Why do some schools in Finland ask if a pupil is “a person of migrant origin?”

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Sari Pöyhönen, who wrote in an op-ed piece in Helsingin Sanomat this week, asked why some schools in Finland ask parents if they are migrants, a person with a migrant origin, refugee, returnee, immigrant, temporarily in the country or asylum seeker. It is a good question considering that placing people into such groups is in general illegal in Finland.

“Asking such questions like what is a parent’s background is conflictive and confusing,” she explained. “What group does a child belong to if he or she was born in Finland and the parents were born abroad? What about if the pupil were adopted from overseas and the parents are Finns?”

Pöyhönen, who is a professor at the University of Jyväskylä with expertise in areas like language education policies, migration policy, identity & belonging, refugee & asylum seeker narratives, among others, said that such questions about a parent’s background are not only done at schools in Central Finland.

“I got contacted by a person from Inkoo [in southern Finland], and this suggests that the practice is widespread and has been going on for some time,” she added.

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Pöyhönen’s asks in the op-ed: “As a guardian, I wonder why a school needs such information about a pupil’s background. What type of pedagogical and administrative policies are made from such information?”

The questionnaire is confusing for many reasons. What is the different between a refugee and asylum seeker?

“I brought up this issue about why a school would want to ask such information about a parent’s background because I thought it was important,” said Pöyhönen.

In Finland, a person’s “ethnicity” is determined by place of birth, nationality, and mother tongue.

“Unlike the UK, people are not classified in Finland according to ethnic origin,” she said, adding that the questionnaire sent to parents suggests some form of ethnic profiling.

Pöyhönen said that one reason why school’s send out these types of surveys is to get money from the state to hold special classes for migrants.

Some educators and researchers like Pöyhönen believe that children with migrant backgrounds and minorities are classified too quickly as “other” and placed in special classes.

“In many respects, there is also the risk of racializing youngsters,” she said. “We believe that because a person comes from a particular background, he or she fits into a general locker, which isn’t the case.”

Pöyhönen said that the issue brings up a lot of other questions about being other in Finland and how the majority sees who is and can be a Finn. “The view of who is a Finn is still very narrow,” she added.

Amikeng J. Alemanji’s dissertation brings up the problems of labeling non-white Finns at schools.

“The issue in Finland is that we’re officially told that we are all [irrespective of our background] equal members of society but unofficially it is another story,” he said. “If we claim that we are all equal, issues like racism cannot be tackled.”

According to Alemanji, a good example of the latter is the “appalling” treatment of minorities like Somalis, who were born in Finland and are Finnish citizens and other non-white children who are often asked to go back home – when paradoxically their only home they know is Finland.