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Migrant candidates face racism, death threats in local election campaign

Last week two candidates running in Finland's municipal elections reported that they've both faced racist comments and threats of violence throughout their campaigns. They also say they've been on the receiving end of racial slurs from people who tell them to leave Finland on a daily basis.

Suldaan Said Ahmed and Ozan Yanar
(Left to right) Helsinki politicians Suldaan Said Ahmed of the Left Alliance and Ozan Yanar of the Greens are candidates in Finland's local elections. Image: Yle

Helsinki politicians Suldaan Said Ahmed of the Left Alliance and Ozan Yanar of the Greens are both running in Finland's local elections. They both say they've suffered death threats and racial abuse since they became politically active. 

Said Ahmed said the taunts and violent threats are made on city centre streets as well as on social media, explaining that he received a death threat via a text message right after answering an unsettling phone call from the same number.

"I answered and asked who was calling, but the caller's tone quickly became aggressive and then he began to threaten me with violence. At that point I realised there wasn't any point to continue the conversation. I wished the caller a good day and hung up. Then the death threat came by text message," said the Leftist, explaining that he reported the incident to police.

Racist hate speech on a daily basis

He said he's been threatened so many times that he feels he cannot safely walk around in Helsinki or campaign on city streets alone anymore. He said that while he's been on the campaign trail he's been on the receiving end of racist attacks several times a day, on a daily basis.

The Greens' Ozan Yanar says that because he's an MP he is able to directly notify Supo, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, about such threats, but says he's concerned about other citizens who receive similar threats.

One of the epithets Yanar says he's been called is the Finnish word 'mutiainen,' which roughly translates in English to 'darkie.'

"They tell me to 'go back to your country, you are not Finnish.' It's also hurtful to people who're voting for me. I'm not an outsider, this is my country," Yanar said.

"If someone has something against (me running for office) they just have to get used to it. Immigrants will become ministers and business leaders and it's something they'll have to get used to. This is my country," Yanar said.

Yanar: We won't be silenced

Both Yanar and Said Ahmed said they see racism and the hateful messages as a more serious threat than to just themselves.

"People have said that I shouldn't move around on my own. It's a threat against democracy if politicians are forced to limit themselves like that. It's a wonderful thing that even ministers have been able to campaign in peace, and we should stick to that," Yanar said.

When asked whether the threats he's faced will lead to others not daring to run in elections in the future, Yanar said yes.

"Yes, in the worst case people will be frightened by the storm of hate they may encounter. And it's not only politicians but also individuals who've experienced this. For example, people who help refugees are put up on hate sites. (The threats) are a way of trying to silence people. But we won't be silenced," Yanar said.

High threshold for migrants

Said Ahmed concurs, saying that the threshold for getting into politics should be low, also for people of different backgrounds.

"But that's not how it is now," said the Leftist, saying that the number of threats he's received have increased as he's become increasingly visible in the political spotlight.

"I was the first dark-skinned person elected to a leadership position in the party and after that it's been like this. It's worrying that this is the direction Finland is headed; that politicians need to think about whether it's safe to continue campaigning. The best thing about Finland is that it's always been safe to participate in societal discussions and that one can freely move around," said Said Ahmed.

"I don't want to give power to fear, but of course I think a few times about which events in which I'll participate. It's obvious that would have preferred to move about and campaign alone, as well. But now I need to think about whether I'm able. (The people who've threatened me) say they know where I go and where I work. I am very concerned about where our society is headed. There are people out there who want to silence Finns like me," Said Ahmed said.

Threats often in legal grey areas

Said Ahmed said he hopes that authorities would be more attentive to hate speech and threats. He says that a large number of the negative messages he's received are in a sort of legal grey area.

"They don't write 'I will kill you,' but instead 'I hope that someone would kill you.' We need lawmakers to review whether the law (regarding hate speech) should be updated," said Ahmed Said.

However, Said Ahmed and Yanar both say that since they've come forward about the vitriol they've received they've gotten positive responses from the public. They characterised the racists as a loud minority - saying it's vital for the quiet majority to say that they don't accept racism.

"I had to continue, I'm not one who gives up easily. I think that together we can stop it. Maybe I can be some kind of pioneer for us Finns with brown skin, and for all minorities," Said Ahmed said.

Yanar says that on the campaign trail he's getting hugs and encouraging words from people now.

"I think the quiet majority is beginning to wake up," Yanar said.

This article is based on a story by Marianne Sundholm, posted at Yle Svenska.

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