Finland’s distorted immigration debate is damaging our country

by , under Enrique Tessieri

My son asked me Friday an interesting question that revealed what is wrong concerning the present debate on immigration and immigrants in Finland. He asked me to show how does immigration fuel economic growth. His question, which is a valid one, reveals some of the perceptions that some have about immigration. 

Due to the attention that anti-immigration politicians have received in the media, coupled by the silence and lack of leadership from the majority of politicians, many actually believe that the majority of foreigners in this country are refugees, Muslims, from Africa and here only to live off welfare.

Some, like MPs of the Perussuomalaiset (PS) party, play on our worst prejudices and fears by claiming that Muslims are invading Finland and Europe in Trojan horses. It’s only a question of time when ghettos will be set alight by ethnic strife, according to them.

Tabloids like Ilta-Sanomat continue to spread racism in Finland. This billboard of 1992 claimed that Somalis “tricked” authorities to pay phone bills costing hundreds of thousands of Finnish marks. In that period, you could buy a row house in Helsinki for 500,000 marks. Billboard source: Institute of Migration

Facts reveal a very different picture, however. Finland has today fewer refugees than in the 1920s, when some 35,000 refugees from Russia lived in our country. In 2012, a mere 3,219 refugees applied for asylum but only 1,601 were accepted versus 43,900 in Sweden, according to the Finnish Immigration Service.

Moreover, 9.1% of all people who were born abroad and are residents of Finland are from Africa (25,895). The majority, or 64% (182,696), are from a European country.

A news story by Helsingin Sanomat on Friday showed how lopsided the present debate on immigration and immigrants is in Finland. The story revealed that our country accepted 149 Syrian refugees last year compared with 14,600 in Sweden.

There is nothing wrong with immigration from Africa as there is nothing wrong with immigration from Latin America, Asia, North America or from other European countries. What is wrong and unacceptable, however, is how such a distorted picture of immigration continues to be maintained.

This proves, in my opinion, that the media has been led more by its prejudices than its journalistic standards, politicians by their opportunism than leadership, and the general public by their apathy on the topic. The most shameful matter is that few are doing anything to bust such myths.

It’s possible to understand this situation from a historic perspective since Finland did everything possible up to 1995, when we became an EU member, to hinder as much as possible immigration and foreign investment to this country.

This suspicion of the outside world can be explained in part by our difficult relations with the former Soviet Union. Even so, it can’t suffice as the whole answer. How can a nation that lost over 1.2 million of its countrymen to emigration during 1860-1999 house such suspicious attitudes towards immigrants?

Going back to the question that my son asked Friday, I told him that it’s highly doubtful that his father, grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather, who were all immigrants, ever discussed how negative or harmful immigration is to society. On the contrary. Immigration is a positive phenomenon that brings new blood, new ideas and new strength to a country.

“The fact is simple,” I continued, “the whole idea of migrating from one country to another is opportunity and the search for a better life. This is the case irrespective if you migrate for political or economic reasons.”

Recent calls by the head of the Government Institute for Economic Research (VATT), Juhanna Vartiainen, and the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), that Finland needs more labor immigrants, has been met with skepticism by SAK, the central organization of Finnish trade unions.

According to SAK, immigration isn’t a solution to labor shortages because it would lead to two labor markets, according to YLE in English.

Any sensible person understands that the aim of immigration shouldn’t be to drive down salaries and rollback  important gains and rights achieved for employees by our labor market. If Finland’s immigrant population grows in the future, as it will, it should be the job of the labor unions and authorities to ensure that the rights of every employee, including immigrants, aren’t compromised by abusive employers.

A recent article published by Forbes magazine, offers us sobering advice on what to avoid in Finland and Europe on the immigration front.

“Attempting to fence off the country is no answer to anything.  It would be difficult for a generally free society with extensive borders to close out the rest of the world.  Worse, to be effective such controls as ID cards, citizenship checks, workplace raids, employer sanctions, and more would undermine domestic liberties.”

Kuvankaappaus 2014-1-4 kello 1.08.18
Read full story here.

One important step that we must take in order to debate fairly and in a proactive manner about our ever-growing cultural diversity, is bust those terrible and destructive myths that distort the debate on immigration and immigrants.

Maintaining alive such myths is damaging to our country economically, politically and socially. We will end up paying a hefty price if we don’t in the form of lower living standards and loss of competitiveness.

  1. ohdake

    To be honest your kid seems to have asked quite good question. And your reply, as in above, didn’t really answer it.

    What i mean is that the feeling you can get from the ‘working-men’ is that the immigrants are enticed to come here to work. While this might not sound bad the issue behind is that there are already thousands of unemployed people living in Finland. Government yaps about ‘lack of workforce’ but what the people see is ‘unemployment’. So they put 2 and 2 together and end up with a conclusion that unemployment rate in ‘non-immigrant’ group will as a result increase. Which easily puts a large minus to the immigration even if the immigration is work related.

    It should not be forgotten that Finland has quite well (if not over) educated workforce in general which in other words means that any immigration is quickly seen as challenging the employment of the people lower in the ladder. They can only perceive themselves as losing (either jobs or income, as taxes increase) as the numbers of immigrants increases. You could easily ask, why wouldn’t they vote for the more extreme PS members?

    And to be honest i really fail to see what the government is after. That is – the way i see it – the immigrant workforce is a nice band-aid for the lack of workforce but that is all it is – it does squat to resolve the structural unemployment issues in the Finnish system. All it does it to introduce more people to the system and i would wager a guess that immigrants once having adapted to the Finnish system will also have the exact same structural unemployment issue. That is not to say that i would be against the work related immigration, quite the contrary. But it is not really ‘sold’ to the general public in a manner that would be easily acceptable. I mean you can wave charts and diagrams and overtly complicated power point shows to the people to your heart’s content but it will not change their opinion when they or their friends find themselves unemployed.

    On the other hand resolving the structural unemployment issues (even just to a certain degree) would generate quite a sizable workforce without immigration. Which is IMO the thing which is sort of bothering the people. It is not really the immigrants who are the problem but how they are viewed in the labor or workforce discussion. Note that this is not in any manner caused by the immigrants but given how the discussion is handled they are the ones suffering from it.

    • JusticeDemon


      It’s easy to verify the labour shortage nowadays. A quick visit to the national job search engine reveals that there were 10,431 job vacancy notices current at 17.20 on Thursday 9 January 2013. Many of these notices concern more than one vacancy, and many have been open for several weeks if not months. These are also only the vacancies that have been notified to employment authorities. There is no enforceable obligation to notify vacancies, and the true number of jobs available is probably around twice the number of notices.

      At the same time we have an official unemployment rate of about 8 per cent.

      These are the plain facts, but as you stress, the current debate is all about naive perceptions:

      the feeling you can get from the ‘working-men’

      what the people see

      They can only perceive themselves as losing

      Naive perceptions are easily manipulated by forces seeking political power. For example the most natural naive perception from the foregoing fact of 20,000 vacant jobs and 8 per cent unemployment is that the Finnish unemployed are work shy, and that they blame working immigrants for their unemployment in order to distract public attention from their own failings. This particular naive perception appeals to certain types of selfish Conservative mentality, but remains otherwise fairly rare in Finland. Another naive perception relies on the zero-sum assumption that the number of jobs in an economy is constant, and that therefore any newcomer who arrives to work is somehow taking a job away from incumbent job-seekers. This naive perception appeals to authoritarian mentalities with limited cognitive and conceptual flexibility. There are various other naive perceptions that can be and are woven into the public consciousness to serve political ends. For example the view that everything comes down to labour costs, or that everything is the outcome of some massive conspiracy.

      you can wave charts and diagrams and overtly complicated power point shows to the people to your heart’s content but it will not change their opinion when they or their friends find themselves unemployed.

      And yet you stress that:

      Finland has quite well (if not over) educated workforce in general

      One naive perception of this combination of claims is that it is an obvious contradiction. We are well educated, but we cannot understand serious explanations.

      The truth is that we saw this coming. The current mismatching problem (kohtaanto-ongelma) in the Finnish labour market was forecast in speeches made a decade ago by Pertti Sorsa as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Labour. It is not only possible, but even likely that a developed post-industrial economy will suffer from unemployment and labour shortages simultaneously.