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"I'm scared and I think about it all the time": Ukrainians describe living alongside Russians at Finnish reception centres

Although Finnish authorities have decided to end the practice of housing Ukrainians and Russians at the same facilities, the decision does not apply to all centres.

The Joutseno reception centre in eastern Finland. Image: Mikko Mykkänen / Yle

On Friday 30 September, Ukrainian national Natalia Lytvynchuk finished work and returned to her temporary accommodation at Salo reception centre, where she has been living with her husband and three children since soon after her arrival in Finland.

She noticed that two buses had arrived at the centre and the passengers, mainly young men, began disembarking.

"They came and came and came," Lytvynchuk said.

She does not recall the exact number of arrivals, but she told Yle that there were "a lot of them".

"They were to be accommodated in our centre, but we were not told anything. We only found out by chance that they were Russian. We heard them talking on the phone to their families, telling them how wonderful it is here and how lucky they were to be here," she said.

The Ukrainians already living in the reception centre — mostly women and children — were not so much angry as shocked, Lytvynchuk explained, questioning how it could be possible that Russians would be housed with Ukrainians.

Natalia Lytvynchuk came to Finland from the city of Zhytomyr in the northwest of Ukraine with her three children, the youngest of whom is 9 years old. Image: Natalia Lytvynchuk

"Russia has attacked us, is destroying our state, our people, our cities. We fled to save our children, Finland gave us shelter, and now our enemies are settling right next to us, we have to live face-to-face. I don't know how I can stand this. We have to share a kitchen and a laundry room," Lytvynchuk said.

"Let's go quickly, Putin is speaking"

Lytvynchuk told Yle's Ukrainian language news service that she tries to limit her contact with the newcomers, but avoiding them entirely is impossible.

"They have been pulling down Ukrainian-language signs at the reception centre. And when Vladimir Putin gave a speech about Russia annexing Ukrainian regions, we saw a few men running down the corridor, rushing to watch the speech, saying 'let's go quickly, Putin is speaking,'" she recalled.

While Lytvynchuk noted that the Russians living at the Salo reception centre have not been aggressive towards the Ukrainian nationals in any way, her overwhelming emotion is fear.

"I'm scared and I think about it all the time. I'm afraid to leave my 9-year-old son at home, knowing that they are here," she said.

A sign in the kitchen of the reception centre read "closed" (Зачинено) in Ukrainian. One of the new residents had crossed out the word and written in Russian "What?" (Что?). Image: Natalia Lytvynchuk

Kateryna Kharynova, who lives in a separate reception centre in the nearby district of Halikko, told Yle that there are a couple of Russian families living in the same accommodation. Kharynova fled to Finland with her two-year-old son.

Before the Russian nationals arrived, the Ukrainian residents of the centre were invited to an information session.

"We were assembled and told through an interpreter to behave calmly and not to talk politics with the Russians. People were angry, of course, but did nothing, because we know that we do not have many rights in Finland," Kharynova said.

However, she added that she has not heard about any conflicts between the Russian and Ukrainian residents since their arrival.

Difficult to talk about "peaceful coexistence"

When the number of Russian citizens arriving in Finland increased following President Putin's announcement of a partial mobilisation of reservists on 21 September, Finland's Immigration Service Migri considered whether it would be appropriate to house Ukrainians and Russians in the same centres.

The Director of the Joutseno reception centre, Antti Jäppinen, said in an Yle interview on 2 October that he did not see any problem. In his view, Russian men would not be seeking asylum in Finland if they were in favour of the war in Ukraine.

Instead, he argued, they would have signed up to serve under the partial mobilisation order and been sent to the frontlines in Ukraine.

"The opinions of Russians and Ukrainians here [at the centre] on Putin's brutal war are very similar. They consider it a great tragedy and are of course against the war," Jäppinen said in the interview.

On the same day, and in reaction to reports that Russians had been placed in the same centres as Ukrainian nations, the Association of Ukrainians in Finland published an open letter (siirryt toiseen palveluun) to Finnish authorities calling for an end to this policy.

"The Association of Ukrainians in Finland considers that placing men who have fled Russia in the vicinity of women and children who have fled Ukraine poses a significant threat to the mental and physical well-being of the latter," the letter stated.

The association's vice-chair, Inna Manko, told Yle that the decision to publish the open letter was made because the association believed that the dangers of such coexistence were not fully understood in Finland.

"Even the people who work for organisations that help refugees, and the people who teach Finnish to refugees, don't always understand what the problem is. They think that all refugees are against the war. But that is not the case, and we can see it from the statistics," Manko said, citing a survey by Russian nongovernmental organisation the Levada Centre which found that 72 percent of Russians were in favour of the war in Ukraine, even after the mobilisation order.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Finland Olga Dibrova said her embassy had been in contact with the Finnish authorities about the matter.

"On the question of housing Russian citizens in reception centres with Ukrainian citizens, the Finnish authorities have assured the Ukrainian Embassy that the situation will be rectified. If similar cases occur in the future, please send concrete information to emb_fi@mfa.gov.ua," Dibrova wrote on Twitter.

Earlier this week, Migri announced that Ukrainian temporary protection applicants and Russian asylum seekers will no longer be housed at the same reception centres.

The agency said that this decision was made following the appeals made by the Ukrainian association and the ambassador, further noting that the fears expressed by Ukrainians living in such centres were also a factor.

"For us, the most important thing is that our customers feel safe in Finland," said Migri Director General Ilkka Haahtela, who took office in late September.

In a statement, Migri said that the policy would go into immediate effect, with new Russian arrivals currently being placed at separate facilities. Meanwhile, clients from those countries already living at the same reception centres will be separated this month.

On Tuesday evening, Antti Jäppinen, the director of the Joutseno reception centre, told Yle that Migri's decision does not apply to his facility, as Joutseno is a so-called "transit centre", where both asylum seekers and refugees seeking temporary protection are sent from the border.

"We have so many people coming to us at the moment that we will have to continue to house people of both nationalities in the same building, but of course not in the same rooms," Jäppinen said.

Migri reported on Wednesday that 308 Russian citizens have submitted asylum applications in Finland since the announcement of the partial mobilisation just over two weeks ago, bringing the overall total to 724 for the year so far.

The agency added that as of Wednesday, there are about 550 Russian nationals living in reception centres in Finland.

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