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Undocumented migrants find life tough in Finland

It is almost impossible to estimate how many undocumented workers are in Finland, but the number is not comparable with that seen in countries with a more developed job market for illegals. One Mexican migrant told Yle he cleaned construction sites, distributed pizza adverts and worked at Helsinki’s market square before he got a residence permit.

Edgar Roberto Ortega.
Edgar Roberto Ortega left Mexico some two decades ago, and now works as a bus mechanic in Espoo. Image: Yle

Edgar Roberto Ortega left his home town of Mexico City nearly twenty years ago to move to the United States. He left because there was no work in Mexico and life there was dangerous. After several years in the US, Ortega left for Europe.

He worked without documents in Germany, the UK and Spain, before ending up in Finland. His dream was to fly to Norway, but the ticket was too expensive so he bought one to Finland instead. He arrived in Helsinki a few years ago without money, friends or a place to live.

At first he slept on the streets, then at friends’ apartments when he got to know people. He did odd jobs for cash in hand.

"I collected bottles, delivered pizza ads and worked at Helsinki Market square in the summer," he remembers.

He also went directly to construction sites to ask for work, and was taken on to clear away building waste.

"I had to take away the rubbish," says Ortega. "It was a hard job."

He was paid well under the rate for properly contracted workers, at just four or five euros an hour or 20 euros per day.

Residence permit interviews ’like psychological tests’

Having experienced life without a work permit in many other countries, Ortega says that it is particularly hard to live in Finland as an undocumented migrant. He held out for a year working on the black market before he found love and got married. The residence permit application process involved a lot of visits to the police station with numerous questions to answer.

"Yes, it was difficult," says Ortega. ”"When I got married and went for interviews with the police, I was asked many, many questions over several days. It was a little bit like a psychological test."

A temporary residence permit was granted, Ortega studied mechanics and eventually found a job at the Veolia bus company in Espoo. He also visited the doctor, who discovered a congenital heart defect. He had an operation and is now in good shape.

Ortega studied Finnish, worked, bought a flat and a car, and now he sends money home to Mexico because his parents are sick. Now the intention is to stay in Finland.

"I got married and I have a residence permit and I can work," explains Ortega. "My life is here in Finland."

Police: Undocumented migrant numbers 'under control for now'

There are thousands of undocumented migrants, people who arrived on tourist visas and stayed illegally, and those who had a residence permit that expired, but stayed in Finland. Police hear of around 3,500 cases per year, and estimate that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 others they do not see.

Undocumented workers have been uncovered in the cleaning business, but the police say it is almost impossible to estimate the number of undocumented workers in Finland.

"If a person is in the country without permission and, so to say, hides underground, then he will not get legal work," says Jouko Ikonen of the National Bureau of Investigation.

That means a weak bargaining position, a reliance on work like cleaning, and low wages that might not be paid at all, according to Ikonen.

Although the number of illegal migrants is under control in Finland, Ikonen points out that an increase in undocumented arrivals is possible. He points to Sweden, where he says such an increase has already happened.

Migrant advocate: No cheap labour market in Finland

One of the reasons for this is the lack of a market for cheap, undocumented labour in Finland. That’s according to Mervi Leppäkorpi, a sociologist active in the Vapaa liikkuvuus (Free movement) organisation

"In those sectors where there is in any case a grey market, it can be easy to get employment, but in Finland there is not the same kind of cheap labour market for undocumented workers as there is in, for example, Spain or Holland, where a cheap labour reserve is needed," notes Leppäkorpi.

According to Leppäkorpi, undocumented status is also a threat: if a worker’s residence permit is in order, an employer can intimidate him by threatening to withdraw co-operation when it needs to be renewed. At that point the worker would become undocumented.

The organisation fears that numbers could rise, as people fearing deportation may not turn up at the police station to apply for an extension. Earlier, employers or a spouse could apply for an extension on an applicant’s behalf.

Leppäkorpi says that the life of an undocumented migrant in Finland is so hard that those who have been living here illegally for a long period should be able to regularise their status easier than they currently can.

She knows many people who have lived 'underground' for several years, with the longest undocumented period at ten years. She says she cannot estimate how many people are in the country without papers and says that the number is not even relevant.

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