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Does Finland favour female asylum seekers?

Finland's Immigration Service has given siblings different asylum decisions, despite their situations being very similar. Yle has investigated cases where the sister has been granted asylum but the brother refused—because Finnish authorities believe internal displacement is easier for men than women.

Image: Timo Ylifrantti / Yle

Seeking asylum in Finland got more difficult in May, when the authorities changed their guidelines to allow them to deny refugee status to people who might, in the opinion of Finnish officials, be able to live elsewhere in their home country even though their home town is too dangerous.

In practice that means that people from Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan can now be advised to move to areas of those countries deemed by Finland to be safe for native citizens.

Yle has seen decisions relating to some families that appear to show that these rules are applied differently to men and women. The first affects a brother and sister who arrived in Finland together in autumn 2015.

Identical stories, different decisions

Their applications were almost identical: both were persecuted because of their family's political affiliations.  The Immigration Service accepted as true that both brother and sister have reason to be afraid of persecution for their political opinions if they return to Baghdad. The brother was sought by Shia militias.

"You are scare to return because Shia militias have threatened to take your child if they don't find your brother," reads the sister's decision.

The brother sought by the militia was asked to return to Iraq, while the sister and her under-age child given asylum. The brother is over 20, the sister more than 30, and both of their decisions came after the Immigration Service tightened its rules.

"You are a young, single man, capable of work and you are part of the Shia majority in southern Iraq," reads the decision. "It is safe and legal for you to move to live in southern Iraq where your life would not be threatened."

The head of the Immigration Service's asylum unit, Esko Repo, admits that gender can affect decisions. He did not comment on individual cases, but speaks on a general level.

Even spouses can have divergent fates

"In certain conditions a single woman, maybe a single parent's position is different to a young, healthy man capable of work," said Repo.

For example a woman going to Baghdad without a network of friends and relatives would be more at risk than a man who had family in the area.

"We don't favour women, we take each case on its merits," said Repo. "Sometimes it's the other way round: men can't be sent back if he is for example at risk of forced conscription to a military or terrorist group."

The Immigration Service could not say how many cases have ended in similarly different decisions for family members. It is not, however, unknown. Siblings are not even family members for the purposes of Finland's Aliens act. Neither are adult children or the parents of adults.

Even spouses can receive different decisions, according to Repo. Every case is treated separately and decisions are made separately, so the reasoning behind decisions can also differ.

"Of course the principle is that if there are the same facts then there should be the same result and the same decision," said Repo.

Lawyer: Women not necessarily more at-risk than men

Immigration lawyer Ville Punto says that the disparate sibling decisionssound strange if both of them are seen to be at risk of persecution.

Image: Timo Ylifrantti / Yle

"The Immigration Service probably thinks that if a woman has a child, she can't flee inside the country, even though it doesn't say so in the decision," suggested Punto. "I can understand that logic. Whether internal displacement is possible for men either is another matter."

Punto says that it does not automatically follow that a woman is in more danger in Iraq than a man because of, for example, their political opinions.

"It's often the other way round," said Punto.

UNHCR status sometimes accepted, sometimes not

Another pair of siblings from Baghdad experienced the same fate: the little sister and her under-age daughter were granted asylum, the big brother asked to leave. They came to Finland together in autumn 2015 and got their decisions at about the same time.

Their case is slightly different in that both siblings were recognised as refugees by the UNHCR in early 2015. That was taken into account in the sister's decision, but not in the brother's.

Yle has seen the documentation relating to both decisions and there are other differences too. The Immigration Service said that the brother's stated reasons for traveling to Finland were partly 'unspecified' but the sister's story was not questioned. The sister's decision mentioned a murdered relative, but the brother's did not.

The Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that UNHCR-granted refugee status does not alone guarantee asylum in Finland, but it should be given appropriate weight in the decision-making process.

"The reasons it was granted should if possible be investigated and especially the danger a person might be placed in if deported should be taken into account," said the court in a precedent-setting ruling.

Explanation necessary

The sister in question was granted protection because she is part of 'a certain social group'. In plain language that means that the sister is at risk of persecution because of her gender. Yle is not reporting further details of the cases in order to protect the individuals concerned.

Image: Timo Ylifrantti / Yle

The brother's reason for fear of persecution was his job. The Finnish Immigration Service urged him to find a new job and move to a different district within Baghdad. Both brother and sister are Sunni Muslims.

The Immigration Service wrote in its decision that it accepted as fact the applicant's claim that he had been threatened, but said he would not in future face similar threats if he gave up his job.

UN-granted refugee status didn't change the official Finnish view, according to the decision. That decision to disregard his status was justified as based on "information about the UNHCR's operational principles".

"Ah, so the UNHCR grants refugee status too easily?" asked Punto, who said that the decision should at least justify the divergence of opinion between the UNHCR and the Finnish authorities.

"A good question is why the status was significant in the sister's decision but not in the brother's, especially if the matter is justified with reference to 'general operating principles.' It shouldn't be justified in general terms but with regard to the person's personal situation." said Punto.

Repo agreed that asylum decisions should include a full explanation where the Finnish decision is at odds with a UN decision.

"Of course the language may differ from different authors, but I'm not going into that," said Repo.

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