Culturally diverse Finland has a history

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Enrique Tessieri*

Because migrants and minorities in Finland do not have power, we are taught to believe we are rootless and have no historicity. It is not true: migrant and anti-racism activism in Finland was already very alive in the 1980s.

Näyttökuva 2016-6-16 kello 0.06.03
The demonstration in October 1982 demanded basic rights for foreigners in Finland.

“Our dominant classes have made sure that the worker has no history, doesn’t have a doctrine, any heroes or any martyrs. Every struggle has to start from scratch, separated from previous struggles; the collective history is lost, their lessons are forgotten. History appears as it if were private property, whose owners are the owners of everything.”** Rodolfo Walsh (1928-77)

The late Argentinean writer and social activist Rodolfo Walsh (1927-77) showed the power of investigative journalism in Argentina when he published Operation Massacre in 1957. The book exposed how supporters of president Juan Domingo Perón were captured and shot by the military junta’s secret firing squad, after Perón was deposed by a military coup. Walsh’s quote, that the worker has no history, offers a good description of the situation of migrants and minorities in Finland today. Even if we too aren’t supposed to have any history, the interesting question to ask is why we are taught to believe that we are rootless and living on the outer fringes of society.

The answer to the above question is self- evident: We have no history because we have no power. Even so, we have roots that stretch far back in time. How many of us have heard of Rosa Emilia Clay, a teacher and the first African to ever get Finnish citizenship in 1899? Certainly like many multicultural Finns today, Clay too felt the brunt of racism. When she arrived in the small hamlet of Mustinlahti to begin her first job as a teacher, a farmer spat at her and exclaimed: “Did they send this kind of black Negro hag to us as a teacher? Even the kids would be afraid of a devil like that.”

Clay moved to Tampere and taught there for three years, then migrated to the United States in 1904 like hundreds of thousands of other Finns.

Even if we’re not supposed to have any history, we do have people like Clay who are a constant source of inspiration as our society becomes ever more culturally and ethnically diverse.

Foreigners’ rights in the 1980s

Of all the decades since Finnish independence, probably the 1980s was one of the most important when it comes to promoting foreigner rights in the country. One of the biggest accomplishments of that decade was the passing of Finland’s first- ever Aliens’ Act, which came into force in 1983. Prior to the Act, foreigners could be deported at will by the police; there was no right to appeal, never mind habeas corpus, the legal principle of being able to report unlawful detention or imprisonment. Finland treated political refugees during the Cold War harshly, returning them back to countries like the former Soviet Union even if they asked for political asylum.

Laws such as the Restricting Act of 1939 (law 219/1939), which became redundant in 1992, is a good example of the fear and suspicion that Finland had of outsiders. The Act prohibited foreigners from owning real estate and acquiring a majority stake in Finnish companies—limiting this to 20% normally and 40% under special permission. The Restricting Act stipulated that foreigners could not own shares in sectors like forestry, securities trading, transportation, mining, real estate and shipping. Foreigners weren’t allowed to establish newspapers, never mind organise demonstrations and be politically active.

One foreigner rights activist of the 1980s, Ahti Tolvanen, gives us a glimpse of the Aliens’ Affairs Office in the 1970s: (1)

“There is a glaring lack of even printed information on matters with which the police are concerned, such as the rights and obligations of foreigners under Finnish law. Printed information about the accessibility of such services as health care, pensions, welfare and unemployment assistance for foreigners is almost non-existent… The head of the Aliens’ Office is Director Eila Kännö, who is known in police circles as a capable police official with a distinguished reputation for combatting international crime at Interpol. Among foreigners she is better known…as an inflexible hardliner.”

Like many foreigners that moved to Finland in the 1970s and 1980s, one matter that was evident to some was that the country wasn’t too welcoming to newcomers.

“When I went to get a residence permit from the Aliens’ Office when I moved here in 1973, they gave me one but told me to stay away from Finnish women,” Tolvanen continued. “I met a student from Algeria who had a fight with his girlfriend. She called the Alien’s Office and they deported him.”

Tolvanen said that he had learned of other foreign students who had suffered the same fate as his Algerian friend. This concerned him and he met law professor Lars D. Ericsson, who had helped and championed the rights of foreigners.

“I got active in the Foreign Student’s Club (FSC) and we called some meetings to discuss this lack of human rights for foreigners,” he said. “Two SUPO (Finnish Security Intelligence Service) agents started to attend every meeting we had. They just sat at the back of the room and never said much.”

Activism in the 1980s

In the 1980s, several initiatives sought to advance the cause of foreigner or migrant rights in Finland, as well as that of foreign university students. Some worth mentioning were: a petition to parliament demanding human rights for foreigners (1981); the Kangasala Seminar (1981); the Foreign Student newsletter (1981-82); a demonstration in Helsinki for greater civil and human rights for foreigners living in Finland (October 19, 1982); Strange Days publication (1984); numerous newspapers, newsletters and television shows that spoke out in favor of greater rights for foreigners in Finland during the 1980s; and the Turvapaikka-liike (1980-89), or Sanctuary Movement, which was important in helping to redraft the Aliens’ Act of 1983. Some people who were involved in this initiative were Tolvanen (later a senior consultant), Steve Huxley (currently working as a teacher), Rabah Boussouira (who now works as a consultant), Johanna Suurpää (currently a ministerial advisor for the Ministry of Justice, and former minority ombudsman), lawyer Markku Fredman, and Anneli Jääteenmaki of Demla, a legal association (currently MEP of the Centre party).

Some of the most active groups that promoted greater rights for foreigners were the Association of Foreign Students (AFS) and the FSC of Helsinki, together with students and staffers at Helsinki University and Tampere University. On May Day 1981, members of both associations gathered some 500 signatures at Ullanlinna for the petition which demanded rights for foreigners, supported by the chairperson of the HYY, Sirpa Utriainen.

The FSC newsletter, the Foreign Student, wrote about that important May Day: “In spite of bitter winds and driving snow, we were able to gather more than 500 signatures. We were surprised and delighted by the favorable responses. Less than five percent of those approached refused to sign [the petition]. Many greeted us warmly.”(2)

Foreigners weren’t allowed to publish newspapers, but in 1981 an official newsletter, the Foreign Student, was published.

The text of the May Day petition demanded that within the new Aliens’ Act (which eventually came into effect in 1983), President Urho Kekkonen and the Finnish government adopt the provisions of the Helsinki Accords which were accepted at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975, along with the principles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While the petition didn’t lead to a concrete outcome, it succeeded in showing that foreigners and the Finnish public wanted a change in immigration policy.

Another important landmark in securing greater rights for foreigners in Finland was a 1981 seminar organised in Kangasala. The event was attended by the presidents of Helsinki and Tampere universities, and the initiative was also supported by politicians like current social democrat MEP Liisa Jaakonsaari, Claes Andersson, the later leader of the Left Alliance Party, and Tarja Halonen, who later served as foreign minister and president of Finland. “We even talked to Timo Soini [leader of the Finns party, back then] and he was quite constructive,” Tolvanen said. From the seminar, foreign students and foreign residents, together with interested Finnish political parties and experts, petitioned parliament to give “immediate attention” to rectify the status of foreigners in Finland and improve their civil and political rights. (3)

Even if foreigners weren’t allowed to publish newspapers, the Foreign Student was the official newsletter of the FSC between January 1981 and January 1982. Its editors were John Arnold, Alexander Sannemann, and the author of this article. The author of the article was responsible for writing the editorials and Arnold for the layout and rest of the material published in the publication. Thanks to the Foreign Student and its visible stand for foreigner rights, membership of the FSC grew rapidly. Even so, some members of the FSC weren’t too happy with the newsletter’s editorial line, which they considered “too radical.” In one editorial, (4) the author of this article asked the members of the FSC to no longer whisper about their rights in Finland. Another editorial headlined “Self- censorship” encouraged foreigners to be more outspoken about their rights.

One of the most important acts of defiance and activism by foreigners at the time took place on October 19, 1982, when some 300 foreigners and Finns marched from Helsinki University’s Porthania building to the steps of parliament and demanded basic rights for foreigners. While a smaller demonstration had taken place in the early 1970s, when Pakistanis marched from Helsinki to Turku in protest of not getting work permits, (5) the October 1982 march was the biggest ever demonstration for foreigners’ rights to take place up to that moment.

A day before the march, there were many rumors circulating, with claims that the head of the Aliens’ Affairs Office, Kännö, was planning to throw those foreigners that took part in the march in jail. Since non-Finns could not organise or participate in such demonstrations, the march was officially organized by HYY but unofficially by a small group of foreigners that included Rabah Boussouira, Steve Huxley, Alexander Sannemann, Adrián Soto, Enrique Tessieri, Rolf Bouchi and a few others. Even if no minutes were kept of the meeting, SUPO knew who the organisers were. The demonstration received considerable media attention and was the top story on the main TV news.

Strange Days, which was published by Gaudeamus in 1984, is another example of defiance against the present order. It was probably the first ever critical book published in Finland about the poor legal situation and discrimination of foreigners. The book’s editors were Gregory Moore and Soto. The essays published in the book were written by Huxley, Tessieri, Obi Marizu, Tolvanen, Sannemann and Maaria Seppänen, with cartoons by Boussouira.

Even if Strange Days was written more than thirty years ago, some of the issues it raised are still valid. Huxley writes in the book about his reflections on life in Finland back then. “How many times I have listened as my dark-skinned friends tell of the Finns’ awkward, insulting and violent behavior towards them. Almost every time I walk through the streets with one of my more “foreign” looking companions, some Finn figures out a way, more or less grossly, to emphasise our otherness, our foreignness. Therefore, the fact that I have white skin has definitely helped me survive here; however, my disillusion has definitely grown since I became aware of this.” (6)

The 1980s were also a very active decade for stories about the lack of foreigner rights, their arbitrary treatment by the Aliens’ Affairs Office, and racism in general. Some publications that gave a platform to such stories were Apu magazine, Näköpiiri, Ydin- lehti and Kansan Uutiset. It was rumored that Helsingin Sanomat did not publish these types of stories as a matter of policy.

Anti-racism activism today and beyond

Anti-racism activism, or foreigner rights activism as it was known in the 1980s, offers us an important fact: migrants and minorities do have a long and rich history in this country that extends even further back in time. We can thus state with confidence, using Walsh’s quote, that we do have history, heroes, even martyrs. Every struggle that we begin from now doesn’t have to start from scratch or be separated from previous ones.

Our collective history isn’t lost, but alive and ever-growing.

Näyttökuva 2016-6-16 kello 0.15.49














Read original posting here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Enrique Tessieri is a sociologist and former journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent in Helsinki, Milan, Madrid, Buenos Ai- res and Bogotá. He is a member of the NGO European Network Against Racism and editor of Migrant Tales, a blog community that debates issues facing immigrants and minorities.

** “Nuestras clases dominantes han procurado siempre que los trabajadores no tengan historia, no tengan doctrina, no tengan héroes ni mártires. Cada lucha debe empezar de nuevo, separada de las luchas anteriores. La experiencia colectiva se pierde, las lecciones se olvidan”.

(“Cordobazo” en el Periódico de la CGT de los Argentinos, 1969)

(1) Gregory Moore and Adrián Soto (eds.): Strange days—The experience of foreign students in Finland. Gaudeamus. Helsinki 1984. p. 26.

(2) Foreign Student, May 1981, issue. pp. 3-4. 

(3) Yliopistouutiset Newsletter. Tampere University. November 1981. p. 5. Foreign Student May 1981 issue. p. 2.

(4) Antero Leitzinger (editor): Mansikkamaan vartijat. Muistelmia ulkomaalaishallinnoista eri vuosikymmeniltä. pp. 39-40.


(6) Greg More and Adrián Soto: Strange days. The experience of foreign students in Finland. Gaudeamus. Helsinki 1984. p. 9.