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Interior Minister aims to strip undocumented migrants of municipal residency, right to public services

Hundreds of migrant families are now undocumented because of a rule change. Interior Minister plans further reforms to bar their right to municipal residency.

File photo of a father with his arm around his daughter's shoulder. Image: Jessica Stolzmann / Yle

The Interior Ministry is planning new rules that would strip undocumented migrants of the right to reside in municipalities and restrict their right to public services. The move follows Finland’s decision to stop granting residence permits on humanitarian grounds, which one NGO says has increased the number of undocumented people in the country.

The Helsinki Deaconess Institute has issued a warning about a new group of people in Finland who do not have residence status. According to the charitable organisation, changes to Finland’s asylum policy have effectively stripped a number of people of their right to reside in the country.

In 2016, Finland stopped granting residence permits on humanitarian grounds. The new system meant that international protection could only be granted temporarily, if applicants did not meet the requirements for asylum or subsidiary protection, but could not return to their countries of origin because of the poor security situation or some kind of natural disaster.

According to the non-profit, the reform suddenly changed the status of a large group of people legally living in Finland for a long time, effectively making them undocumented individuals. The organisation estimated that the group includes dozens, even hundreds of families with children.

"They have settled in Finland. Many of them have jobs and are studying," said Deaconess Institute executive vice president Marja Pentikäinen told Yle.

Municipal residents with no right to live in Finland

According to Pentikäinen, the new circumstances have placed many people in an unusual state of limbo. Although undocumented individuals generally do not have the right to stay in Finland, they may still have residency status as registered residents of a municipality. In other words, they can simultaneously be Helsinki residents who do not have the right to live in the country.

The Deaconess official said that the situation has raised questions among the people affected as well as among officials. “How should people operate? Which law takes precedence and which doesn’t? All municipal residents have the same responsibilities and rights, for example to local government services,” she commented.

The organisation is calling for the restoration of humanitarian residence permits and for an easing of Finland’s work permit practices.

"This puts many people in a hostage situation: they cannot return to their countries of origin because there is no repatriation agreement and therefore they remain here as undocumented migrants," Pentikäinen explained.

Wheels turning to remove right to municipal residency too

On Tuesday, Yle asked Interior Minister Kai Mykkänen to respond to the concerns expressed by the Deaconess Institute. He said that he would not consider restoring residence permits granted on humanitarian grounds.

"I would not restore it. Residence permits on humanitarian grounds are granted to fewer than one in ten of the people who applied for asylum in 2015 and the years before that. It was not a major issue. The bigger question is, what to do about the growing number of people whose asylum applications are rejected because we received many more asylum seekers than in the past," Mykkänen said.

"We must be able to grant residence permits to the people who need them the most. If we have several different classes of residence permits which are granted without a sound basis, then Finns would not support it as a means of helping people fleeing persecution," he added.

Yle pointed out to Mykkänen that there are currently people in Finland who previously had humanitarian residence permits and who are currently undocumented because of the rule change, although they are registered residents of local municipalities. The minister was asked what advice he would give to officials and individuals who are now confused about the current situation.

"Immediate treatment for urgent health care needs must be guaranteed to everyone – we have clarified our position on that, even in the parliament. When it comes to residency in a municipality, we have actually launched legal reforms to review this contradiction so that while there would be no legal right to residence, people would still retain their municipal residency," Mykkänen explained.

"We should eventually get to the point where even the right to live in a municipality will end once there is no legal right to residency in the country," he added.

No right to public services

Mykkänen said that the immediate consequences of the termination of municipal residency status would be a loss of the right to public services.

"Then there would be no right to public services that are not linked to urgent and immediate care or assistance in acute cases. The starting point is that wellbeing services funded with taxpayer money is meant for those who have a legal right to residency here," he declared.

Mykkänen stressed that Finland’s commitment is to helping people genuinely in need of international assistance.

"The rules should be clear. For Finland to help those genuinely fleeing persecution, there needs to be a clear line drawn [to make it clear that] it is not possible to delay departure [from Finland] in the event that all legal avenues and permit processes have been exhausted and there are no grounds for a residence permit. Then it is clearer what services [people] can get and what they can’t."