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Undocumented: Rejected asylum seekers caught between workplace exploitation and deportation

Estimates of the number of undocumented migrants in Finland range from 2,000 to 10,000. Because these are "hidden" people, no one knows for sure. Authorities are concerned that their desire to stay below the radar makes them an easy target for workplace exploitation.

Mohammad* does odd jobs around a car repair shop and calls himself a slave. His pay is next to nothing, but he has few options. Mohammad is a so-called "recently-undocumented", meaning that he is a rejected asylum seeker. He doesn’t want to inform the authorities about his working situation, because he fears deportation to Iraq.

He does have a chance to re-apply for asylum on new grounds or to seek a work-based residence permit. While he waits for the right opportunity, he supports himself by working off the books. He has three other workmates in the same situation.

"I will do anything, even for 300 euros a month. I have no choice. My advice to working Iraqis is that even if the pay seems unreasonably small, if you will have problems in Iraq, it's better to just keep the job and leave the rest to God," Mohammad said.

Mohammad is one of roughly 32,000 asylum seekers who began arriving in Finland in late 2015. Their asylum processes are winding down, many of them ending in deportations and the revocation of their temporary residence permits. Yle tried to dig beneath the surface of life beyond the protection of asylum seeker reception centres.

Former asylum seekers like Mohammad exist hidden from view, and covertly work on the basis of verbal agreements struck with employers. These hapless individuals are prepared to take on the least desirable jobs on the worst possible terms and conditions.

Estimates of undocumented migrants in Finland fluctuate between 2,000 and 10,000. Because they live under the radar, no one knows the true number. They do not show up in official records unless the police happen to register them as illegally resident in Finland.

Easy targets for exploitation

Every week, however, roughly 100 rejected asylum seekers leave reception centres to eke out an existence on the streets. This means a greater potential for workplace exploitation, says Natalia Ollus of the European Institute of Criminal Policy.

"When you have a situation where people are leaving reception centres, who cannot all be returned [home], then the fact is that some of them will stay. You don’t need researchers to know that; it's enough to look at Migri [immigration service] statistics. Current policies are creating undocumented migrants, without saying whether they are right or wrong," Ollus declared.

Mohammad's story doesn't surprise Ollus. This is not a matter of a few isolated cases, but suggests a structural problem involving immigrant labour and it is partly obscured by long subcontractor chains, she said. One extreme of workplace exploitation could involve human trafficking, at the other extreme as perfectly legal zero-hour work contracts, the researcher noted.

It is easier for native Finns to exploit foreigners like Mohammad because they may not necessarily know the language of the law or collective bargaining agreements. For example, an employer may lie about the contents of the contract they are offering so that instead of a paid position an asylum seeker gets an unpaid internship. For employers, the bottom line also makes it tempting to hire people like Mohammad off the books.

Off the books workers earn a pittance compared to regular workers but help fatten employers' bottom line.

Foreigners are also more prepared than Finns to be flexible about the work they get, because their chances of staying in Finland depend more heavily on a job.

"They are ready to do anything to earn a livelihood in Finland. If you have employers who are willing to take advantage of that, then exploitation is perfectly possible," Ollus continued.

150 euros a month for washing cars

The fear of losing a paid position is one of many reasons why undocumented migrants prefer to remain in the shadows. It's easy to replace a worker who complains about low pay. Undocumented immigrants who become victims of workplace exploitation would hardly speak to police if they have a deportation order hanging over their heads and dread returning him to unrest and possible violence.

Hayder Al-Jouranj, a community worker with Helsinki's Deaconess Institute says he has heard these stories many times before. As part of his work, he seeks out undocumented migrants to offer them information about scarce opportunities, as well as urgent assistance finding a source of income. The charity's "Unprotected" programme is currently assisting 125 people like Mohammad.

"One of our customers got 150 euros after a month of washing cars. Imagine surviving on a sum like that," Al-Jouranj said.

In the United States, Spanish tomato pickers and Mexican house maids are well-known, but in Finland, labour performed by undocumented workers is less visible. According to the institute's project coordinator Ralitsa Batista, that's because most Finns are doing well.

"If you are not being exploited, you don't see it when it happens," Batista commented.

Tip of the iceberg – abuses across many sectors

Official Finland is only now seeing the tip of the exploitation iceberg. But when you scratch the surface, it begins to reveal itself. When regional administrative officials in southern Finland conducted inspections of 132 cleaning companies last year, they found that one in four workers did not have work permits. And half of employers reviewed paid wages that were below the minimum wage stipulated by collective agreements.

In January, Helsinki police set up a special unit to track the phenomenon. The team works with regional administrative authorities to raid work sites suspected of violating the Aliens' Act. Over the past year, the unit has recorded 219 such infractions. Typically, they include employees without a work permit or who are illegally resident in Finland. Restaurants and construction firms were the biggest offenders, but new players are also entering the picture.

"One is mail distribution. We have a few examples where a company has legally hired an employee, who then outsources the work to a friend," explained unit leader Heli Aaltonen of the Helsinki police department.

It therefore comes as no surprise that police are receiving more reports about abuse of foreign workers. Last year there were 65 criminal reports filed about suspected human trafficking – more than in the previous three years. Complaints about workplace discrimination that resembled extortion totalled 63, three times more than in 2015.

Work-based residence permits a rarity

So far few asylum seekers have succeeded in getting work-based residence permits. During the past two years, the Finnish Immigration Service Migri has handed down 118 decisions to asylum seekers from Iraq and other countries; 87 were turned down. Reasons for the rejections include the applicant's lack of passport, an inadequate salary, a criminal conviction or the applicant is employed in a field that according to Finnish practice should be filled by an EU citizen.

"I agreed with one employer that we would sign a contract to help me get a work-based residence permit. We told the authorities I was earning 1,400 euros a month, but in reality I was only getting 800 euros. That went on for five months. I don't think I ever worked for just nine hours a day. It was usually 10 hours or more, six days a week. The job was far away. I had to stay there at night and sleep in an uncomfortable little office. Even If I was getting just 10 euros a day, I agreed so I could stay here. I don't want to go back to my home country. The situation makes me very sad," Mohammad said.

* Name changed to protect identity