Close to 40 young men from Afghanistan participate in Finnish language and integration courses at the Karijärvi reception centre in the southern city of Porvoo, as they prepare for their long-awaited interview with the Finnish Immigration Service. They are among the over 3,000 minors that have arrived in Finland since 2015 without an accompanying adult to seek asylum.
Young Zakaria is the boldest of the lot; he agrees to sit for a television interview in Finnish after just six months of Finnish language instruction.
He says he left Afghanistan nine or ten months ago, after his 19-year-old brother was killed in the violence. He lists the countries he travelled through on his journey north: “Turkey, Iran, Macedonia, Germany, Sweden and finally, Finland.”
The Red Cross-administrated asylum seeker reception centre for minors boasts 14 assistants, most of whom have a background in social work or teaching. One has experience working in a refugee camp, while another used to work in Afghanistan. Juuso Kujala taught school in Vantaa before beginning work at the centre.
“When the young men arrived in November, we started classes the very next day. At first we naturally relied on gestures, drawing and playing Pictionary,” Kujala says.
“A dozen of the boys spoke English, which helped. We divided the group into three tiers quite quickly. First we learned Finnish and soon after we started to learn maths because there were the repetitive phrases of ‘how much’ and ‘how many’. The tiers will determine how they make the transfer to the municipal schools in March,” he continues.
Thirst for knowledge
Kujala says the boys have an enormous thirst for knowledge. Zakaria says the classes provide an important rhythm for the day.
“I attend classes every day. I study the Finnish language and maths and geography. It’s nice there. When I come back, I play billiards and table tennis; complete my homework and go to sleep, every day. I want to study because I want to be a doctor in the future,” he says.
Zakaria also follows several Finnish television programmes, Yle’s Uusi Päivä (New Day) soap opera and the news in easy Finnish service in particular.
Juuso Kujala has grown to know his pupils well in the last half-year.
“Most of them left because they absolutely had to. Then there are others that left because life in Afghanistan is unbearable and they see no future there. They are now anxiously waiting to see what will happen to them,” he says.
“I think Finland is a safe place to be. No one will hurt me here. Finland is a good country,” Zakaria says in his interview.
Ploughing through the backlog
The Finnish Immigration Service has employed more personnel to process asylum applications, but over 21,000 applications are still pending. Some 15,000 applicants are still waiting for an invitation to their asylum interview.
In a customer bulletin released on May 19, the Finnish Immigration Service announced that asylum seekers who arrived in autumn 2015 will be interviewed in late summer 2016 at the latest.
“Asylum applications are not necessarily processed in the order they were submitted, because decisions on applications considered manifestly unfounded, for example, are made following an accelerated procedure. This is why an applicant who had arrived in Finland in December 2015 may be invited to an asylum interview earlier than one who had come here in October the same year,” the bulletin said.
The immigration authorities nevertheless warn that applicants might not receive an invitation to the asylum interview until late this summer and ask people to “please be patient”.
The service’s asylum unit director Esko Repo comments on the situation.
“Last year 3,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Finland to apply for asylum, a staggering amount when compared to previous years. Most of the underage applications have still not been processed. Last year most of the applicants were from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Early this year, some Syrians have also arrived and the number of Somalian minors has fallen drastically. We have made preparations for 1,500 municipal placements for the minor applicants,” says Repo.
The Finnish Immigration Service is currently processing about 500 asylum decisions a week.