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Finland probes offering humanitarian visas to Russian dissidents

The visa would allow Russian human rights activists as well as journalists or citizens critical of Russia's war in Ukraine to enter Finland.

Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto (Green) speaking at the Ambassadors' Day meeting in Helsinki on 22 August. Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva

Finland's government has started exploring the possibility of offering a new type of visa to Russian human rights activists, dissidents or journalists critical of the ruling regime — especially in relation to the Kremlin's war in Ukraine.

This humanitarian visa would allow the holder to enter and seek asylum in Finland.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto (Green) clarified that the visa would not open up Finland's doors to every dissident or activist around the world, but would be specifically limited to certain situations, such as the war in Ukraine.

"Of course not, these would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The humanitarian visa would only be used in certain specific cases," Haavisto told news agency STT.

Haavisto was responding to criticisms of the proposed plan, with Finns Party chair Riikka Purra saying last week that the visa would allow anyone, from anywhere in the world, to come to Finland and seek asylum.

Purra was referring to a preliminary report on the use of humanitarian visas carried out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the spring, which concluded that the visa would be similar to a so-called 'D Visa' — which permits the holder to enter Finland immediately after receiving a positive decision on their residence permit application.

The ministry's report noted that the entrant would not be obligated to return to their country of origin, which would in effect mean they would receive a positive residence permit decision without the need to sit an interview.

However, Haavisto told STT that the government will give further consideration to how long the visa would actually last and what the exact criteria for issuing it would be.

Plans to restrict tourist visas

The subject of Russian tourists entering the EU has been a source of widespread frustration over the summer months due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Finland decided to restrict visas for Russian citizens from the beginning of September, with the allocation cut by 90 percent. Further measures were announced on Tuesday, including the accepting of applications one day per week only.

Finland has also called for a common approach to visa restrictions at the wider EU level.

Haavisto said he believes that if more severe restrictions are placed on tourist visas than those currently in place, the need for a humanitarian visa will become an even more pressing issue.

"The stricter the standard tourist visas become, or if they are abolished altogether, the more we will lack such a tool to help those in need and make it possible for them to travel," he said, adding that a similar visa option is already available in several other EU countries.

"In the summer, Covid restrictions were lifted for us and, more notably, for Russia, and we saw a very rapid increase in queues here for Schengen visas. These are mainly tourist applicants, but there are also applicants in the tourist visa queue who actually need a visa or have another reason for their situation, meaning that they may have gotten into trouble as human rights defenders or citizen activists or critical journalists," Haavisto noted.

Afghan crisis lacked an appropriate visa

The debate on the need for a humanitarian visa is not new. The subject was, for example, raised last year in the context of the Afghan crisis.

Following the decision by the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the Taliban coming to power, Finland tried to help women's rights activists leave the country, but no suitable visa could be found.

"We lack a visa that could help critical journalists, members of civil society or human rights activists in critical situations," Haavisto said.

While emphasising the importance of the humanitarian visa, Haavisto was unable to say whether a draft proposal will be submitted to Parliament during this current parliamentary term.

"I think the Parliament has a deadline in October for this parliamentary term, so this leaves a very short time to draft this text, but we will prepare the matter and then see where we are," he said.

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