Refugee Crisis and the North

   

Some time ago, my hometown on the West Coast made a decision to accept refugees from Syria. The decision was historic. Although the town of Rauma has always had a relatively substantial community of guest workers and immigrants, the town has not accommodated refugees or asylum seekers so far. This morning, the residential building which was supposed to be used as a reception center for asylum seekers became a target of arson attack. Only a few days before, an old garrison building intended for similar use was burned to the ground in Kankaanpää. Evidently some people in Western Finland do not like the idea of providing housing for asylum seekers.

Another piece of news today came from Sweden. The school teacher who was injured in the Trollhättan attack in October has now died from his wounds. The attack made international headlines two months ago, and was also a sign of the times; a sword-wielding masked young man with far right sympathies assaulted a local Swedish school, in a violent assault against the immigrant students. So far, no comparable incident has occurred in Finland, although occasional direct assaults against asylum seekers have taken place. Three weeks ago, an Iraqi asylum seeker was stabbed by three local men at the reception center of Kangasala.

While a good part of the people in both Nordic countries have participated in volunteer work on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, the refugee crisis has also triggered a wave of xenophobia. The European refugee crisis has occurred at the moment when the Nordic countries are experiencing the apex of the ongoing radical right-wing populist reaction. Sweden, which appears to be accepting the largest number of refugees, is going through a massive political realignment, as the so-far isolated and solidly anti-immigration Sweden-Democrats have enjoyed record poll support, occasionally as the largest political party. The refugee crisis has contributed to additional political radicalization, and earlier this year, the Sweden-Democrats terminated all cooperation with the youth organization of the party. Already in the spring, a number of SD youth activists were discharged due to their links with neo-Nazi groups.

The situation in Finland is somewhat different from Sweden. The main populist party, the True Finns, which contains its fair share of hard-core anti-immigration extreme nationalists, is exercising political power, having accepted a position in the new center-right government coalition. The party has found itself in a very precarious position, especially since Finland, as the only Nordic member of the Eurozone, is now facing impending austerity measures, and the center-right coalition is also enacting new, tougher labor laws. So far, the True Finns have quietly abandoned their former social conscience and their commitment to the consensus society. The party has acceded to these packages, and even moderated their position towards the EU bailout programs. The disappointment of the party rank and file has been visible in the polls, and the support of the party has plummeted. This has generated additional pressure for the True Finns to somehow crack down hard at least on the refugee crisis, and the party has been clamoring for new anti-immigration legislation modeled after Denmark, including cutting the welfare benefits of refugees and asylum seekers.

The failure of the True Finns to tackle the refugee issue has probably contributed to the rising street-level Finnish xenophobia. Since the participation of the main populist party in the government coalition has not halted the influx of asylum seekers, the more xenophobic Finnish elements are now considering the parliamentary methods exhausted, and are instead turning towards protests and direct action. Consequently, the risk of such attacks which took place in the town of Rauma today remains depressingly high.

The anti-refugee protests in Sweden and Finland certainly show no signs of decreasing. Refugee centers have become targets for arson, displays of Nazi flags and swastika graffiti. Arson attacks against reception centers are almost a regular feature in Sweden, with at least fifteen such incidents reported in the late summer alone. The subsequent decision of Sweden Democrats to publish a full list of planned reception centers and their locations caused uproar, as the move was seen as an inadvertent aid to the vandals and arsonists. Finland has followed suit, and well over a dozen arson attacks and random acts of vandalism against reception centers took place from September to December. Meanwhile, both in Finland and Sweden, the previous summertime demonstrations on behalf of multi-culturalism, tolerance and solidarity for refugees are now matched by far-right street demos, calls for closed borders and protests against reception centers. Not surprisingly, hate-speech and racism have become more virulent in the social media.

With the traditional welfare state in dire straits, a good part of the populace is inevitably concerned by the increased economic burden resulting from the refugees. Occasionally, asylum seekers are labelled as infiltrators of terrorist groups such as the Daesh, who might establish “sleeping cells” in their new host countries. While the foreign fighter phenomenon is certainly a real problem among some of the existing immigrant communities, and one which should be met resolutely by the authorities, infiltration among the new asylum seekers would be a very useless and complicated operation for any terrorist group. Even in the case of the recent Paris terrorist attacks, the culprits were domestic citizens, and the exact background of the fake Syrian passport found on one of the assailants remains somewhat unclear. However, these concerns are once again blending with an outright cultural pessimism and fears that the native culture is being swamped by foreigners. Even the fear of impending “islamization” and the demise of the western civilization, reminiscent of the “Eurabia” literature and Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto, has once again been invoked in political discourse. Olli Immonen, a True Finns MP who was temporarily discharged from his group due to his extremist statements in the summer, recently published an elaborate prediction of how a supposed Muslim demographic explosion will eventually overtake Scandinavia, turning the native population into a minority in their own countries.

While the right-wing populists have invoked the supposed threat of “invaders” to the national identity and culture, the liberal commentators have been concerned of the threat of racism to the international reputation. Sometimes, this fear has also been fraught with identity politics, which are equally loaded with cultural arrogance and nationalistic insecurity. In September, popular author Jari Tervo stated that Finland has to “choose between Western Europe and Eastern Europe”, attributing xenophobia and racism as “Eastern” qualities. A month later, these sentiments were repeated by ex-president Tarja Halonen, who claimed that the most xenophobic protests against asylum seekers have ruined the Finnish reputation abroad, and the country is now “categorized together with the Baltic States, Romania and Hungary”. More recently, author and columnist Tiina Raevaara wrote a dystopic short story where the next Finnish elections result in a victory for xenophobic and conservative political elements, which proceed to “isolate the country from the West”, thus turning Finland into a “new Hungary”.

To some extent, anti-refugee protests may have indeed hurt the Finnish reputation. However, the sad fact is that this is nothing special in Scandinavian or European context. As already noted, comparable protests and attacks have taken place everywhere, and in Sweden, these events have also triggered similar discussion of tarnished international reputation. The fears of being labeled as an “East European country”, however, are uniquely Finnish; no one in Sweden is frightened that their nation might suddenly be compared to Hungary or Romania. These fears seem to be more indicative of the quintessential Finnish concerns of image and identity. The writings and statements of Tervo, Halonen and Raevaara echo the old fears and traumas of the Cold War, when Finnish statesmen and cultural elites were irritated that the country was sometimes regarded as a Soviet vassal state. The same paranoia of being considered part of the Eastern Bloc is thus shaping Finnish public discussion still today, even in such topics as the refugee policy. In this respect, the current situation is indeed prompting some Finns to reflect on the questions of their national identity.

How can the refugee crisis be solved? At the moment, it is already evident that there is more at stake than simply finding an administrative resolution to the current crisis. In the short term, the pressure of the most imminent crisis may pass, but it will not be simple. The recent plans for Finnish repatriation agreement with the Iraqi government are inevitably only a partial solution. Sweden has concluded a similar treaty, but the local authorities are facing difficulties in repatriation. Although two out of three rejected applicants are returned in orderly fashion, many of the remaining applicants remain in Sweden as undocumented, paperless migrants in the outskirts of society. Finland has recently decided to establish specific “repatriation centers”, which may be considered as a pre-emptive solution to this issue, but merely creates another problem. There is a real possibility that an asylum seeker whose application has been rejected, but whose repatriation is not practical, will remain indefinitely in a state of limbo in such a “repatriation center”, which effectively becomes a refugee camp. The fact that the Finnish Ministry of Interior plans to establish these centers on the basis of nationality and even ethnicity raises more questions. Administrative solutions are thus stop-gap measures which are likely to result in completely new conundrums for a democratic society.

Many asylum seekers will probably eventually return on their own accord. Several Iraqi asylum seekers in Sweden and Finland have already chosen to return to their homeland, due to concerns over their family members back home and disappointment to the frustrating atmosphere of the reception centers. The only permanent resolution to the refugee crisis would be a lasting peace in the Middle East, which is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition in the aftermath of the Russian intervention in Syria and the fast-unraveling, exceedingly complex proxy war. Thus, many refugees will remain in Scandinavia, and they will form permanent communities and play their own part in Swedish and Finnish societies, provided that they will be given the chance to do so. The real challenge will be in the willingness of the majority population to accept these new arrivals as new citizens.

In the case of Sweden, the pre-existing large immigrant population will probably eventually facilitate assimilation. Finland, however, has so far not seen immigration on the same scale, and the current influx of asylum seekers will be the largest since the arrival of the Somali, Kurdish and Kosovar refugees in the 1990s. Finland is still also a transit country, and ca. 20% of the immigrants who arrived in Finland in 2002-2006 eventually left the country; it is quite possible that the present wave of immigration will also see a similar boom-bust development. Nonetheless, an emergence of entirely new immigrant communities seems likely, particularly since the influx of refugees from Syria has not quite yet reached Finland. What will be the future of these communities?

A particularly problematic issue is posed by the current economic policy, which is likely to hinder the process of mutual acculturation. At the moment, the government is dealing out scarcity and imposing policies which are likely to aggravate unemployment, deteriorate labor relations, and deter growth. The wider public is increasingly viewing economy and labor market as a zero-sum game, where individuals and interest groups, immigrants included, compete for diminishing opportunities. Even if the issues of discrimination are somehow solved – and they will not be – unemployment is likely to remain high among the new arrivals, which may result in welfare dependency, social exclusion and, in the worst case, crime. Violent crimes among the asylum seekers, particularly some recent cases of rape committed by young men, are currently the focus of a burning public discussion in Finland. Such cases should be dealt with by the justice system, preferably harshly and by deportation, but it is equally important to keep in mind that using these crimes for the purposes of xenophobic propaganda is likely to create a vicious circle.

Meanwhile, attitudes towards those immigrants who will be able to find work are consequently likely to remain tense, assuming that the new arrivals are thought to displace native workers. The Scandinavian welfare state still has its strengths when it comes to providing services and education. The downside of this is the condescending and patronizing attitude towards refugees and migrants as people who must be properly “integrated” to the local society.

What is necessary, I think, is to find the best combination of welfare policies and liberalism. The government has to rediscover its role in the facilitation of employment, even with radical programs. The Swedish experiment with a six-hour workday and the Finnish pilot project for basic income may, in fact, both turn out to serve this goal. Supporting redistribution of work and individual economic security, these policies are beneficial both to the immigrants as well as to the majority population, as long as the basic income of immigrants is made conditional on obtaining a permanent residence and established work history. Simultaneously, it is important to recognize that an immigrant is not merely a subject in need of patronizing and vigilant “integration”, but instead a person who is, if given an equal opportunity, quite able to “integrate” on his own.

The fact that xenophobia, and in particular islamophobia, has been co-opted by far-right populism and identity politics is likely to leave a poisonous legacy for years to come. Especially in Sweden, political polarization will probably be paralleled by ethnic tensions. In order to counter this, an open discussion of ethnic relations and racism is required, on every level of society. Refugees who have made a difference are often portrayed as “success stories” and considered as testimonies of “perfect integration”. But simultaneously, their recollections reveal the stark reality of the surrounding society, where the terms of “integration” are one-sided. Helly Luv, who arrived in Finland as a Kurdish refugee and has become an international pop star in the battle against the Daesh, has told of her experiences as a bullied schoolgirl in Lahti. Fadumo Dayib, one of the first Somali refugees in Finland and currently a Somali presidential candidate, has recited how she was regularly chased by skinheads on her way to school and was shouted “run, nigger, run” by a police constable. Attitudes have certainly changed somewhat since the 1990s, and in a recent poll, 63% of Finns indicated their willingness to take action against racist behavior. Individual experiences of racism or discrimination are nonetheless still too often brushed aside in the present-day political discourse tainted by xenophobic populism. A thorough understanding of the existence and dynamics of racism, as well as its impact on political rhetoric, is thus necessary.

Lastly, political extremism needs to be tackled. Scandinavia cannot afford another Breivik or Trollhättan swordsman. The much-vaunted over-representation of asylum seekers and immigrants in crime statistics is, at the end of the day, an ordinary social issue of young males, which can be tackled in a same manner as the domestic crime. The blazing reception centers, however, indicate a more bothersome atmosphere of political violence. Such examples of domestic extremism pose a threat to everyone, regardless of ethnic background. Meanwhile, it is equally important to understand the actual problems and challenges of certain immigrant groups, whether it is foreign fighter recruitment or Islamic radicalism in general. Recognizing the new immigrants as equal citizens allows them to speak of their situation, make their voice heard, and is the best way to raise these issues to the public awareness. Anti-immigrant propaganda has to be recognized as such, and politicians who exploit or distribute racist innuendo, with no attempt to provide solutions, should be challenged in public. All this has to take place in civil discourse, on the terms of a free society.

The role of the intelligentsia is particularly important in this task, but simultaneously, as testified by the derogatory Finnish remarks of “Eastern Europe”, the people who claim to speak up on behalf of tolerance should come to terms with their own cultural arrogance and patronizing attitudes. The main concern is not the public image of Finland or Sweden abroad, but instead the everyday life of the citizens. Given their long history as nation-states, Scandinavian countries may not be able to embrace the widely-touted ideals of multi-culturalism, and they probably have no reason to even make the effort. But they can still become inclusive societies in every practical sense.

The writer is a Ph.D. and a historian from the University of Tampere, and currently living in the town of Rauma on the West Coast of Finland.

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Stunning.

Supernova Condensate

An item on my wish list: See a sunrise from orbit.

Sunrise from Orbit

Earth’s atmosphere scatters out the blue from sunlight. The scattered light makes the atmosphere look blue, but the sunlight has all of its blue photons scattered out from it, giving it that distinctive sunset orange colour. It’s somehow even more apparent when seen from space like this. Billions of molecules scattering trillions of photons lighting up Earth’s atmosphere like a jewel in the night as you pass out from behind the planet’s shadow.

Breathtaking.

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Les Mis Review

I finally saw Les Mis: the movie . I have seen Les Mis the stage musical, including once in German in Berlin. I have not (yet) read the book that inspired the musical, so my review will not involve discussions of Victor Hugo’s original intents. I thought the movie was fine but not fantastic. Because I like to complain, the rest of this post will focus on my problems with the film.

I have two primary issues with the movie. One was that several characters felt either uninteresting or simply wrong. In combination, these problematic characters flattened a show that demands large, distinct personalities to drag the viewer in and make us care about them as distinct entities. The other complaint concerns the film’s treatment of the revolution.

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A brief note on photography and apps and the photographic commons

Facebook’s Tom linked to a thought-provoking essay, “Instagram, Hipstamatic and Other Reasons Photography Is Starting To Suck”. The article’s thesis is obvious from its title.

If you’ve ever tried to take a photo everyday, similar to a 365 project, you’ll understand that it’s a pretty hard thing to keep up and it starts to loom over you everyday. I attempted one with my digital SLR, and it was even harder because it meant either going out everyday and taking photos, or having lots of photos of my dog. If you take it seriously, and have the time to complete them, you will find that your photography improves, but for the majority of people, it’s too much like hard work. The good thing about the project was that it encouraged me to carry my camera with me everywhere which meant that I was taking more photos which turned out good, but I ultimately didn’t have time to use it everyday and ended up producing a lot of rubbish too.

Apps such as Instagram take the idea of a daily photo blog and turn it into an iOS app for your iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad and throw in a bunch of filters in there for good measure. You can get some good results from your iPhone, but as I said before, photoshopping for photoshopping’s sake is not a good thing. Currently, Instagram have 150 million photos uploaded, that’s 15 going up every second, with a staggering 80% of using filters (and a bunch more in the other 20% have had filters applied in other apps, such as Hipstamatic). The pressure of trying to get a good photo by the end of the day invariably leads to poor content and composition of everyday life, enhanced by obvious digital filters. This is doing photography no good whatsoever.

These photos are then shared through Facebook and other means where the photographer receives praise for their work. Now, I have no problem with this as it is, but what’s not good is when people start to see this as photography, as they’ll never learn how to really improve on the artform, which they may have otherwise been interested in.

There is quite a lot I agree with in this essay. Many popular photography apps can substitute technology for aesthetics, their relative ease of use decreasing the incentive for photographers to learn more focused skills. I’m also willing to agree that the vastly increased volume of photographs shared with the world, enabled by the spread of inexpensive digital phone technology, makes “art” photography substantially more difficult to find and to market than at any point in the past.

I do disagree with the author on the utility of the distinction that he makes, however. I’m willing to bet that for most people who take photos, enabled by digital technology, the theory and formal aesthetics of photography are irrelevant: they just want to take photos. The alternative to widespread and inexpensive photography apps isn’t the acquisition of advanced photographic skills for our internet era by the masses, but rather the masses not taking and sharing photos at all.

“That’s the thing about iPhone apps that appear to do all the work for you, they make you think that what you’ve created is something special, when in reality, it’s just an excuse to rearrange a bottle of gin, a porcelain model of a dog, tilt the camera and apply some dodgy filters to make it look 50 years older than it actually is.” If that works for the photographer and the audience, well, what’s necessarily wrong with that? Retaining the ability to distinguish between different photographic styles should be enough.

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Preliminary notes on N’Ko and language communities

A Language Hat post last December linked to a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges faced by West Africa’s N’Ko alphabet. The N’Ko script isn’t an alphabet of long vintage, like the Latin or the Arabic, but rather was invented in 1949 by a man who wanted the Manding languages spoken by millions of people in southwestern West Africa–in Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, once in the sphere of the Mali Empire–to have a script of their own. These days, the promoters of N’Ko are trying to push the script into the electronic age.

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …

Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.
“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …

Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.

“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

N’Ko and the Manding languages face an uphill struggle. In the zone of the Manding languages, where millions of native speakers outnumber native speakers of English and French hugely, the Latin script and the English and French languages brought to West Africa enjoy huge benefits: very large numbers of speakers worldwide in wealthier countries, a superabundance of literature, even a technology geared to the reproduction of these languages in their native scripts. How many N’Ko computer keyboards are there? Even languages with established traditions of literacy–Romanian in the 19th century, Turkish in the 20th century–shifted from their original scripts (Cyrillic and Arabic, respectively) to Latin thanks to modernizers who thought that the adoption of Western norms in written language would help the languages’ associated nations. It’s probably not a coincidence that N’Ko is, at least according to the Internet, a script strongest in Guinea, a country that under its first president Ahmed Sékou Touré engaged in a particularly fierce disengagement from the French post-colonial sphere of influence.

A few languages and even fewer writing systems dominate the world, whether because of a language community’s wealth, its cultural influence, and/or the sheer numbers of users. What costs are imposed on people who belong to radically disadvantaged and relatively marginal language communities, like the ones associated with the Manding languages and the N’Ko script? To what extent will the knowledge and cultural capital of these people be marginalized, even wasted, because it’s not available?

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Grandpa’s Memoirs

Veteran’s Day (Armistice Day for you non-Americans out there) is fast approaching. I thought I could share some memories of my favorite veteran, Grandpa, and our joint experiences recording and remembering his past, transforming his personal life into family history.

As a child, I only saw my paternal Grandparents once a year or so because we lived so far apart. Their visits, however, meant walks home from school, Grandma’s famous French toast, and, especially, Grandpa’s stories. Grandpa, who passed away in May, spent roughly twenty years in the navy straddling World War Two. I wanted to know all about it. My love of Grandpa’s personal stories never waned, either.

Grandpa’s stories were short, self-contained, and generally had a lesson of some sort. Occasionally, a punch line. They were not all completely true, but as he said, at his age nobody could tell him that he was wrong [1]. As I got older, I became increasingly aware that the stories contained little flesh. They were parables, full of simple lessons espoused by a man who was quite wise but never completed high school. Of course, this did not bother me as a child. I grew up, however, and my historical training matured. I wanted more. Grandpa told stories. I wanted history. Continue reading

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The Lions of Solomon

The photograph below is a caption of a Finnish newspaper article published in 1935, at the time of the crisis which preceded the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The translation of the headline is: “Finns tend to get involved everywhere: a hundred volunteers want to leave to fight in Abyssinia”. The subtitle continues further: “The local consul of Abyssinia tells about his country, which is not a ‘Negro state’ [sic], but one of the oldest Christian nations”.

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