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"Aren't you ashamed?" PM Marin stands ground during heated al-Hol debate

Opposition parties came together to grill the government over a plan to repatriate Finns from a Syrian refugee camp.

Ulkoministeri Pekka Haavisto (vihr.) ja pääministeri Sanna Marin (SDP) eduskunnan täysistunnossa Helsingissä 17. joulukuuta.
Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (left) was at the centre of a tense parliamentary debate on Tuesday. Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

Opposition and government MPs clashed during a tense parliamentary debate over the government’s position on repatriating Finnish citizens currently at the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria on Tuesday afternoon.

An opposition interpellation tabled last week set its sight on putting the government’s feet to the fire over a lack of clarity on its policy on the matter. It also sought to examine the actions of Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto as he allegedly rolled out a plan to evacuate the Finnish camp residents.

Haavisto has faced criticism from ministry public servants over his handling of the issue, with some accusing him of having a unilateral and fear-based leadership style. Haavisto countered the allegations by saying that he had done nothing unlawful as minister.

"The government is not aware that anything unlawful occurred in the Foreign Ministry’s work. The same has also been stated by the ministry’s senior officials," he told MPs.

Opposition MPs also wanted to know if the children would be brought to Finland with their mothers and whether or not the government had made an official decision on the matter.

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Sanna Marin said that the government wanted to repatriate the children "as quickly as possible." At the same time she said there was no such obligation toward their mothers.

She said that the mothers’ cases would be subjected to individual consideration by public officials. Civil servants would consider the best interests of the children as well as possible security risks that the adults might pose were they to return to Finland.

Opposition: "Extraordinary" actions by Foreign Minister

The opposition did not stint on their words during the debate. The nationalist Finns Party led by Jussi Halla-aho focused much of its criticism on Haavisto’s actions as Foreign Minister.

"It is extraordinary that a ministry official would publicly oppose a minister. It is extraordinary that confidential material would be leaked to the public on the scale that it has in recent weeks. What does this say? That Foreign Minister Haavisto’s actions have been extraordinary," Halla-aho charged.

For its part, the National Coalition Party condemned the fledgling administration's lethargic action. Paula Risikko, who spoke during the party’s turn, said that quicker government action might have already helped Finnish children at the al-Hol camp.

"The government’s inability to make political decisions has led to further erosion of citizens' confidence in political decision-making and possibly to the prolonged suffering of children at the al-Hol camp," she declared. The NCP has said that while Finland should assist the children, it should not help adults at the camp.

PM challenges NCP

The government benches were not at a loss for words during the debate. The Prime Minister pointed out that her government had been in office for one week and had laid down its political position on the situation at al-Hol.

Marin provided a lengthy account of the role of public officials who were charged with safeguarding the rights of the children as well as the security of people living in Finland.

Several administration MPs wondered why the NCP had partnered with the Finns Party to bring the interpellation. Marin put the question directly to the party.

"Finland is a constitutional state and my government will hold to that. Having said that, I am looking especially at the opposition and particularly at the National Coalition party and I ask, 'Aren't you ashamed?'" the PM said.

In response to Marin’s challenge, NCP MP Sanni Grahn-Laasonen pointed out that there would have been no need for an interpellation if the government had spoken openly about its plans.

The government will face a confidence vote on the al-Hol situation on Wednesday.

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