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APN this week: Is Finland’s approach to work-based immigration a ‘catastrophe’?

Immigration officials came under attack once again this week for their treatment of non-EU experts who want to work in Finland. But what can be done to fix the problem?

Supercell Oy:n työntekijöitä Supercellin tiloissa.
Supercell hires from all over the world, but delays make it difficult. Image: Supercell

Is Finnish immigration policy in need of an overhaul? That’s what Supercell founder Ilkka Paananen asked last week, suggesting that current waiting times for residence permits for specialists--in practice high-flying coding and tech talent from outside the EU--were a ‘catastrophe’ for the Finnish economy.

The average wait for a permit this year is 52 days, according to the immigration service, up from 25 days last year.

Paananen says that’s unacceptable, tweeting in Finnish that "this is a catastrophe that can be seen everyday at Supercell, for instance. People with world-class know-how who would be very good taxpayers are ready to come to Finland, but our bureaucracy blocks us from bringing them here. A world-class creator is not going to wait 3-4 months for a permit."

It’s a known issue to many in the tech industry. Some, like Rasmus Roiha of the software industry group Software and E-Business Finland, say that Migri might no longer be the right place to decide on work permits for highly-skilled specialists.

“Migri is an institution that’s been well trained and is very effective in situations where people are coming from a crisis area, such as Syria,” says Roiha. “They are very good at looking at assessing refugee applications and deciding if people need protection, but not so much these specialist issues.

'World Class talent'

The problem for many of these companies is that world-class talent is only defined as world-class talent because of the impact it has throughout the company.

“Top talent raises the level of the whole team,” says Roiha. “That’s why it’s so important to get these people here.”

To do that Roiha advocates splitting off specialist applicants from the rest of the Migri workload, and perhaps assigning them to the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Employment.

Another option he advocates is to create a fast track inside Migri for applications in certain areas where officials identify a skills shortage, similar to how Canada tries to bring in skilled workers.

But however the problem is resolved, the key is to get the waiting time down.

“Finnish companies already have a very difficult time attracting top talent,” argues Roiha. “Finland has a great reputation in some rankings, but these specialists can go anywhere, they are comparing global cities.”

“So when we get lucky and persuade somebody to come here, then at that point say ‘oh okay you might have to wait up to six months for a working visa’, then that is a very negative signal to send to those people. Everybody can wait 30 days, but six months is way too long and those people will go elsewhere.”

Schooling an issue

Melanie Dower manages the onboarding of recruits at Supercell. She says that delays at Migri can cause knock-on effects for families who have to wait for all the bureaucracy to fall into place.

“We don’t lose people in the waiting periods, but I am a little surprised that we haven’t lost people recently because the delays have been lengthy,” says Dower. “Particularly families with children, because this has a knock-on effect on school places.”

In two recent cases families had a tense wait to get local addresses that would entitle them to school places in the August intake, and the children are still waiting more than two months later for a personal identification number, the key to a huge range of services in Finland.

“Luckily at Supercell we can support people through this, but smaller companies might consider these delays too much of a risk,” notes Dower.

“You can come here and apply for residency, if you’re a specialist expert and your salary is at a certain level, but it can then be a long time before you get a personal identity number which is the key to everything. For example, you can’t open a bank account, apply for a Kela card or rent an apartment without it. People can be in the country for a while without really feeling that they’ve moved, that they belong.”

One month deadline

The political mood in Finland is very much in favour of accelerating processing times for specialists from outside the EU.

The chair of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, Antti Lindtman, stresses that the SDP-led government was earmarking more money to tackle the problem.

“[The waiting times are] too much and that’s why the government programme has a goal that if the application is okay then the process should take a maximum of one month,” says Lindtman. “That’s the goal that we’re heading towards.”

“At the same time we need more embassies, especially in certain areas, and we need more resources in order to get this time shorter than it is today.”

Chair of the Finns Party's parliamentary group Ville Tavio agrees on the extent of the problem, but inserts some characteristically populist talking points into his answer.

“I completely agree with him, I think it’s a total mess and a failure that the Finnish Migration Services are putting all their efforts to asylum seekers,” says Tavio, who advocates cutting that spending as part of his party's hostile policy on humanitarian migration.

Migri were asked on Tuesday for a comment but were unable to provide an interviewee before publication.

What do you think? Is Finland welcoming enough to foreign workers?

Melanie Dower and Rasmus Roiha will be joining us on this week’s All Points North podcast to discuss the problem from the ground up: what does it take to convince people to move to Finland? You can send comments or questions via WhatsApp on +358 44 421 0909, on our Facebook or Twitter accounts, or at yle.news@yle.fi.

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