By Enrique Tessieri
In many respects 2011 was a watershed year for Finland and Europe concerning the rise of anti-immigration parties and xenophobia. The biggest news to hit Finland this year was without a doubt the April 17 election, which saw the anti-immigration Perussuomalaiset (PS) party win 39 seats compared with only 5 in 2007. On July 22 Anders Breivik gunned down most of his 77 victims in Norway.
If you are an immigrant or a visible minority in Finland, 2011 will go down as one the worst years in a very long time. Certainly anti-immigration parties in Europe have gained strength by the ever-worsening economic situation, the euro crisis and financial bailouts of countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
Below is a quarter-by-quarter account of what made news on the immigration front in Finland during 2011:
The year kicked off in January with news of the death of Eveline Fadayel, an Egyptian grandmother who was granted a residence permit after a lengthy process with immigration officials. The late woman’s legal battle to remain in Finland with her naturalized Finnish son triggered lots of concern and public debate over her plight as well as on immigration policy.
Her case highlights problems with our immigration policy and family reunification. A similar example are minors who have been granted refugee status by this country but who are forced to live separated from their parents. The government has announced plans to tighten family reunification rules further.
With the PS looking better in the polls as the historic April election neared, the party published its election manifesto in February. What is odd about the PS’ manifesto is that it does not differ radically from the government’s immigration policy, which suggests that most political parties in Finland take a tough line on immigration policy.
PS chairman, Timo Soini, told a group of German journalists in April before the election that he supported the government’s immigration policy.
With the anti-immigration atmosphere thickening in Finland, concern over the rights of minorities like the Swedish speakers in Finland was expressed by Sweden’s Integration Minister Erik Ullenhage. Then foreign minister, Alexander Stubb, said the debating atmosphere on immigrants and refugees in this country had become “oppressive.”
The election on April 17 dominated national and even international attention for quite a while. Newly elected PS MPs like Teuvo Hakkarainen became instant household names and the darlings of the tabloids with their racist and derogatory statements about blacks, refugees and immigrants. Racism, holocaust denial and off-the-cuff remarks by PS MPs and others would put Soini under the media spotlight throughout the year.
While Soini tried to calm Europe after the election by stating that the PS wasn’t an extremist party and that “Europe could sleep safely,” the news of the PS’ election victory did not go down well with some. Writer Sofi Oksanen was quoted as saying on Rome-based daily La Reppublica that the PS has its roots in Hitler’s Germany.
Emboldened by the election result, the Finnish media started to report more closely hate crimes. One of these that was reported by a tabloid about the speaker of parliament, Ben Zyskowicz, who was almost attacked by an unidentified person after he was called a Jew.
PS MP Jussi Halla-aho, who leads the far-right Suomen Sisu anti-immigration wing of Soini’s party, was elected to chair the administration committee, which among other things oversees immigration policy.
Despite the election victory fanfare of the PS, a group of 1,000 immigrants and Finns demonstrated in front of parliament against the PS. The demonstration was organized by My Finland is International on Facebook. It was a historic event since the last time that immigrants and Finns demonstrated together in such large numbers was in October 1982.
The PS decided to sit it out in the opposition instead of forming part of government due to differences over EU policy. Even if the PS are now in the opposition, it does not mean that the other parties can’t feel its shadow. This became clear when the government appointed Christian Democrat Päivi Räsänen to head the interior ministry in charge of immigration policy.
The PS has approved and expressed satisfaction with Räsänen’s appointment. The Christian Democrat’s provocative views on homosexuality caused a large exodus of people to abandon the Lutheran Church.
The holiday month of July in Finland was rudely awoken when news of Breivik’s mass-killing crusade to save Europe from “Islamization” and “cultural Marxists” became known to the world. While Breivik had quoted Halla-aho in his manifesto, far-right parties and Islamophobic websites like the Gates of Vienna and anti-immigration politicians distanced themselves from the mass killer.
Others like PS MP James Hirvissari blamed the mass killings in Norway on the “100% rapes” committed by foreigners in Norway.
Europe and especially the Nordic region was never the same after 22/7. The ever-growing support that anti-immigration party’s thought that would never end hit a wall. For some Finnish parties like the Social Democrats, it was a wake up call to the threat that the far right and populist parties pose on society.
The tragic evens in Norway had as well an impact on elections in Norway and Denmark. Even the far-right Sweden Democrats had taken a hit in the opinion polls. One explanation why we haven’t seen a big fall in support for the PS in Finland is because it has profiled itself for now as an anti-EU party as one opposed to immigration and Islam.
There was more news that we read about in the third quarter like the Romany minority evictions in Helsinki, former President Martti Ahtisaari asking Finns to invite immigrants for coffee, and news of hate crimes and racism emerging in Eastern Finnish towns like Iisalmi and Lieksa.
The Police College of Finland reported in October that hate crimes had fallen in 2010 by 15% compared with the previous year. Some, like Migrant Tales, treated this news with skepticism.
Finns learned in the end of July of Ulla Pyysalo, PS MP Juho Eerola’s aide, who posted a racist joke on Facebook about Green Party MP Jani Toivola, who is black and gay. She would gain more notoriety in early November when hackers uncovered her name on a neo-Nazi association membership list. MP Eerola, who has written positively about Benito Mussolini’s economic policies, does not believe belonging to a neo-Nazi association is grounds for dismissal.
Researcher Vesa Puuronen claimed at the end of July that there are “tens of thousands” of far-right supporters in Finland. Secret police Supo does not consider the far right to be a threat in Finland but is keeping a close eye on such groups.
My Finland is International organized in the end of July a demonstration in show of support for Breivik’s victims and against a culture of silence with respect to hate crimes and racism.
The PS change their English name to “The Finns.”
As in the previous three quarters of the year, there was no shortage of news on the immigration and hate-speech and crime front. Migrant Tales has criticized on a number of occasions the Finnish media, politicians and public officials for their lack of leadership concerning the growth of racism and parties like the PS.
Helsingin Sanomat editor, Riikka Venäläinen, offered in early November a humble mea culpa. She said: “…our job is to give background information, analysis and develop the story from a certain angle.When that is done on a tight schedule, it’s pretty certain that we are guilty of very short-sighted conclusions. I accept the criticism that has to do with reporting on immigration issues.”
Former Helsingin Sanomat Janne Virkkunen was not as apologetic. He expressed concern over the anti-immigration atmosphere in Finland and partly blamed its rise on the PS.
If the media turned a partial blind eye on PS candidates for their membership in extremist associations like Suomen Sisu, the silence of too many politicians and the PS’ lame stance on racism and neo-Nazi groups is equally worrying. One of the biggest anti-immigration extremists of the PS and Suomen Sisu member, MP Hirvisaari, got fined in mid-December for hate speech.
All eyes are now on PS chairman Soini, who has said publicly that any member who got “convicted for racism” would be kicked out of the party. Soini said that he will make a decision on Hirvisaari after an appeal has been heard by the Supreme Court.
PS MP Pentti Oinonen refused to attend the president’s independence day reception on December 6 because he thought homosexuals dancing together at the reception were an insult to veterans. A local party boss of the PS claimed the homosexuality led to pedophilia.
In order to show the government’s get-tough stance against immigrants, refugees and in the process steal some of the political thunder of the PS, Minister of Interior Räsänen reinforced plans to tighten family reunification rules.
One of the bright spots in December has been President Tarja Halonen, who has been outspoken against discrimination and exclusion. In early December she said on a popular talk show that racism will not do away with injustice. She said that journalists, politicians, the clergy and teachers must break the cycle of hate speech.
Halonen commented as well on a poll by Helsingin Sanomat, which showed that two thirds of Finns felt there is much or a fair amount of racism in Finland. The poll revealed that PS supporters were twice as likely to recognize racism in themselves than others surveyed. “People who recognise racism in themselves have ended up voting for the True Finns,” said Halonen. The comment angered a lot of PS supporters including Soini.
The credibility of such surveys, which highlight a serious social problem in Finland, have been questioned by researchers like Migration Institute director Ismo Söderling.
With a pretty dismal year ending, what kind of new year do we expect in 2012 concerning immigration and our ever-growing cultural diversity as a society?
At the present pace it’s evident that there will be no shortages of news next year!