Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo has said that the government has not yet made a decision on whether or not Finnish women and children currently residing in the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria will be returned to Finland. The camp is run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and accommodates persons fleeing from territory occupied by the extremist group Isis.
"The issue is very difficult. There are Finnish citizens there in a tough situation. They have health problems and are in danger. Finland has an obligation in this matter and we are now considering how to move forward," Ohisalo said in an interview on Yle's Aamu-tv on Friday morning.
According to information obtained by Yle, there are 11 women and 33 children among the Finns at the camp.
Poll shows division over women's, children's fate
A fresh survey by pollster Taloustutkimus for Yle indicated that around one-third of Finnish residents believe that the children of Finnish nationals in the camp should not be brought to Finland.
However just under a quarter of nearly 1,000 respondents said they would bring both mothers and children to Finland, while a corresponding proportion said they would relocate the children alone.
Another 16 percent said they couldn’t decide on any of the options offered. Ohisalo said that she was not surprised by the outcome of the poll.
"You can look at this from many different perspectives. Above all this is a question of human rights, safety and at the same time there are many risks involved and they must be weighed carefully," the minister commented.
Ohisalo said however that the rights of the children must be safeguarded regardless. She noted that Finland has committed to international agreements that obligate it to act in the best interests of children.
"That requires above all that the children are safe and we are now looking at procedures. We have to think about whether or not we can do something now to help these children," she added.
Countries such as Norway and Sweden have already removed orphaned nationals from the camp.
Government mulling options
Yle’s sources suggest that earlier this week a civil servant working group completed a report on Finnish citizens still at the camp in Syria. The minister said that it is the first major analysis of the issue, but she added that the matter is constantly being discussed.
She said that while a way forward is under discussion with the government, she could not indicate when a decision will be made.
"The situation is grave and people’s life and health are at risk, so we will act as quickly as possible," she noted.
The previous interior minister, Kai Mykkänen, had been concerned about the radicalisation of people at the camp. Ohisalo called for an in-depth expert review on that possibility.
"We will then consider how to try these people for the crimes they may possibly have committed," the minister remarked.
Question mark over ankle monitors
The government programme includes a proposal ensuring electronic monitoring of rejected asylum seekers by fitting them with ankle monitors.
However Ohisalo said that electronic monitoring could also mean telephone-based supervision.
"From the perspective of society, electronic monitoring is in many ways better than detention."
She said that the government’s goal is to reform the asylum system to ensure that asylum seekers get more legal aid and to better inform then about the application process.
"It is important to stress that people can trust Finnish officials. Many immigrants come from countries where there is no confidence in officials and for that reason they may neglect to reveal many important things," she concluded.
Edit: Updated at 3.40 pm to indicate that al-Hol is run by a Syrian group and houses persons displaced from Isis-occupied areas.