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Finland's only mental health support centre for asylum seekers faces eviction

The Finnish Red Cross centre in Lahti was told to leave by city officials citing building use permit issues.

Irakilainen Hasan osoittaa huoneensa ikkunaa ulkopuolelta rakennuksen sisäpihalta, Hasan selin kuvassa.
Hasan told Yle the service had helped improve his life since arriving in Finland in 2015. Image: Markku Lähdetluoma

The City of Lahti has applied to evict the only reception centre for asylum seekers with mental health problems in Finland.

The Intensive Support Unit operated by the Finnish Red Cross charity currently operates from the site of a former old people's home in the city.

According to Lahti officials, the service does not comply with the building's permitted use. The Finnish Red Cross and the building's owner dispute that interpretation.

Story continues after photo.

SPR Hämeen piirin vastaanottotoiminnan johtaja Minna Jussila kuvassa Tapanilakodin sisäpihalla Lahdessa
Minna Jussila said residents at the reception centre had been making good progress. Image: Markku Lähdetluoma
Minna Jussila, director of asylum reception services for the Red Cross in Päijät-Häme, says that the priority now is to work out if it will be possible to appeal the decision. She told Yle she could not understand the city's decision to evict the reception centre.

"I am annoyed and confused that we have not received answers from the city on how we should change our operations. We have asked several times," she said.

Dispute "an embarrassment" for the city

Lahti's Development Director Olli Alho considers the operation of the Finnish Red Cross's Intensive Support Unit in a former old people's home to be against the law. That position is based on an interpretation of the Land Use and Buildings Act. According to expert opinion obtained by the local buildings inspectorate, it is a care facility.

"It is in breach of the existing zoning plan. The owner of the property has already been warned about this last year and has been asked to stop the activity. This has not been effective," Alho said.

The controversy over the unit began with a letter from residents of an adjoining building sent to the building inspectorate in June 2020, signed by 37 people. The letter demanded the suspension of the reception centre's activities because of an alleged breach of planning regulations. The residents who signed the complaint did not wish to comment to Yle.

After consulting with experts, city officials sided with the residents who complained.

Story continues after photo.

Tapanilan entinen vanhainkoti, vieressä uusia omakotitaloja
The former care home in Tapanila houses the reception centre as well as private apartments. Image: Markku Lähdetluoma
Alho admits that the episode has been embarrassing for the city. A minor exception to the zoning permit could be granted, but that would require the approval of the unit's neighbours.

"The activity itself is very important, and no doubt the Finnish Red Cross is doing a good job," Alho said.

Migri: The unit is not a care facility

The reception of asylum seekers is supervised and controlled by the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri). According to Migri, it has verified on the spot that the property in Lahti is suitable for the purpose for which it is being used.

According to Kimmo Lehto, head of Migri's Asylum Seeker Reception Unit, the Intensive Support Unit is not a care institution.

"It has not been previously identified as a care facility. Ultimately, legal experts will be able to give interpretations on this," he said.

The unit's purpose is to support asylum seekers undergoing mental health issues in order to prevent them from being placed in a care institution for mental health, Lehto said. Most stay there for 3-6 months.

The unit's users themselves say it has provided valuable support. Hasan, originally from Iraq, arrived in Finland in 2015.

"I would like a residence permit from Finland. My dream is to study and get a job. I am grateful to the Finnish state for the help I have received and I want to give back. It would be great to be able to live a normal life here. My life has been getting better all the time," he said.

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