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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1 Response to Refugee Crisis and the North

  1. Pingback: [H&F] [DM] “Refugee Crisis and the North” | A Bit More Detail

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