My long journey to Finnish citizenship: Issues and the Supo interview

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Ever wondered the source of the strong undercurrent of xenophobia in present-day Finland? The answer is in its history. During independence, Finland has been quite an unfriendly country towards foreigners. The Restricting Act of 1939 speaks volumes. Did you know that Finland passed its first immigration act in 1983 or about 66 years after gaining independence?

The prevailing xenophobic attitude and suspicion of foreigners reveal a lot of things like the rise of the far-right Perussuomnalaiset (PS)*.

It also explains why the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service (Supo) interviewed every candidate who applied before for Finnish citizenship. I was one of them.

My interview with Supo took over two hours, and the first question that asked was, “why are you applying for Finnish citizenship?”

My answer was straightforward: “Because it’s my right.”

A tabloid Ilta-Sanomat billboard from 1992. Much of the hostility that people of color faced in the 1990s was by the media. Here, the tabloid states that Somalis conned the authorities to get asylum in Finland.

Behind that response, because it’s my right, came from my insistence that since my mother was Finnish, I too should be considered a Finn. Even if Finnish women had the right to vote from 1906, they weren’t trusted until 1984 to give Finnish citizenship to their children. Only Finnish men could do that.

Prior to the interview with Supo, I had some issues with the honorary consul of Mali in Helsinki called Jalkanen. When I went to visit him to get a visa to that West African country, he appeared inebriated and was very suspicious about me visiting Mali.

At the time I worked for Apu magazine, and wanted to do a travel piece on Mali and Niger.

At the meeting with Jalkanen, his suspicion grew as we spoke. He then called a friend of his who was a Supo agent. He asked him to pry into my secret Interpol files to make a background check. His Supo friend called back quite rapidly.

Jalkanen started to speak after hanging up the phone with his friend.

“You had organized [and participated in] a demonstration [in Helsinki in 1982],” he said suggesting I had committed a crime. “You are also interested in human rights.”

Having lived in Argentina during the dirty war (1976-83), human rights were and still are very important to me.

I was shocked by what happened and wrote a story about this ordeal in Apu magazine. In no time Ilta-Sanomat, Helsingin Sanomat, Ydin-lehti, Kansan Uutiset, Demokraatti and others had picked up the story. It was quite a scandal.

From what I heard, the Supo agent got a warning for giving my confidential information to an outsider.

A few months later at the meeting with the Supo agent who interviewed me for citizenship, I remember him asking if through journalism I could change people’s minds against Finland. I threw the question back to him: “You should know since Vapo [formerly Supo that was made redundant in 1948 and which had strong links with Moscow] used to run things.”

After the long interview, where he tried to confirm my political sympathies, he concluded the meeting by stating that he’d recommend me for citizenship.

A presidential order signed by then President Mauno Koivisto granted me later citizenship in 1990.

But then a new debate began that is ongoing today: Does citizenship make you a Finn?