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Monday's papers: President Niinistö on al-Hol, Estonian minister slams PM Marin, school trips cancelled

Niinistö said Finland must help refugee children but not their mothers, Sanna Marin keeps cool under criticism and PE field trips are being scrapped.

Oikeistopopulistisen Ekre-puolueen puheenjohtaja Mart Helme.
Estonian Minister of the Interior Mart Helme belittled PM Marin and brought up Finland's brutal civil war out of context. Image: Raul Mee / Lehtikuva

Political parties in Finland have been in a tug-of-war over the principles related to repatriating Finnish citizens from the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria for weeks. On Monday President Sauli Niinistö drew his line in the sand in the form of a personal blog post.

Niinistö began his missive by saying that he would not be backing any particular party line, repeating twice that the government knows his stance, but that he will not be influencing the work of Parliament. He then proceeded to outline his own opinion on dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe.

"Finland should help children. While dissenting views on Finland's legal obligation have apparently been expressed, the moral duty is clear. This same duty does not extend to the children's mothers, although as citizens they retain the right to consular services," the President wrote online on Monday.

Niinistö said that problems arise when providing aid to the children is hindered by their mothers' insistence on staying and traveling with them. The Kurdish Regional Government, which controls the camp, says that children cannot be repatriated without their mothers.

The al-Hol camp has a capacity of 10,000 people, but with the apparent downfall of terrorist organisation Isis the encampment's displaced population has swelled to some 70,000 individuals. About 40 of them are Finnish citizens, mostly children; the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) considers repatriated Finns from al-Hol to be security risks despite having the capacity to monitor the small number of adult women, should they re-enter the country.

Helsingin Sanomat wrote that the coalition government has spent the weekend talking over the next steps, and would mull the issue further on Monday, bringing its policy to the table on Tuesday when it responds to the opposition parties' interpellation.

Estonian interior minister lashes out against Marin

In diplomatic news, tabloid Ilta-Sanomat reported Monday on Estonian Interior Minister Mart Helme's abusive attack on Finland's fresh Social Democratic Prime Minister Sanna Marin. Helme went on Estonian radio to lash out at Marin's past job history, and even drew confusing historical parallels to the Finnish Civil War.

According to IS, "now we see that a little check-out girlie has become Prime Minister and some other uneducated street activist becomes an MP," Helme said on the TRE radio channel. "This is symbolic revenge for the 'reds' over the 'whites'. The reds are now in power and they want to make Finland some kind of Euro-province."

According to Estonian public broadcaster ERR, Helme used the word müüjatüdruk, a word that literally means "sales girl".

When asked for a response, the Prime Minister's Office communications manager Päivi Anttikoski said that the PM had "no reason" to comment. However, regional daily Aamulehti wrote that late on Sunday Marin posted an innocuous tweet that touched on the minister's comments without explicitly referencing Helme.

"I'm extremely proud of Finland. Here the child of a poor family can educate themselves highly and reach many goals in life. A cashier can become Prime Minister, for instance. Finland would not survive without its workers. I highly value the work of every employee, professional and entrepreneur!"

IS wrote again on Monday that Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas was quick to call for "respectful" cooperation with "friend and ally" Finland.

"Cooperation between our countries has nothing to do with the composition of a government coalition or the parties that lead it," Ratas was quoted as saying in IS.

Interior Minister Helme himself later backpedaled by saying the views he expressed were not the Estonian government's official stand, but his own personal one and that of his anti-immigrant right-wing party EKRE.

"In no way do I question the positive cooperation and friendship between Finland and Estonia. We are sister nations and will remain so. Differences of opinion between politicians do not affect our warm affection for the Finns," Helme said.

Schools drop PE field trips

Outside of party politics, Turun Sanomat wrote about a new Ministry of Education mandate that calls for the scrapping of physical education programmes that require the parents of students to chip in financially.

Deputy-Ombudsman Pasi Pölönen laid down the law in October, saying that Finnish primary education should be entirely free for all students, and so schools should not organise PE trips that require a student's family to cover part of the cost.

TS reports that primary school staff have been forced to scramble in light of the new demand, overhauling their PE curricula. Vice principal Tuulia Suominen from the Maijamäki school in Naantali said that fewer activities would now be available due to education budget limitations.

"So far our elective field trips have taken students out to try sports such as rock-climbing, karting, downhill skiing and laser tag. The city pays for the transportation, but students have partly covered other expenditures. The school can afford a few euros per child, and not much more," Suominen said in TS.

Director Matti Lahtinen from the Finnish National Agency for Education said the Deputy-Ombudsman's policy is clear, but that many schools will face big changes.

"The worry is this will decrease the amount of teaching outside of school proper. I hope municipalities understand that money for that is needed too, so that students do not get treated unequally due to their place of residence."

12.57: Updated with ERR translation of Helme comment.

14.17: Clarified meaning of Estonian word (müüjatüdruk).

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