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Central Finland town recognised for embracing asylum seekers

The Finnish town of Kyyjärvi was awarded two prizes late last year for championing its local asylum seekers. The human rights organization Amnesty and the pacifist group Sadankomitea both recognised the ability of the townspeople to turn initial reluctance about an asylum centre reception centre into staunch defence of its continuance, when authorities moved to shut it down. The town has arranged a festival on Sunday to celebrate its achievements.

Noormuhammad Noori Kyyjärven vastaanottokeskuksessa, taustalla sosiaaliohjaaja Päivi Peltokangas ja vastaava ohjaaja Terttu Niskanen.
Noormuhammad Noori, a resident of the Kyyjärvi asylum seeker reception centre, stands with social services director Päivi Peltokangas and the centre’s director Terttu Niskanen. Image: Sanna Savela / Yle

The 1,400-resident town of Kyyjärvi is located between the western coastal city of Vaasa and Kuopio in Central Finland. On Sunday, its residents will come together in the Kotikylä Park at 4 pm for a festival, as the town celebrates being honoured with two separate human rights prizes late last year.

Interior Minister Paula Risikko and local MP Aila Paloniemi will be the featured speakers.

Mayor Eero Ylitalo says his town has only done what we should all do for each other.

“I’ve often wondered when people talk about the ‘Kyyjärvi miracle’, why some people see it that way. I’ve asked myself: is it really a miracle that we treat the people we care about as we ourselves would want to be treated?” he says.

In December 2016, Kyyjärvi received awards from both the Finnish branch of the human rights organisation Amnesty International and the Finnish pacifist group Sadankomitea, known as the Committee of 100 in English. Both groups recognised the town for its positive attitude towards the asylum seekers placed in its local reception centre. 

Local activism to keep asylum seekers

Kyyjärvi was in the news often in 2016, when initial opposition to news that an asylum seeker reception centre would be established in the city quickly changed into support for the people placed there.

In September 2016, the Finnish Immigration Service reported that a decision to close down the facility had caused residents of the municipality to react strongly, demanding that the decision be reversed.

Locals argued that many of the asylum seekers had already started to settle in Kyyjärvi, due to active volunteer work and employment opportunities offered by local businesses. A delegation from the town even took their cause all the way to the Interior Ministry. 

The Finnish Immigration Service ruled that the decision could not be changed, but did reach a compromise with Kyyjärvi and the Finnish Red Cross, allowing about 50 of the asylum seekers there to stay and live in the municipality while their asylum applications were processed.

Some 40 people still awaiting word

Municipal workers say about 40 of the people who have remained in Kyyjärvi are still waiting on their asylum decision. The town has reserved places for 20 people who successfully receive a residence permit, but so far there have been no takers, as most of the asylum applications have been denied. Mayor Ylitalo says everyone still has high hopes.

“It looks like we would have even been able to find jobs for them. We’ve done the best we can, in terms of making sure they settle into society and integrate, but decisions about residence permits and labour migration are at a higher level, and out of our hands.”

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