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Timeline: The foreign ministry flap over repatriating Finns from al-Hol refugee camp

Foreign minister Pekka Haavisto is embroiled in a dispute with staff, politicians and the media over the Al-Hol refugee camp.

Pekka Haavisto
Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has been at the centre of a dispute over the Al-Hol refugee camp in recent weeks. Image: Seppo Samuli / Lehtikuva
Yle News

A dispute over the possible repatriation of Finnish women and children from the Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria back to Finland has led to a split within the Finnish foreign ministry, and engulfed foreign minister Pekka Haavisto in a political crisis.

The saga centres on a dispute between Haavisto and Pasi Tuominen, the Director General of Consular Services at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The issue turns on whether ot not Haavisto reassigned certain tasks and responsibilities regarding the Al-Hol camp to another ministry official, effectively sidelining Tuominen.

When tabloid daily Ilta-Sanomat broke the story on 2 December, staff told the newspaper that there was an "atmosphere of fear" at the ministry.

Yle has assembled a timeline of events to clarify the claims and counter-claims in the war of words.

27 June, 2019

The government of freshly-elected Prime Minister Antti Rinne announces that it will not actively seek to repatriate Finnish citizens from the Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria.

In response to a question by the opposition Finns Party and National Coalition Party during parliamentary question time, the prime minister said that his administration had "no plans to use consular services to bring these people to Finland".

Foreign minister Haavisto, however, emphasised that Finnish citizens would be provided with assistance should they seek it themselves.

"If such people turn to the Consulate of Finland somewhere, as Finns they will, of course, be allowed to return," Haavisto said.

At around the same time, Pasi Tuominen’s contract in his role as Director General of Consular Services at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs is extended until 2022.

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Ulkoministeriön konsulipäällikkö Pasi Tuominen.
Director General of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Pasi Tuominen. Image: Aku Häyrynen / Lehtikuva


Haavisto meets with Rinne to discuss the situation at Al-Hol, and according to Haavisto they agree on a way forward.

"We discussed that it would be good to send a delegation to the region to get better information on the situation, as other Nordic countries had also established contact with the Kurdish administration," Haavisto recalls of the meeting in a later interview with Helsingin Sanomat.

Haavisto then reportedly meets with officials from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who tell the minister that Finland is not prepared to start similar research work to help citizens as has been carried out by other Nordic countries. According to another report by Ilta-Sanomat, Haavisto flies into a "rage" over this response. Haavisto denies this.

"As the minister I was in a very difficult position, because the Ministry and the Minister for Foreign Affairs are responsible for the safety of Finnish citizens in danger, but my ministry had no solution," Haavisto later explained to Helsingin Sanomat.

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Nainen kantoi lasta al-Holin leirillä 9. joulukuuta.
A woman carrying a child at the Al-Hol refugee camp on December 9, 2019. Image: Delil Souleiman / AFP

Haavisto is apparently now convinced that Tuominen "would allow the children to die in the camp," an accusation which Tuominen subsequently denies to Helsingin Sanomat.

10 October

Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti receives a complaint that the government, the prime minister, the minister of the interior and the minister of foreign affairs are failing to take steps to help Finnish citizens in danger. The complaint is based on the international obligations and laws to which Finland is bound, specifically relating to the rights of children.

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Tuomas Pöysti
Tuomas Pöysti. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

Although Pöysti believes that it would be legally easier to bring both children and their guardians to Finland and then place them in care, he does consider it possible that children could be repatriated without the consent of the guardian.

He further emphasises that the authorities' options to operate within the Al-Hol refugee camp are limited and that they have to adapt in practice to the conditions of the camp administrators. By this, Pöysti implies that the Kurdish government in the area does not want the children of the camp to be separated from their mothers.

Pöysti’s interpretation of the Al-Hol situation does not necessarily oblige the authorities to act in a certain way and leaves them a certain amount of discretion.

18 October

Internal pressure begins to build within the ministry of foreign affairs, as Haavisto interprets Pöysti’s announcement as obliging the ministry to act in the best interests of the children. He gives instructions to Tuominen, which the director general finds illegal and coercive.

Tuominen writes to Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary of State Pekka Puustinen that he is afraid of being sentenced to prison if he begins the process of repatriating children to Finland without any political decision. This email (siirryt toiseen palveluun) will be later published by Ilta-Sanomat on December 4.

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Pekka Puustinen
Pekka Puustinen. Image: Yle

According to another email seen by Ilta-Sanomat and sent on the same day as Tuominen writes to Puustinen, Haavisto's Special Assistant Joel Linnainmäki delivers the foreign minister's instruction that consular services should place an official in the city of Erbil, Iraq on a one-month mission.

"This person is preparing for a situation where Finnish citizens will be crossing the border from Syria," Linnainmäki writes, adding that "the point is that at least the children from the Al-Hol camp will be made safe within a reasonable time if security risks in the area increase."

Pasi Tuominen refuses to obey this instruction because he and the consular department believe the government should make a decision on such a big issue.

23 October

Haavisto reassigns Pasi Tuominen away from Al-Hol consular duties, and appointed an interim Al-Hol Special Representative.

His role is to liaise and negotiate with the Kurdish authorities on the possible repatriation of Finnish citizens, and HS reports that the representative is given the authority to decide on the evacuation of both children and their guardians to Finland on a case-by-case basis.

In practice, evacuations should not take place unless the Prime Minister, the President and the Foreign Affairs Committee were all informed.

The appointment is a confidential matter due to security reasons, and is known by only a very small circle.

Tuominen considers the decision to reassign his responsibilities for the Al-Hol camp to be in breach of the law, but Haavisto and the department’s senior management argue they have extensive powers to change the internal division of labour, if deemed necessary.

31 October

The government is informed of the Al-Hol Special Representative's appointment at an evening meeting. Both the representative and the Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti are present. According to Haavisto, no minister or party objects to the appointment or the assignment.

Helsingin Sanomat reports that Pöysti's stance is that as long as the representative cooperates with other Finnish authorities, especially child welfare, the operation is legally sustainable.

Haavisto and the representative agree they will inform President Sauli Niinistö of the ministry for foreign affairs's actions.

The government has still not taken a formal position on the repatriation of Finnish citizens, but at some point in the autumn the foreign ministry will send two officials to Erbil.


Undersecretary Puustinen informs Pasi Tuominen that Haavisto wants to transfer him to a different position by the end of 2019. The decision was apparently made a couple of weeks earlier, but Tuominen was not immediately informed.

In addition to the dispute over Al-Hol, Tuominen and Haavisto had also clashed over Russian visa requirements.

On 19 November, Ilta-Sanomat reports that a successor is being sought for Tuominen.

29 November

At a meeting of ministry staff, Puustinen tells Tuominen's "shocked subordinates" of the plan to move Tuominen to a different role.

"For the time being, consular chief Tuominen will act as Head of Consular Affairs, with the exception of one unit which has been transferred to another official. This issue is also very sensitive at the political level," Puustinen said at the meeting according to minutes leaked to Ilta-Sanomat.

IS later reports, on 4 December, that Haavisto has already personally selected a successor for Tuominen.

2 December

Ilta-Sanomat publishes a story (siirryt toiseen palveluun) about the so-called 'Operation Korpi', which the tabloid alleges involves the foreign minister’s plan to repatriate children from the Al-Hol camp back to Finland.

The article further alleges that Haavisto punished Tuominen because he refused to comply with the order to repatriate only children from the camp, as Tuominen deemed it illegal.

Haavisto denies that he put any pressure on anyone and justifies the transfer of Tuominen as being a normal rotation of official duties. Haavisto says he is unfamiliar with any 'Operation Korpi'.

Katja-Marika Puittinen, Owner of Immigration Processes at the ministry of foreign affairs, tells Yle in response to the Ilta-Sanomat story that there is an atmosphere of fear within the department.

Later in the day, President Sauli Niinistö tells the Verkkouutiset online news service that he was unaware of any decision regarding Al-Hol, thereby giving the impression that certain information was not passed onto the president by the foreign minister.

In the evening, Haavisto holds a press conference where he says the ministry must prepare for different outcomes, such as, for example, if the al-Hol camp is disbanded chaotically. Haavisto says that cooperation between the authorities in this matter is called Operation Korpi.

Haavisto adds that every potential repatriation is considered on a case-by-case basis, and that President Niinistö is aware of the plans. He denies ever having ordered children to be repatriated without their parents.

Haavisto states that Pasi Tuominen is still in charge of the consular post and that the position has not been opened for a successor. The only change of personnel in the ministry, according to Haavisto, is the appointment of a separate person to handle al-Hol issues.

This statement by Haavisto causes many ministry officials to lose confidence in the minister because they say the he is lying about Tuominen continuing in his job.

"After the press conference, there was a sense of solidarity with Tuominen in the corridors of the ministry," one official commented to Yle.

3 December

Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee speaks with Haavisto and Pöysti. The committee is content with Haavisto's version of events, except for the Finns Party, who claim Haavisto has kept parliament in the dark on this issue.

Haavisto explains that the information has to be kept confidential so as not to jeopardise the assigned official, the Finnish citizens at the camp or the success of the whole operation.

"The members of the Ministerial Council have been aware but have not had to make decisions, since all the actions have been preparatory actions that have clarified the situation of the Finnish citizens at the camp and the attitude of various authorities in the area to help these people," Haavisto said.

Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti was prohibited from commenting on Haavisto's actions because he has been the subject of a number of complaints, including one criminal complaint.

President Niinistö tells Helsingin Sanomat that he had been aware of the official appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and "other official duties". Niinistö added that he has discussed the situation in Al-Hol with Haavisto on several occasions.

4 December

Ilta-Sanomat publishes leaked documents from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs: internal emails and an excerpt of the meeting minutes from 29 November.

Kirsi Varhila, Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, tells Yle that a search operation of the Al-Hol camp had been prepared, but that it was to include adults as well as children.

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Sosiaali- ja terveysministeriön osastopäällikkö, ylijohtaja Kirsi Varhila
Kirsi Varhila. Image: Toni Määttä / Yle

Haavisto appears on Yle TV1’s A-studio programme and says he had spoken with Pasi Tuominen earlier that day; and apologised to the official. Haavisto blames the problems on the flow of information within the ministry, and he says he has heard from Tuominen that there is no contradiction in the consular department about the appointed al-Hol official.

Haavisto announces that Tuominen is welcome to continue as Consular Chief if he wishes. However, he refuses to be drawn on whether he had ousted Tuominen.

Haavisto said the ministry was discussing the possibility of helping children in the summer, but the idea soon came to an end because of the views of the Syrian authorities.

5 December

In an open letter, the trade union representing ministry staff demands an explanation from Haavisto about his "undermining" of the position of consular chief.

"This is an urgent cry for help from the staff," says chair Juha Parikka, who adds that foreign ministry staff do not understand how Haavisto can change procedural rules and transfer the duties of Tuominen to another official.

Haavisto responds to the open letter later the same day. He apologises for the internal problems and the lack of open communication about staff issues. Haavisto also references the busy autumn schedule and the challenges posed by the discovery of Finnish children in Syria as contributary factors.

The Finns Party threaten the government with a parliamentary interpellation if Haavisto continues as foreign minister.

"There are three questions that are still open: whether Isis families are being brought to Finland, whether Haavisto has lied about the issue, and whether he has been pressuring an official to perform unlawful actions to bring Isis families to Finland," says Finns Party chair Jussi Halla-aho.

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Jussi Halla-aho
Finns Party chair Jussi Halla-aho. Image: Lehtikuva

6 December

Pasi Tuominen goes public. In an interview with Helsingin Sanomat, he accuses Haavisto of fear-driven leadership and making illegal decisions.

"It is totally unacceptable that officials can only tell the minister things that Haavisto feels are promoting his own political views," Tuominen says.

Haavisto denies Tuominen's claims and explains the problems of his ministry have been exacerbated by Finland’s EU Presidency.

"I've made the mistake that I have had too little time with the staff," Haavisto says.

He reiterates that decisions on possible assistance to the Finnish citizens at Al-Hol were made with the utmost confidentiality for security reasons.

"I am well aware that this may have led to the appearance of secrecy," Haavisto says.

Haavisto denies he chose a successor for Tuominen, but admits that different names have been mentioned.

"On 20 November, the Under-Secretary of State was informed that Tuominen would prefer to end his current duties as soon as possible," Haavisto says.

8 December

Staff representative Juha Parikka tells Verkkouutiset that distrust of Haavisto within the ministry remains, as he still seems to be telling a "modified truth". Parikka finds it particularly problematic that important policy decisions have been made unilaterally by Haavisto.

Green Party chair Maria Ohisalo, says that she "of course" has confidence in Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto. According to Ohisalo, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long had unresolved problems, and not just under Haavisto’s tenure.

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Maria Ohisalo
Greens Party chair Maria Ohisalo. Image: Lehtikuva

9 December

Yle reports that the government had a more detailed plan than previously known for relocating Al-Hol women and children to Finland. The plan is to prevent Finnish citizens from dying in the camp when, for example, the weather gets cold. According to Yle sources, the ouline documents are classified as confidential.

Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti says he will launch an investigation into the activities of the Foreign Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs related to the Al-Hol issue.

Pekka Puustinen, Under-Secretary of State for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sends an internal bulletin to staff at the ministry, in which he declares his support for Haavisto. According to Puustinen, the al-Hol debate is the result of a serious divergence of views within the ministry, and that not everyone shares the view of the ministry's "atmosphere of fear".

Consulate Chief Pasi Tuominen does not comment on the latest developments, nor does he confirm if he intends to continue in his job.

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