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Helsinki churches begin drive to shelter undocumented migrants

Churches in Helsinki launched a campaign Monday to provide emergency accommodation for undocumented migrants in the city. Interior Minister Paula Risikko said that while she won’t condemn the churches' charity outreach, she hopes that they will help migrants voluntarily return home.

Miehiä kantamassa tyynyjä.
Volunteers working at the Lauttasaari church unpack mattresses, quilts and pillows provided by the Finnish Red Cross, SPR. Image: Jaani Lampinen / Yle

As Helsinki churches began a programme Monday to help provide temporary shelter for undocumented migrants, Interior Minister Paula Risikko said that she won’t comment on the churches’ decision to provide emergency aid.

However the minister said that she hoped the church would help migrants with rejected asylum decisions to return home. Risikko’s comments followed a meeting with Lutheran bishops on Monday.

The minister joined Lutheran Archbishop Kari Mäkinen in saying that both sides had a positive mutual understanding during the talks, although the archbishop said there hadn’t been sufficient time to discuss some details.

Paula Risikko ja Kari Mäkinen.
Interior Minister Paula Risikko (left) and Luthern Archbishop Kari Mäkinen. Image: Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

Mäkinen said that it was his understanding that the parishes that had opened their doors to indigent migrants had the support of the church as well as officials. He said that he hoped that as many parishes as possible would do the same, as the church wanted to offer refuge to people in need.

Interior Ministry: Offering shelter "sends the wrong message"

In spite of Minister Risikko’s tempered comments on Monday, the Interior Ministry has long taken a dim view of providing shelter for undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers, saying that it sends the wrong message. According to the ministry such individuals should be deported to their homelands because it is not easy to survive below the radar in Finland.

The ministry is planning to issue guidelines to municipalities on how to treat undocumented migrants with regard to issues such as income support.

Helsinki parishes have agreed that they will take turns to provide emergency shelter to people in need for one-week periods. The Lauttasaari parish in western Helsinki opened its doors to undocumented migrants from Monday, the first in Helsinki to do so. The church received assistance from the Finnish Red Cross SPR, which delivered 100 mattresses, quilts and hygiene products.

Next week homeless migrants will be able to seek shelter at St. Paul’s Church parish hall in eastern Pasila. Other churches will follow suit and also provide temporary accommodation in their parish halls, but during Christmas week shelter will be available at Alppila church itself.

Lauttasaaren seurakunnan kirkkoherra Juha Rintamäki ja muita miehiä.
Parishioners and asylum seekers came together to help prepare overnight berths at the Lauttasaari church. Image: Jaani Lampinen / Yle

Doors open until the New Year

Helsinki churches are prepared to provide berths until the New Year, but say they will re-evaluate the situation in December, as they expect the number of people in need to grow.

Churches have previously collaborated with the Deaconess Institute to provide temporary shelter at the Hermanni Deaconess hall as well as its Munkkisaari location. Both spaces can accommodate 75.

The emergency shelters are meant to provide some relief for undocumented migrants but they will also accept other homeless individuals. So far a few hundred Helsinki residents – including asylum seekers - have signed on to help with practical arrangements.

Church declares position early on

As early as last spring Archbishop Kari Mäkinen said that the church was prepared to help migrants who’d had their asylum applications denied.

In September, newly-installed Interior Minister Paula Risikko invited Lutheran bishops to discuss the situation.

An Yle survey conducted early in the autumn found that the bishops virtually unanimously held the view that the church could not shut its doors to people in need. However they were wary of establishing a parallel [aid] system and many of them noted that the church was not in a position to offer asylum.

Parishes and NGOs have stressed that municipalities and officials have the primary responsibility for providing acute humanitarian assistance. However the city of Helsinki for example, has no plan for addressing the growing number of undocumented migrants on its streets.

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