"Raza", a 16-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan, arrived in Finland from Iran six months ago. He has lived most of this period in an asylum seeker reception centre for unaccompanied minors in Helsinki. His name has been changed because he fears for his safety. Like many other asylum seekers in Finland, he is waiting for a decision from the Finnish authorities about if he will be granted asylum.
"The waiting is really stressful. I think about it every day: if I will get a resident permit or not," he says.
A total of 34,748 asylum seekers have entered Finland to date as part of the massive migration of displaced people fleeing war and violence in the south that first hit Europe last fall. 3,201 of those crossing the border were minors travelling alone.
The Ministry of Employment and the Economy estimates that about 35 percent of the total arrivals, or about 10,000 people, will eventually be granted asylum in Finland. If previous decisions are anything to go by, most of the under-aged applicants will be successful.
Thousands of placements short
The Ministry of Labour has been charged with arranging for the successful settlement and integration of Finland’s newest residents. Their goal is to provide each of the so-called quota refugees and new asylum recipients with a new home in a Finnish municipality. Their work has progressed slowly and encountered many obstacles, as a shortage of settlement places existed already before the mass migration began.
Residence permit decisions are being made daily, but municipal placements remain hard to find.
"We are far behind our goal; several thousand municipal placements short of our target in fact. The situation is very worrying," says the ministry’s project manager Sonja Hämäläinen.
Local offices of the central government, ELY centres, negotiate regionally about the settlements, and so far they have secured just over 2,500 placements, only a quarter of the ministry’s goal.
Waiting on municipal decisions
The centres have sent out suggestions about reasonable placement numbers to the municipalities for consideration. The suggested numbers often correspond to the population of the city in question.
Some of the municipalities have already responded, and not as the ministry would like. For example, the municipality of Askola in the southern region of Uusimaa rejected the ELY centre’s suggestion that it offer nine municipal placements. Chairman Olavi Merihaara of the municipal board says there’s a good explanation.
"We don’t have the housing resources. Askola has no viable accommodation to offer asylum seekers at present. We have a long line of people waiting for any rental housing that frees up. There is nothing available," he says.
The ministry’s Hämäläinen doesn’t care to take a position on the decisions of individual municipalities.
"Many areas have been very hesitant. But on the other hand, we’ve had others that are eager to participate and have made significant investments. Several new municipalities have also come on board, like Pori and Joensuu. Many municipalities are positive and want to do their part. They see the asylum recipients as an opportunity, a boost for the region and its commerce," she says.
State wants to keep the system voluntary
The system is a voluntary one, and the government is now quickly trying to come up with new perks that would attract municipalities to participate.
"Money is certainly one option. There’s been a strong message from the field that support is welcome. We also strive to provide them with the correct information, as many municipal leaders are genuinely confused about what the agreement would entail. We help them to understand what it would mean in terms of housing, schools and the provision of integration training," says Hämäläinen.
When a municipality agrees to a placement, it commits to arranging rental accommodation, integration services, interpreting and translation as needed and special classes for children in the local schools.
The state pays the municipalities for each asylum seeker they agree to settle. For each person over 7 years of age, the city receives 2,300 euros annually, 6,845 euros for children younger than 7. This payment continues for four years for quota refugees and three years for people who have gone through the asylum application process.
Even though placement has been problematic, Hämäläinen says the country’s leaders won’t resort to coercion.
"We aren’t considering that option. We want the provision of municipal placements to be voluntary in the future, too."
Over 1,000 new residents stuck in limbo
This whole problem means that some 1,100 owners of shiny new residence permits are awaiting placement in the country’s reception centres, 45 of whom are minors. Research has proven that extended stays in reception centres hamper integration efforts among newcomers. For under aged children on their own, it can be a major step backwards.
"Of course it is clear that the sooner you are placed in a place you can call home and receive municipal services and start your day-to-day life, the better you will be integrated," says Hämäläinen.
Not everyone who has been granted asylum waits around in reception centres for settlement, either. As new residence permit holders, they are free to move around. Many take the initiative to move to different municipalities without official blessing or assistance.
"If official channels can’t provide enough placements, then many people who have received asylum will naturally strike out on their own from the reception centres, if they can find a place to live and are accepted into an integration training programme," says Hämäläinen
"Raza" is also awaiting word about his fate. He wants to stay in Helsinki because he has found friends and started hobbies here.
"I like living in Helsinki and I already feel like I know the city. I have settled down here. But safety is most important. Finland is safe, unlike Iran."