On Thursday Deputy Ombudsman Maija Sakslin strongly condemned Foreign Ministry and immigration officials for the process of interviewing underage applicants in family reunification cases. Sakslin said that even small children have been interviewed without a family member or other legal guardian present.
The interviews are designed to determine whether the child meets the requirements to be granted a Finnish resident permit on the basis of family ties. Sakslin said that based on her review of the practices in place, she could not guarantee that children's rights and interests are safeguarded in the interviews.
"Diplomatic missions have been questioning underprivileged children, whereas they should be seeking information from guardians or other legal representatives," Sakslin revealed.
According to the Deputy Ombudsman's report, the practice at missions has been to ask children whether they felt brave or willing enough to be interviewed alone.
"The presence of a guardian or other legal representative has even been seen as undesirable in some situations," Sakslin said.
The Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) has said that it intends to update its guidelines for missions on questioning underage applicants.
Lack of competence
Sakslin also said that she found shortcomings in the abilities of interpreters as well as employees conducting interviews. She noted that personnel conducting hearings tended to change at a rapid pace, and that some of them had not been trained in the skill of interviewing children.
She stressed that the interview situation can be very difficult for minors.
"Among other things, children are confronted by an official from a foreign state, in an official setting that is strange to them. They are forced to give a detailed account of everyday matters and difficult experiences, of which they don't necessarily have a clear memory or even a clear idea."
New guidelines in the works
Mission workers generally conduct the interviews based on guidelines provided by Migri. Migri chief Jaana Vuorio told the Finnish News Agency STT that it plans to update its guidelines as quickly as possible.
According to Vuorio training for mission workers is also important, to ensure that all employees have the same understanding of the instructions regardless of where they work.
"When we get this kind of decision from a legal authority, we take action quickly, that is clear. It is very important for us to evaluate what is in the best interest of the child and to arrive at the right conclusion as quickly as possible," Vuorio added.
Foreign Ministry also probing issue
"We are taking the Deputy Ombudsman's findings very seriously. We are looking into the matter and we are trying to address the weaknesses," said Pasi Tuominen, head of the Foreign Ministry's consular services.
Back in 2015, the Deputy Ombudsman asked Migri to provide a report on the interviewing process, after which the immigration service adjusted its instructions. According to Sakslin, even the new guidelines did not address all of the problems.
Sakslin has given Migri and the Foreign Ministry until the end of the year to indicate what corrective measures they intend to take.