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Public assistance for undocumented immigrants in need - at least in Helsinki

The City of Helsinki is providing would-be immigrants whose residence applications have been rejected with primary assistance in the form of food vouchers. Under some circumstances, undocumented immigrants may even be given social assistance in the form of cash payments.

Turvapaikanhakija käyttää kännykkää käytävällä
Image: Kay Nietfeld / EPA

As of the start of the year, the administration of benefits and allowances under Finland's basic social assistance scheme was transferred from the municipalities to the Social Insurance Institution, Kela. However, municipal social services offices may continue to provide urgently needed social assistance at their discretion.

Municipalities are now pondering how to evaluate the urgency of social assistance needed by undocumented immigrants.

The City of Helsinki is aiming to primarily act as a last resort in assistance to people whose residence applications have been rejected by providing vouchers for the purchase of food.

"That's money, too, even if it isn't cash. If vouchers can't be used, direct assistance in cash has to be used," says Sari Karisto, the head of the immigration unit of Helsinki's Social Services Department.

This kind of situation may arise, for example, if the person seeking assistance has no identification papers. Many rejected asylum seekers lack IDs.

According to Karisto, neither vouchers nor cash will be provided under any circumstances to cover a full month's assistance, only for shorter periods. Among the reasons for this is to encourage these individuals to voluntarily return to their countries of origin.

No to multiple sources

Vouchers or cash will not necessarily be provided to everyone seeking assistance. It may be withheld, for example, in cases where it is shown that the applicant has already received public financial support from elsewhere.

However, confirming who has and has not received assistance is not easy when dealing with people who lack identification.

"That's our challenge at the moment. I don't think there is anything bad about asking the question. The intention of providing last resort assistance is not to increase the possibility of fraud," states Karisto.

So far, according to Karisto's estimate, a few dozen undocumented immigrants have sought assistance from Helsinki's social services. But their numbers, and the number of applications for basic social assistance, could grow rapidly. For this reason, Karisto points out that it is hard to say what the practical measures will be in these cases for granting social assistance. The City of Helsinki is currently formulating instructions to its social workers about dealing with these situations.

"Right now, it's being done like this, next week something else might be done," points out Sari Karisto.

The Finnish Constitution guarantees all the right to basic subsistence, regardless of citizenship. It also guarantees everyone the right to housing. The City of Helsinki has arranged emergency shelters in cooperation with local parishes and the Helsinki Deaconess Institute.

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