Finnish authorities have reported a marked increase in the number of asylum seekers. Last year immigration services received applications from 4,035 asylum seekers, while in just the first six months of 2009, the number reached 2,679.
In most cases, refugees are coming from conflict "hotspots" and have valid claims for protection. The first six months of 2009 repeated a pattern observed last year, with most applicants coming from war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
However, another group of asylum seekers is attracting the attention of the authorities. So far this year, some 200 Bulgarians entered Finland asking for official protection, in spite of the fact that, coming from another EU country, their applications are likely to be rejected, says Marjo Mäkelä of the Finnish Immigration Services.
EU Nationals Seeking Asylum
"When a EU member state citizen seeks asylum in any member state, it's considered a safe country of origin and we follow an accelerated procedure. And as far as I know we have not yet granted asylum to any EU citizen or any Roma ethnic group who has arrived recently to Finland," she explains.
The Immigration Services official said most of the applicants in the group coming from Bulgaria belong to the Roma ethnic group. She points out that although their claims for asylum may be considered weak, there may be strong incentives for them to seek greener pastures outside their homeland.
"They can also work, without a special work permit after 3 months after lodging the application. They are also eligible for free accommodation. Maybe people also know that the waiting time has been a bit longer because of all the applications. So they know that have a longer time to be here."
At the same time, Mäkelä points out that the number of EU citizens seeking asylum in Finland has remained more or less constant over the past few years.
Mäkelä says that Finnish immigration authorities are working hard to reduce the processing time for applicants waiting in the system. Currently some 4,500 asylum seekers reside at Finland's reception centres, with roughly another 700 living in other accommodations, such as the homes of friends and relatives.
Finnish authorities are also trying to expand reception centre capacity, by introducing new reception centres in Helsinki, Imatra and Oulu, while 30 new employees have been recruited to the asylum unit to help speed up processing times.
Quick Decisions for Third Country Asylum Seekers
Apart from potential opportunists entering the system, officials are keeping an eye on people who have previously filed an application in another EU country and are still awaiting decisions.
Mäkelä explains that more so-called third country nationals are coming to Finland through Greece and Italy, and in the past some have come from Malta. Currently, however, no applicants have been reported from Portugal, Spain and the Canary Islands, or other locations where the asylum process is lengthy and strictly enforced.
For Finnish authorities, the rules here are clear - these applicants are usually deported to the country in which their original applications were filed. However, some advocates say there may be a compelling case to apply some exceptions to this rule.
Sanna Rummakko, Information Officer with the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, says that the real situation for many of such refugees is very difficult.
"In a country like Greece for example, in reality they have no access to the asylum procedure; they can't have their cases processed. There are no decent reception centres, so most of the asylum seekers are living on the streets," Rummakko expands.
Asylum Process Not Evenly Applied
Rummakko says that regulations such as the Dublin Regulation, which requires EU members to return refugees to the country in which their original applications were lodged, is based on the assumption that the asylum process is consistent across the EU.
But this is an assumption that she contests: "Asylum seekers in many countries don't really have access to the procedure and it should be guaranteed that the asylum seeker has a right to be heard and to have their case investigated," she points out.
The Refugee Advice official added that authorities should be aware that in countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta, the commitment to a fair and transparent process is weak, and noted that NGOs in Finland and Europe are lobbying on many fronts for a fair process.
Meanwhile, the official channels represented by officers such as Mäkelä say that in Finland at least, all refugees, including those coming first through other EU states can be sure that they will have a fair shot at refuge.
"Each case is examined on its own merits. Our officials are experts in the areas that the applicants come from, and each case is examined individually to ensure a fair hearing," she concludes.