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Finland deports 140 Uzbek construction workers over forged training documents

The builders claimed they had recently been educated at a Soviet-era training centre which actually closed 26 years ago.

Hundreds of Uzbek workers are employed in Uusimaa alone. Screeder Umrbek Khodjaev is not under threat of deportation. Image: Karoliina Simoinen / Yle

The Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) announced on Thursday that a total of 139 construction workers from Uzbekistan have received deportation orders since the beginning of the year, over the workers' poorly-forged education credentials.

Scant information is available on the institute where hundreds of Uzbeks claimed they had studied, a Soviet-era training centre known as TMGS. But Migri had serious doubts over whether the educational institute had been functional when the workers claimed, as the Uzbekistan embassy in Riga, Latvia confirmed that the school has been closed since 1993.

In the last few years Uzbek workers presented documents claiming they had graduated from the school between 1997 and 2016.

Due to revelations about the fake training records, about 240 Uzbeks were also denied work-based residence permits so far this year. Migri said almost 400 forgeries have been identified in total.

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Finland's construction sector boom has encouraged people to immigrate from Uzbekistan. Image: Karoliina Simoinen / Yle

The Confederation of Finnish Construction Industries (RT) said the Uzbek deportations could practically paralyse the domestic construction sector, as hundreds of workers from the former Soviet nation are employed in jobs such as industrial painting and screeding (creating level surfaces for floors and roads).

"These jobs are almost totally done by Uzbeks in Finland," said CEO Malik Bentaieb from the construction firm LTU Group, which mostly employs Uzbeks. "The whole industry will be threatened if Migri continues to deport these people."

This year's deportation spike affects a large proportion of the roughly 800 Uzbeks resident in Finland. In 2018 Finland deported just 10 Uzbeks, and none the year before that.

Migri said the total number of deportations of Uzbek nationals this year will likely outnumber forced returns of individuals to countries such as Russia and Iraq.

Shoddy fakes from mystery Soviet school

TGMS is said to have been a school production facility and commune in Uzbekistan. It reportedly included a system of dams, canals and reservoirs with a hydropower factory. Residents at the facility had access to a kindergarten, a school, a clubhouse and a shop.

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A partly redacted forgery seized by the Border Guard. Image: Rajavartiolaitos

When Migri finds that non-EU residence permit applicants have lied on their applications, the agency's policy is to summarily deport and ban them from the Schengen region for two years.

Finland's Border Guard opened an investigation into the forgeries after being alerted to them by an informant in October of last year. The investigation was abandoned once it became clear that the documents were forged abroad – and that they were clearly the work of amateurs.

"The quality was not good," said lead investigator Juho Vanhatalo. "The papers had been tampered with, but unprofessionally."

The certificates were created with regular inkjet printers, and some even featured identical certification codes. The supposedly official seal on documents were also a print-out, Vanhatalo said.

Before closing its probe, the Border Guard collected fines from 10 individuals caught with false documents. The creator - or creators - of the forgeries were not discovered during the investigation.

"These documents are of secondary value. If these were high-quality passports or if the papers had been used to commit other crimes, the situation would be different," Vanhatalo said.

Russian regulations at fault, claims entrepreneur

Hudashukur Iskandarov immigrated to Finland from Uzbekistan in 2005 and runs a painting and screeding company that employs 13 Uzbek workers.

Iskandarov said workers coming to Finland by way of Russia have a hard time proving their competence due to a maze of strict Russian regulations and restrictions on granting immigration permits to people with various occupations.

"Someone might [actually] work for a construction firm, but formally be a cleaner or something else, because builders are no longer granted permits," Iskandarov said. "Many are unable to even officially prove they have work experience."

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Southern Finland's construction sector could be hit hard by Uzbek deportations, according to Hudashukur Iskandarov. Image: Karoliina Simoinen / Yle

Iskanderov said some construction sector employers tend to turn a blind eye to fishy certificates, because workers demonstrate their abilities on the job and good employees are highly valued.

While Migri refrained from speculating on the total number of expected deportations, Iskandarov said he believes that Uzbek workers who have arrived in Finland since 2015 are at particular risk.

"It is a very sad thing for those with families. Many have been positively surprised by the work environment in Finland, so getting deported is tough. Some complain about the decision and hope for some sort of miracle."