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Voices: Multiculturalism lags behind Finland’s changing demographics

Statistics Finland reported recently that a record number of immigrants have helped to increase the Finnish population. Does the changing face of Finland also mean the society is becoming more multicultural?

Ulkomaalaisia opiskelijoita Saimaan ammattikorkeakoulussa.
Ulkomaiset opiskelijat ovat korkeakouluille mieluisia, sillä he suorittavat opintoviikkoja keskimäärin suomalaisopiskelijoita ahkerammin. Image: Yle

Finland’s statistical agency Statistics Finland registered a record number of immigrants entering the country in 2012, helping to push the population up to 5.4 million. The numbers show capital Helsinki is the undisputed mecca of diversity in Finland, but other large cities are also seeing a change in the makeup of their local communities.

More of those cities are building multicultural programmes, says Katja Tuominen. She is a founding member of the non-governmental organisation Freedom of Movement network, which helps immigrants and refugees to interact with local officials.

Tuominen pointed out, however, that such programmes tend to have a one-dimensional perspective. “There usually isn’t any input from immigrants. Finnish NGOs don’t work with immigrants to design these programmes so they are built entirely from one point of view,” she explained.

She recounted the recent experience of one Cameroonian immigrant who was turned to her organisation for assistance because no one at the local social services office could provide service in English.

“If the request to meet is made by the public official, then the interviewee has the right to an interpreter,” Tuominen pointed out.

She added that based on her own work with immigrants there did not seem to be a very structured or sustained effort to develop multicultural programmes in schools or workplaces. “People do integrate eventually, but usually this happens in spite of and not because of official programmes,” she declared.

Tuominen said it’s important to remember that Russians and Estonians are the largest immigrant groups in Finland. However by and large, they are not offered services in their own language. “Except of course, if you are a Russian tourist and you have a lot of money to spend,” she quipped.

Once an immigrant, always an immigrant?

Fred Dervin is a professor of multicultural education at the University of Helsinki. He specialises in intercultural education and communication and multiculturalism. Dervin and colleague Heidi Layne recently reviewed a booklet published by the Tampere University of Technology, and designed to help international students integrate during their time in Finland. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek publication is titled OH BEHAVE! (siirryt toiseen palveluun)

An online introduction to the booklet states, “Sometimes foreign students are amazed that even teachers and professors from the same faculty may expect different levels of formality from students. Especially Chinese students may find this challenging, because they are used to it that all faculty members expect similar treatment.”

“The tone is very patronising,” Dervin concluded. “We are teaching stereotypes and the idea that we are better than others,” he added.

Dervin noted that Finland is not alone in confronting the issues of increasing diversity and multiculturalism. However, “We can try to avoid recreating the mistakes of other European countries,” he cautioned.

For instance, he said, Finns need to give up calling people immigrants when they have been born in Finland. “It is dangerous because we create (a sense of) inequality, since not everyone is given the same treatment or opportunities,” he explained.

He called on Finns to “change the conversations, and change the terms we use because now these terms include a judgment of others.”

But the teacher educator noted that the conversations about race, immigration and multiculturalism are gradually changing. “New researchers and teachers are taking this issue seriously.”

“Many current programmes are one-off. We need long-term embedded programmes to make a difference,” he concluded.

Like Tuominen, Dervin sees multiculturalism as a bridge where different cultures can meet on an equal footing, not the current one-way street where Finnish culture has undisputed right of way.

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