A record number of asylum-seekers have entered Finland this year, but another record is also being broken. Increasingly many are withdrawing their applications for asylum and deciding to return to their home country.
The Finnish Immigration Service says that by Monday yesterday a total of 2,868 asylum requests had been annulled. Nearly one thousand such cases were filed in November, with over 600 more submitted this December.
A majority of those who cancel their applications return home on their own, with their own money.
Since July, however, some 1,100 asylum-seekers have applied for monetary aid for voluntary repatriation. The system is intended for returnees without means and the government pays for their trip. Some 430 people have been helped back to their countries of origin with the allowance since that time.
The Immigration Service says that the median waiting period for returning migrants is about three weeks from the decision to leave to the flight taking off. This means that half of the applications are handled in less than three weeks, while the rest take longer.
The queue also includes applicants whose applications have taken many months to be processed.
"Cases that take months instead of weeks are anomalies, there aren't many," says the Immigration Service's chief inspector Mari Helenius.
Helenius says that those who leave often base their applications on a family member falling ill or dying in their home country. Many also cite feeling homesick for their country and missing their family. The process itself has also taken some by surprise.
"People may have had the notion that the asylum procedure is quick and effective at uniting families. When they realise that that is not true they change their minds and opt to return," says Helenius.
When an asylum-seeker decides to return to his or her country of origin and needs money to do it,the first thing to do is to submit an application to a reception centre. The centre in turn asks for a statement from the police and makes the decision on whether the applicant can be granted travel money or not.
If the support is granted, the case is transferred to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which arranges for the applicant to receive travel documentation and a plane ticket. This organisation also escorts the traveler to the airport and from the destination airport to their home.
Helenius adds that in addition to the flight, those returning to Iraq also receive some 50 euros in spending money.
On a plane the same day
The rise in people applying for repatriation aid has caused an increase in traffic at both domestic and international immigration authorities. The Finnish government buys the return service from the IOM. Plans are in place to expand the IOM system capacity starting in January.
Many applicants have withdrawn their applications for travel aid and have left for their home country by themselves to avoid the wait. Refugees that chose to returning on their own dime can be home in just the span of a single day, if they travel normally.
The increase in repatriating migrants has also been noted at several travel agencies.
"It depends on the day. Sometimes we have ten, sometimes five, sometimes fifteen," Muhiadin Hassan from Finn Hajj & Umra Travel says.
The little agency is located in the Puotinharju shopping centre in eastern Helsinki. Hassan says that people who have decided to return often want to leave as quickly as possible: "immediately or tomorrow," he says.
In the last few days the Finn Hajj & Umra office has seen fewer asylum-seekers because of higher air travel prices over the Christmas holiday. A one-way ticket to Iraq typically costs between 500 and 700 euros, depending on the precise destination.