Asylum decision appeal case load approaches pre-2015 levels

Finnish administrative courts have whittled down a backlog of over 10,000 appeals on negative asylum decisions to 1,800.

Finland's Supreme Administrative Court is located on Helsinki's Fabianinkatu. Image: Juha Kivioja / Yle

Courts in Finland have made significant progress clearing a backlog involving thousands of asylum decision appeals. The caseload had been generated in the Finnish court system after 30,000 asylum seekers arrived in the country in 2015-2016 and over 10,000 appealed their negative asylum decisions.

The public broadcaster Yle has established that only 1,800 appeal cases are still pending in June of 2019, significantly fewer than in 2016-2018, but still more than existed before the substantial influx of migrants began in 2015.

"Now we are now working through appeals lodged in 2018 and 2019. We have gotten through the worst of the backlog, but I doubt that we ever will be able to get the number much lower again," says Liisa Heikkilä, a senior judge with the Helsinki Administrative Court.

In 2016 alone, ten times the normal number of appeals, or 10,418 cases, were lodged with Finland's administrative courts. Authorities decided to dispense with the backlog by splitting up the appeals among four of the six courts, which are located in Helsinki, Hämeenlinna, Eastern Finland, Northern Finland, Turku and Vaasa.

Advocacy group says changes undermined legal protections

The Finnish Refugee Advice Centre says subsequent legislative changes to hasten asylum decisions did not bring the intended benefits. It says factors like shortening the time window for appeals from 30 days to 21 days in administrative courts and just 14 days in the Supreme Administrative Court weakened the legal protections of asylum seekers considerably.

"It is the only group of people made subject to shorter appeal times, and it hasn't shortened the total appeal processing times at all," says Hanna Laari, a lawyer with the centre.

Laari welcomes plans from Antti Rinne's government to reinstall the 30-day limit for all appellants. A project to rewrite the law in this area will begin at the interior and justice ministries this spring.

The Refugee Advice Centre's lawyer also says that the appellate court process currently doesn't provide enough opportunities for oral hearings, as it prefers less costly and time-intensive written options.

"Oral hearings are almost exclusively used for assessing the credibility of people who say they have converted to Christianity or identify as a sexual minority. This sends a special kind of message that no other reasons are considered relevant in Finland," Laari says.

The Ministry of Justice has granted administrative courts funding for 50 additional employees this year, and 20 more judges are expected to be appointed to the bench by 2020.

The goal is to keep the caseload spread out among four courts until the number of appeals falls back to between 1,200 and 1,000 and average processing times are cut to six months from the current rate of one year.