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Immigration Service tightens oversight of private reception centres amid complaints

Finnish immigration officials are moving to more closely scrutinise the operations of privately-run asylum seeker reception centres in the wake of complaints over staffing. The Immigration Service has issued recommendations for the minimum level of training required to work at such facilities, but several centres appear to have ignored the guidelines.

Image: Toni Määttä / Yle

The majority of the complaints to the Finnish Immigration Service concern the privately-held asylum seeker reception centres run by a company called Luona Ltd. The company and the Service are also currently at odds about whether Luona has hired the required amount of health care staff.

Last autumn the Finnish Immigration Service was in trouble. Thousands of asylum seekers were entering the country daily and were in need of a roof over their head.

Some 180 new reception centres were quickly established in Finland. Several private service providers without any experience in the field joined in.

“We set up accommodations wherever we could get them. There was no time to conduct a tender,” says the Immigration Service’s Jorma Kuuluvainen.

One of the companies that stepped in to help in the pinch was Luona Ltd, formerly Barona Hoiva, a subsidiary of the employment service Barona Group. The company already had premises in its possession and offered several hundred beds.

The deal is signed

An agreement between Luona and the Service was signed in September and Luona quickly became Finland’s largest privately-owned reception centre operator. Negative feedback about the eight Luona-run centres, most of which are located in the capital city region, has been streaming into the Immigration Service ever since. 

The complaints have come from private persons, asylum seekers and the authorities. They indicate that the Luona facilities suffer from a chronic lack of staff and a bad atmosphere.

“The staff level is perceived to be insufficient. Customers are treated disrespectfully and the behaviour among the centres' management has been baffling,” says Kuuluvainen.

No such complaints have been submitted to the Immigration Service about any of the other reception centres run by local government or NGOs.

Young man perished

The Finnish Immigration Service has issued recommendations to the reception centres with regards to its staffing, but they are not legally binding.  According to the recommendation, the Nihtisilta reception centre in Espoo should have four health workers in proportion to the number of customers.  Immigration Service data shows that the centre only employs one nurse.

The situation at Nihtisilta made the news in January when a young asylum seeker there died.

“Luona says their personnel deficit had nothing to do with the course of events… But we have received feedback that the lack of health care staff makes it difficult to arrange for a doctor’s consultation. Our information shows that the centre is still short three or four nurses,” says Kuuluvainen.

Luona claims corrective action

Luona Ltd representatives refused to meet or be interviewed for this report. The company policy also prohibits media representatives from stepping foot inside the reception centres, and security guards are on hand at each centre to make sure that the policy is enforced.

CEO Milja Saksi defends the Luona centre policy in an email, saying that according to their own operative model, a health care team consists of a nurse, a practical nurse and a consulting physician.

She says that the personnel recommendations from Immigration Service only came to her company’s attention last week. The Service denies this, replying that Luona has been reprimanded about their health care paucity in the past.

Saksi says Luona and the Immigration Services have worked together in good faith and that when her company has received feedback, they have taken corrective action. They are now recruiting new health team members, she says.  

There is also disagreement between the authorities and Luona on the matter of other centre employees.

The Immigration Service recommends that all people hired have at least a basic degree in social and health care services. Saksi once again maintains that her company was not aware of this recommendation.

Barona's shady past

Luona Ltd is a subsidiary of the international Barona Group, a services company with a turnover of 160 million euros. 

Already back in 2013, Helsinki City Board member Veronika Honkasalo requested an investigation into the city’s cooperation agreement with the Barona subsidiary Forenom with regards to emergency housing.

Honkasalo said Helsinki had paid Forenom about eight million euros for temporary accommodation expenses in 2010-2012, tripling Forenom’s net sales to 18 million euros. She wrote on her blog that this allowed Forenom to ask twice as much rent on their property as rental homes on the open market were asking, with the city footing the bill.

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