Will the new Finnish government bring an about-turn in asylum policy?

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Social Democratic Prime Minister Antti Rinne’s government promises sweeping changes in asylum and immigration policy as well as a shift in the polarized debate. Green League Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo said she is not only confident that asylum policy will change but how it is debated by society.

“We can counter hate speech,” she was quoted as saying in Helsingin Sanomat. “I am not afraid to speak about such topics as the chairperson of the Greens’ party. I’m not afraid of Nazis and trolls.”

If 2015 was a watershed year for Finland, when a record 32,476 asylum seekers mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan came to the country, the following year was characterized by a tightening of asylum policy.

Green League chairperson and Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo.

Apart from stricter family reunification guidelines, appeal times were shortened from 30 days to 21 days after the second rejection for asylum, and to 14 days in the third instance. Finland kept in the past the number of undocumented migrants to a minimum by granting residence permits on humanitarian grounds to asylum seekers.

When the latter was scrapped, the number of undocumented migrants soared from a few hundred to thousands. Another change in the law that was detrimental to asylum seekers was access to legal services during the asylum process.

Pia Lindfors, executive director of the Finnish Refugee Advice Center, considered the new government’s plans to overhaul the asylum process as a “paradigm shift” when compared with the previous government’s policy.

Pia Lindfors, executive director of the Finnish Refugee Advice Center, and Section 6 of the Finnish Constitution that reads, “Everyone is equal before the law.”

“I see a lot of big changes in Rinne’s government with respect to [plans to overhaul] asylum policy,” she said. “This government talks about the rule of law when the last government believed that increased control could achieve security.”

Lindfors said that before 2015, the asylum process in Finland was known for its good standards, but that has now changed.

“This is unfortunate considering that a lot of work had been done to train officials in order to have an effective asylum process,” she said. “Such achievements took years to accomplish and a lot of work to reach such a good level.”

Lindfors felt that matters can change rapidly for the better for asylum seekers.

“Reinstating previous appeal time and giving asylum seekers the right to legal counseling would be steps in the right direction,” she added.

Miro Del Gaudio, attorney-at-law and founder of Lex Gaudius, which handles a lot of asylum cases, was optimistic about the new government’s asylum policy but said that time would tell how things pan out.

Celebrating Hayder Al-Hatemi release in February 2017 in Helsinki. From left to right: Eero Pellikka, Al-Hatemi, and Miro del Gaudio.

“While matters look good, it is still too early to tell how this will work out in practice and how long it will take for these things to happen,” he said. “Will the government’s measures be enough?”