About 1,300 people have applied for asylum in Finland for the first time this year, and records from the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) show that some 520 of these – or 40 percent – are individuals whose identity cannot be confirmed with official documentation. Or as the service writes on the asylum decisions: "Personal information is based on your own notification".
This 40 percent figure is actually an improvement on previous years: During the asylum seeker exodus in Europe in 2015, the percentage of confirmed identities in Finland was just 20 percent. The improvement can in part be explained by a drop in asylum-seeker applications, as numbers have now dropped to one-tenth from their peak three years ago.
"Back then the processing time per applicant was probably much shorter than normal. We tried to get everything in the books quickly," says Esko Repo, director of the services' asylum unit.
Migri figures show that about 32,000 undocumented asylum seekers have entered Finland between 2015 and 2018. There was no mention of identity confirmation in the cases of six percent of 2015 applicants and two percent of 2016 applicants, so it is possible that the actual number is slightly higher.
"This is a very big challenge. But problems like this are part of the process," Repo says.
Harder to repatriate without a passport
He refers to the fact that a large number of asylum seekers arriving in Finland do not have a passport or other form of official identification to present to the authorities. Sometimes applicants have never even had a passport, or have travelled to Finland with forged papers.
"People that are fleeing do not have the possibility to leave with the required documents in their pockets. Some of them come from countries that don't even have passport systems," Repo says, adding that most of the applicants that arrive without a passport are from Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Others conceal their passports from the Finnish authorities on purpose, to make it more difficult to return them to their home country.
"There have been cases where a person who just got off a plane says that they are seeking asylum in Finland. Then we find ripped up and hidden passports on the plane. Shredded documents and assembled documents have even been found in the toilet," Repo reports.
No way of knowing applicant's past
Another reason applicants might want to hide their true identity is because they have a criminal background. For example, Abderrahman Bouanane, the man who was recently charged with life in prison for a series of fatal stabbings in the southwest city of Turku one year ago, was suspected of assault in Germany before travelling to Finland to request asylum.
The Finnish authorities had no way to know about Bouanane's history in Germany because he lied about his name and age when he entered the country. Only after he killed two people and injured eight more was his real identity established, after German police found his passport.
The security issue the current system grapples with is difficult to resolve. Police in the European Union have no common register that would make it possible to, for example, trace fingerprints once people cross national borders.
"It would be very important for member states making decisions about individuals to have access to all of the information on that person that exists elsewhere. We won't be able to rectify the situation until information can be freely exchanged between authorities," says Repo.