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Opposition slams government's lack of openness on al-Hol evacuees

Finns Party chair Jussi Halla-aho said the returnees took part in a violent organisation and pose a threat to Finland.

Chair of the Finns Party Jussi Halla-aho. Image: Mikko Ahmajärvi / Yle

Chair of the Finns Party Jussi Halla-aho said he suspects that Finland must have assisted the escape of the dozen Finnish nationals from the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria.

Twelve people, including three mothers and their children, managed to leave the camp and cross the border into Turkey before being repatriated to Finland on Sunday afternoon.

But the opposition party chair Halla-aho said he thinks it is unlikely that the families managed to do it on their own.

"It is very unlikely that these people left the camp on their own. It is likely that the [Finnish] foreign ministry had a role in assisting these people to reach Finland and we condemn it," Halla-aho told Yle.

On Monday afternoon, Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said he is not sure exactly how the women managed to reach the Turkish border. However, he did say that Finland helped the women and children into Turkey and that the country offered them consular assistance.

Halla-aho said it was obvious that the women received help to flee the al-Hol camp.

"It is absolutely clear that they were bought or negotiated out of the camp and then were helped to get to turkey. This is based only on common sense," Halla-aho said.

"I even think it's possible that this is some kind of test to see what the public's reaction and political consequences will be. On the basis of this, one may possibly strive to get more people home to Finland from the camp," he told Yle, adding he thinks that the returnees pose a security threat in Finland.

"It must be pointed out that these women participated in a very brutal, violent and primitive organisation," Halla-aho said, adding that he believes the women's return is creating circumstances for future tragedies in Finland.

Halla-aho calls for investigation

Halla-aho said the children who returned on Sunday were innocent and that they should receive care.

"In this situation, one should first take the children from parents who are clearly incapable of carrying out their parental duties," he said.

The populist party chair called for a parliamentary investigation into the course of events that led to the repatriation of the women and children.

"I hope that at least, in due course, the parliament receives very detailed information about what the foreign ministry's and authorities' role were in their escape from the camp and what they plan to do to ensure they cannot continue with their radical Islamic activities," Halla-aho said.

Haavisto dismisses accusations

In an interview on Yle's current affairs programme A-Studio on Monday evening, foreign minister Haavisto denied the charges aimed at the ministry.

"The Finnish authorities have had nothing to do with these people's escape of from the camp. On the contrary, we instructed the Finns there to wait until the coronavirus epidemic is over so that we can return to normal arrangements with the Kurdish authorities and help the children," Haavisto said, adding that the government cannot recommend that Finnish nationals leave the al-Hol camp on their own.

"We have not been able to recommend - and also do not recommend - that anyone leave the camp on their own initiative. It has clearly been a traumatic experience and fortunately the children managed to make the journey," he said.

Haavisto said that the 12 Finnish nationals crossed the Turkish border at three different points and did not travel as a single group, but in separate ones.

Opposition NCP chair "surprised"

The chair of the National Coalition Party, Petteri Orpo, said he was surprised by the news of the return of the women and children from the camp. He also said he feels it is necessary to learn how it took place.

"Last autumn's questionable activities made it feel like things were [being hidden]," Orpo said, referring to events related to the al-Hol situation that culminated in a split at the foreign ministry which engulfed Haavisto in political turmoil late last year.

"If ever, the government must now openly talk about everything that led to the return of these Finns. Why did this come as a surprise again?" Orpo asked.

Haavisto's response to that question was that authorities were trying to safely retrieve the children from an active war zone, but Orpo was not satisfied with the response.

"We must get a clear picture about how Finnish authorities and the government acted. In my opinion, the government's line has been that they will not actively assist the adult Finns in their return to the country. We need to know if you helped them or not," Orpo said.