UK’s David Cameron is one European PM who is using immigration to bolster his Conservative Party’s poll ratings. It’s a recurring and worrisome political story across Europe: let’s get tough on immigration so we can gain a few percentage points in the polls. This type of campaigning is not only cowardly, but racist and disgraceful.
In Finland, we do matters in the same way but the methods we use are different.
Finnish politicians have always been aware of the undercurrent of hostility and fear of foreigners. For decades they have been careful not to upset voters by speaking up for immigrants and cultural diversity.
Something happened in the April 2011 election, when the Perussuomalaiset (PS) attained their historic victory. It was the first time that a party during modern Finnish times openly used anti-immigration rhetoric to lure voters.
This is understandable taking into account that Finland was effectively a closed country to immigrants and foreign investment up to 1995, when it became an EU member and matters started to change.
I asked a Social Democratic Party MP in the mid-1980s why doesn’t she doesn’t stand up for immigrants. She told me that it wasn’t a smart idea because you could anger voters. Anti-foreign sentiment was deeply rooted in Finland.
When I approached around 1984 National Police Commissioner Olli Urponen in parliament and asked him why Finland made life so hard for immigrants, his answer was straightforward: “We want to keep the criminals out of Finland.”
When I asked Urponen that question, 0.3% of Finland’s total population was foreign in 1983-86. according to the Population Register Center. Many of these so-called foreigners, who totaled in 1984 15,702 people, were Finnish expats.
Finland’s immigrant population totals today 195,511, accounting for 3.6% of the population.
While there are many Finns who believe in cultural diversity, there are still many who oppose it tooth and nail. A good example of Finland’s anti-immigration undercurrent was the April 2011 election, which gave the anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-Islam Perussuomalaiset (PS) their historic election victory.
Coming to terms with our ever-growing cultural diversity isn’t easy. Unfortunately, Finns have been taught in the past at school and at home that this country is white and that foreigners should be perceived as a threat.
This perception of diversity is odd considering that over 1.2 million Finns emigrated between 1860 and 1999. If all of them would have stayed in Finland, our population today would be about 7 million.
We have a lot of work to unlearn what we have learned about ourselves and others.
The sooner we begin in earnest this task, the better for Finland.