy of Finns with xenophobic attitudes basically mirror the program behind most liberal white supremacists in the US: "Let the people be here in the US no matter what their colour or country of origin, as long as they are willing to work, and we White's are the ones in charge” and this attitude is the one that is at the base of oppressive and bigoted societies. If there is any reason why people should expect less, or be granted less within a society it degrades democracy. Integration is not accepting 2nd class status in a society that does not value you, but finding a way to strike an agreement between the society you are entering and the one you came from. ”Integration” can sometimes be used as code for knowing ones place, or accepting dominant culture, but in expecting immigrants to take on this impossible and degrading chance people are creating a situation that is just waiting to self destruct. How Finns interact with immigrants is just as important as how immigrants integrate with Finns. If not more.

People, from hard working immigrants who are sick of being associated with negative stereotypes, and well meaning liberal Finns that hope for a multicultural Finland often fail to directly counter this ”Finns on top” mentality. After talking to my friend about this situation, my feeling and my experiences a he told me about Stefan Wallin, a minister in SFP (Svenska Folks Partiet) who proposed an agreement between Finnish parties to unify on an immigrant friendly platform that was signed by everyone but ”True Finns”. I wanted to know more about him, so I got in touch and requested a short piece on "Xenophobia in Finland, how we can define it and what can we do about it.” This is what I got:

Finns are not as intolerant as one would think when one reads the newspapers or, even worse, when one has a look at forums on the internet. The Finnish broadcasting company YLE published an opinion poll on April 26 indicating that 71% of the Finns find the amount of refugees in Finland being too few or suitable. However, this does not mean that we do not have to work with the questions concerning xenophobia and intolerance in the future. One reason why xenophobia seems so vibrant in Finland is the discussion on the internet. We have to keep in mind that a rather small group of activists on the internet can make it seem like there would be a strong opinion against refugees and immigrants in Finland. This is possible due to the anonymity internet provides. Especially internet gives racists a playground to spread their thoughts. The problem is that nobody argues against them on the net. They spam the newspapers’ websites with comments and an anti-racist comment or two will drown in the flood.

In the xenophobia discussion it is very important that we, the party leaders in Finland, state clearly that we will not accept any kind of racism. As a part of this work, on my initiative, all party leaders of the parties represented in the parliament except one adopted a common initiative against all kind of racism in the upcoming elections to the European parliament. The discussion in the media concerning the address clearly showed a need for this kind of an address. Also the fact that one party, The True Finns, chose not to adopt the address showed that there are different attitudes against immigrants and refugees in Finland. However, I want to stress that the idea regarding the address was not to point the finger at any party or politician – the idea was to take a stand for tolerance and for an open-minded future Finland.

Even if the amount of immigrants and refugees in Finland has increased over the years the fact is still that the number of new Finns is very low. It is also quite clear that Finland will have a shortage of labour force in the near future as large groups of Finnish men and women will be retired in a couple of years. If we do not succeed in integrating immigrants and refugees into the society and give those jobs, the welfare state as we know it today will be a bare memory in the future. There is, however, still a lot to do when it comes to integration in Finland. An example of the problems is that we still have not managed to improve our systems when it comes to recognition of immigrants’ degrees and skills. There are still too many immigrants possessing a university degree working as bus drivers. There is nothing wrong with working as a bus driver – it is just not right against the immigrant or efficient for the society that education and work does not match. 

As I stated in the beginning the Finns are not as intolerant as one might think – but there is still a lot to do. Now it would be important for all of us to take a stand. We have to change our way of thinking and remember the previous centuries when for example Swedes, Germans and Russians immigrated to Finland. Our country would not be the country it is today if our borders would have been closed for the last 1000 years. Probably almost everyone in Finland have ancestors who came as immigrants to Finland. This would be something to reflect on for everyone in Finland. 

Asking Minister Wallin inspired me to ask all the parties what their position on immigrants in Finland are. Mull over this and more letters in Part 2. The EU-Parliament Elections are right around the corner so these statements might help in the voting process.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-06-03 10:40:46
In Finland there are the “true Finns,” in France there are the “true French,” with La Pen, in the Netherland the “true Dutch,” in Italy, the “true Italians” mostly in the regions of Veneto and Lombardy and their leader is Umberto Bossi. What they all have in common is xenophobia and an extreme fascistic nationalism which abhors the very idea of a United Europe with a common culture. Unfortunately what most Europeans fail to understand is that when they fail to vote for the European elections they are only strengthening the xenophobia inside their individual countries. As mentioned already in a previous comment, Bossi always comes across as a populist who cares for the people’s cultural identity, while the Europarlamentarians come across as opportunists and elitists lost in universal ideals sent to a foreign place called Strasburg to defend their party’s interests. No wonder people prefer the xenophobes. Which is to say, a hard look needs to be taken again at the EU Constitution (now called a mere treaty of Brussels) and why the people feel deprived of a common vision and identity. That kind of hunger has nothing to do with the stomach and much to do with the mind and the soul. Yet we have Italian history as exemplary here. When Italian unification was accomplished in 1860 one of its architects, De Cavour, proclaimed that “now that we made Italy, we need to make the Italians.” The cart had been put before the horse.

Emanuel Paparella2009-06-03 10:42:31
Errata: treaty of Lisbon.

Neasa Ni Chinnéide2009-06-03 11:45:44
This is a very interesting discussion and the comments reflect the situation in Ireland also, to some extent.One of the issues here is that we depend a lot on tourism and we get comments such as I heard on the radio this morning along the lines of 'tourists come to Ireland to meet Irish people, not immigrants'. We will never get ahead if we do not accept that virtually all societies are now multicultural- it is the logical outcome of globalisation and we are not going to be turning the clocks back, even if there is a recession in the short term that has led many to go back to their countries of origin.Perhaps we need to think about good strategies for the tourist industry- we do not get the same type of comment in the technological sector where science has usually involved people from many backgrounds.

Immigrant2009-06-03 13:35:57
Excellent article in coming face to face with the elephant in the room. As a finn I know about the national shame of low self esteem which is what fathers the all too ingrained racism and classicism in Finland. Finland had done very well materially but lacks in spiritual spine which would allow for more humanistic vision. I don't think this problem will be taken care through legislation. I have to say that every friend I have in Finland suffers from xenophobia and tenderly embraces, usually disguised as rational arguments, fascistic nationalism views which always come out when you least expect them to. Fantastic article, good courage.

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-06-04 02:46:56
"Let the people be here ... no matter what their colour or country of origin, as long as they are willing to work, and we ... are the ones in charge” and this attitude is the one that is at the base of oppressive and bigoted societies.
Silly me, and I thought it was embracing diversity, providing equal opportunities and be welcoming of strangers! And what would have you expected: ‘Let them abuse our welfare system, destroy out language and culture, do nothing productive and vote for something we, the citizens, do not support’? What’s wrong with having a national language? And expecting the immigrant to learn it if they want to be a part of the society? When I came to the US, I did not expect the media and the social services to speak my native language, no sir. I went to school and learned English. So I suggest anybody who would like to be a part of the Finnish society do (Finnish, or Swedish, we even have a choice) or get back home where folks speak your language. After the centuries of foreign oppression the last thing you would expect the Finns to do is to welcome someone who refuses to speak the language, is ignorant of their culture and expects that the Finns make the same mess of their beautiful country as the Brits and the French allow immigrants to make.
Be a grateful guest, or expect to be treated as an invader.

Alexandra Pereira2009-06-04 03:44:32
"expects that the Finns make the same mess of their beautiful country as the Brits and the French allow immigrants to make.
Be a grateful guest, or expect to be treated as an invader."
Is it me, or is this just epic? - in the worst possible sense, of course...

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-06-04 04:45:25
Yes, dear Ms. Pereira, this is just you, not epic at all. Maybe just some folksy home truth (I translate from Russian, and I beg my pardon as it was coined before the era of PC) a guest that is not invited is worth than a Tartar’ – the Tartars being a notorious murderous invaders of Europe taken to kill all males over 8 yrs old and raping women – hope no relation of yours.

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-06-04 04:46:41
Sorry, of course YOU pardon, not mine

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-06-04 04:48:50
your, not you

Alexandra Pereira2009-06-05 03:40:42
What is it after all: you, your, yours or Tartar sauce? I totally relate to that one.

And who mentioned the mess the Brits and French allow before the era of the PC came - the foreign Calamari?
May the secrets of cooking be with you + a holy samovar. And don't forget to be a grateful guest in South America!!

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