In the early 1990s Finland was in the midst of one of its worst recessions in a century, when unemployment rocketed to about 20%. The number of migrants back then was relatively small totaling in 1992 a mere 37,642 and accounting for only 0.7% of the total population.
Today Finland has been in a recession for four consecutive years and the migrant population was 301,524 at the end of 2013, accounting for 3.8% of the total population. Unemployment in July was 8.4%.
During 1990 and 1995 the Somali community in Finland rose from 44 to 4,044. While these numbers may appear small, they were significant taking into account the country’s foreign population.
The mix of recession and asylum seekers brought out the worst in some Finns. All one had to do at the time was to read the tabloid billboards or look at Kari’s cartoons in Helsingin Sanomat, which would never be published today because of their racist nature.
The first time I got death threats by phone as a journalist was when I published in the early 1990s a two-page spread for Apu magazine about a refugee center in Mikkeli that had Somalis.
One of those Somalis that came to Finland in the early 1990s is Saido Mohamed, who chairs the Finnish Somalia Network.
She believes that times have changed since the 1990s. The Finnish Immigration Service and the police have more experience in handling refugees today than over two decades ago.
“I want to thank Finland for everything it has done for me and helped me build a home here,” she said. “I have a duty to Finland and these people to ensure that everything works out as smoothly as possible.”
Saido said that she is concerned about the political atmosphere in Finland and even considered it “scary.”
“Some politicians,” she continued, “especially from the Perussuomalaiset (PS)* party, are taking advantage of the situation and fueling anti-immigration sentiment.”
The chair of the Finnish Somalia Netowork is, however, hopeful.
“The Finnish government should take seriously the present situation and I expect that they are,” she continued. “Today almost 1,000 asylum seekers came to Finland.”
According to Saido, xenophobic rhetoric doesn’t help migrants and minorities to feel at home and undermines, instead of promotes, integration.
“When politicians speak of migrants in such a demeaning manner, some migrants feel that they are not welcome in this country,” she continued. “They feel excluded and some exclude themselves.”
“Some of those politicians that are taking advantage of the situation are from the Perussuomalaisiet party,” Saido said. “They include [Olli] Immonen, [Jussi] Halla-aho, who has asked Finland to close its borders [like Hungary], and Laura Huhtasaari, who suggested that asylum seekers should be sent to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia.”
“One matter we mustn’t forget is that these refugees that come to Finland have lived in war zones for years,” she explained. “Some are traumatized and it’s not there fault that they are here. We have signed international [refugee] agreements and we must abide by them.”
Mohamed believes that the best way to deal with the ever-growing number of asylum seekers is to teach them the Finnish language and integrate them as fast as possible and permit them to work.
“Keeping them in limbo for up to three years without getting a residence permit doesn’t serve them or Finland,” she continued. “It’s important that they get their residence permits rapidly and are taught to stand on their feet.”
If PS politicians like Immonen, Halla-aho, Huhtasaari and even Timo Soini, who said recently that Finland should give priority to Christian refugees from the Middle East, have not shown leadership Interior Minister Petteri Orpo has.
“I raise my hat to Orpo for how he’s handled the situation,” Saido continued. “Even if I commend Prime Minister [Juha] Sipilä for offering his home to refugees, I would have wanted to see a more united stand by the whole government concerning the situation.”
Mohamed said that it is a good matter that many Finns haven’t given in to the xenophobic rhetoric.
“This is a clear change from how things were back in the early 1990s,” she concluded.
* The Finnish name for the Finns Party is the Perussuomalaiset (PS). The English names of the party adopted by the PS, like True Finns or Finns Party, promote in our opinion nativist nationalism and xenophobia. We therefore prefer to use the Finnish name of the party on our postings.