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Hundreds protest Afghan deportations in Helsinki

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in downtown Helsinki to protest the forced return of Afghan asylum seekers on Tuesday afternoon. The city protest followed spontaneous protests on Monday night opposing the Finnish government’s policy of returning rejected asylum seekers.

Police estimate that shortly after noon some 600 protesters had already descended on Citizens' Square. Image: Tiina Länkinen / Yle

Protesters gathered at Citizens’ Square in the heart of Helsinki to protest the deportation of rejected asylum seekers to the Afghan capital Kabul. Protesters had gathered at Helsinki airport on Monday night to protest against the latest flight to leave Finland, this time carrying ten failed asylum seekers.

It was the third such flight to leave Finland this year. Last year Finland changed its guidance for assessing asylum applications from Somali, Iraqi and Afghan nationals, making it easier to reject asylum claims and therefore to deport people to those countries.

More than 1,500 demonstrators had signed up to participate in Tuesday's protest action on a Facebook page set up by the "My Finland" grassroots movement.

Police on hand estimated that shortly after noon, the crowd that eventually showed up at the location numbered around 600. Several politicians, taking a break from campaigning ahead of local elections scheduled for Sunday 9 April, were present at the demonstration.

"Unconstitutional" deportations

The demonstrators were calling for government to put an end to what they termed its "unconstitutional asylum policies".

One of the organisers of the demonstration, Aleksi Pahkala, said the protest action was hastily put together.

"Yesterday the situation clearly escalated. People are worried that such aggressive returns are being organised for Afghanistan. People here are worried about human rights. Finland is tarnishing its reputation as a state that observes the rule of law. People want to show that human rights are respected in Finland," Pahkala declared.

Another protestor, Lassi Alhorinne, held up a sign that read, "Stop deportations".

"I am shocked, angry, frustrated," he said, adding that he participated in previous demonstrations defending the rights of asylum seekers "whenever he could",  including at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport on Monday night.

Italian Erika De Martino, a Finnish resident for the past 13 years, said she wanted more information on what was going on in Finland. She wondered if the recent returns were fully lawful.

"This is a serious issue. I’m here to learn what I can do," she added.

Spontaneous protests Monday night

Tuesday afternoon’s protests followed similar demonstrations by a crowd of about 150 at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport on Monday night, when word slipped out that police would be escorting asylum seekers turned away from Finland back to Afghanistan.

The spontaneous demonstration at the airport was mirrored at the Pasila police station and the Metsälä detention centre. Those protests were sparked by rumours spread on social media that the returnees included underage children as well as a heavily pregnant woman.

Helsinki police issued a statement Tuesday morning refuting the rumours and asserting that all of the returnees had been adults and further that no one was known to be pregnant.

Police at the Pasila station said they used physical force and gas when the protests escalated and demonstrators prevented police vehicles from departing to respond to calls.

Police also said on Tuesday that they had launched a criminal investigation into the events that took place in Pasila on Monday night.

Interior Ministry: A "normal" deportation flight

Meanwhile the Interior Ministry said that Monday night’s return flight proceeded without incident. On board were 10 returnees, in an addition to a doctor, a minority ombudsman observer and a monitor from the EU border control agency Frontex.

The ministry stressed that the flight was what it called a normal deportation flight, several of which take place in Finland every year, adding that Monday night’s flight was the third to take off this year headed for Afghanistan. Last year the ministry undertook 30 such flights.

In a release issued Tuesday, the ministry also stressed that the returnees are people who have applied for asylum but have not met the requirements for receiving it.

"No one whose asylum application is still being processed is deported from Finland."

Last October the EU signed an agreement with the Afghan government allowing member states to deport an unlimited number of asylum seekers, with Afghan authorities obliged to receive them.

In 2016, Finland rejected asylum applications from just over 2,500 Afghans altogether.

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