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Helsinki preps schools, NGOs to spot FGM, forced marriage trips

A working group survey revealed that at least 10 children had "disappeared" from Helsinki primary schools in 2017.

Oppilaita koulun käytävällä.
Image: Eveliina Matikainen / Yle

The city of Helsinki has announced a programme to help schools and children’s NGOs better recognise situations where planned trips by migrant-background families might endanger children’s safety.

According to a report by tabloid daily Ilta-Sanomat, the guidelines will advise adults working with immigrant-background children (in Finnish) how to ensure that when youngsters travel abroad they are not subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) or forced marriage and that their studies are not interrupted for extended periods.

The guidelines were cooked up by a working group that attempted to determine the scale of such phenomena as well as suggest measures to combat them.

"The issue first came up in a relationship violence working group. I began to investigate whether or not anything had been done at the city level and then set up a working group," said Mirjami Silvennoinen, a specialist with Helsinki’s security and preparedness unit.

The expert group comprised representatives from the city, the foreign ministry, Helsinki police department, the National Education Agency, the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL, youth organisation Children of the Station and NGO Fenix Helsinki.

10 minors go off grid in 2017

A survey by the working group revealed that at least 10 children had "disappeared" from Helsinki primary schools in 2017. The survey was sent to roughly 100 Helsinki primary schools last year, with 22 responding.

Silvennoinen said that the number of missing children reported does not necessarily reflect reality and that the working group's pointers indicate how to operate in situations where care givers and teachers encounter foreign-background children about to travel abroad.

She told Ilta-Sanomat that if a child misses more than 50 hours of school, authorities usually file a child welfare notification. However she said that notifications should be lodged well before that threshold if concerns arise about a child's wellbeing or safety.

"We developed an operational chart where everyone can quickly see what can be done in the case of children travelling abroad, perhaps not in their best interests," she added.

She noted that the guidelines will be directed toward all adults working with children, but will also be shared with children and teens as well as their families.

"So if a child is to travel [it tells] what they can do if they feel it’s not in their best interests," the specialist explained.

Boys and girls sent abroad

Silvennoinen said that it is common for older teens to be sent to their parents’ homelands to learn the culture and to spend time with relatives for a year or two. However she claimed that the purpose of such trips could also be child marriages.

"If it’s known that [children could face] circumcision or a forced marriage, then people should intervene. These things are crimes in Finnish law, but of course they do not fall within the city’s jurisdiction," she noted.

The city worker said that boys as well as girls are sent abroad and added that the focus of the initiative is children who travel abroad without their parents.

"However families travel overseas on vacation so it is difficult to comment on that but if children are sent abroad for several years without their parents, then there might be something else to it," Silvennoinen concluded.

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