The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman's office will soon gain more employees to monitor the repatriation processes of migrants who have been denied asylum.
The office's resources have been severely limited since the monitoring programme began in 2014. Ombudsman supervisors observed or traveled on board for some 60-90 repatriations in 2015-2017, as per EU directive 2008/115 and Finland's Aliens Act.
After the resource increase in late March, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman will have a total of five repatriation monitors, up from the current 2-3 workers.
"We will be able to be directly involved in repatriations more often this year," promises inspector general Pirkko Kruskopf from the Ombudsman's office.
Instead of just one monitor showing up to assess the propriety of repatriation flights, the office will begin sending two-person tag teams.
"With our resources so far, we would have been stretched too thin had we sent more than one representative," Kruskopf says of the office's track record.
So far this year Non-Discrimination Ombudsman monitors have been along for 15 out of 115 repatriations. Their tasks include overseeing the treatment of foreign nationals prior to boarding, as well as occasionally flying with the forced returnees.
Last year a total of 554 individuals were repatriated by police escort.
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Official complaints rare
The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman files for official complaints on passenger treatment extremely seldom. The only complaint so far was handed in to Parliament last year, and a second is currently being prepared.
The previous complaint concerned a repatriation case from 2016 where an HIV-positive woman's mouth was covered so that she had trouble breathing. The complaint made it to court, but the prosecutor general dropped the case out of hand.
"That was of course a blow for us," Kurskopf says.
A parliamentary inspector continues to investigate the case, however.
The new complaint in the works concerns the steps leading up to a specific deportation, though information on the filing is scant.
Some 20 people are reported to have died on repatriation flights from Europe since 1991. A majority of them were due to excessive force resulting in strangulation.
More than 32,000 people applied for asylum in Finland in 2015. Many of them were denied, and police estimate that repatriation figures are likely to stay high in future.
In summer 2017 deportations to Iraq spurred public protests.
Non-Discrimination Ombudsman employees describe the deportations as harrowing experiences, with working parents and their schoolchildren being sent to potentially dangerous locations.
"Non-voluntary repatriations basically happen daily," says Kruskopf. "Regular passengers seldom realise there are deportees on board, unless an incident occurs."
Human rights organisations have called for an independent probe into amendments to asylum law and for deportations to Afghanistan to cease pending an investigation. Interior Minister Kai Mykkänen of the National Coalition Party stated in early March that he saw no basis for any such investigation.
The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman will deliver a report to Parliament in April dealing with the legal position of foreigners in Finland and including observations of repatriation processes.
Kruskopf mentions the worst of Centre Party Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's government's law changes: asylum seekers' right to legal counsel during the asylum process has been narrowed; periods of complaint have been shortened; and legal aides now have to jump through more hoops to get paid for their work with migrants.
The government defended the law changes by saying it would speed up the asylum process overall. In reality, the legal protection of thousands of people has been compromised, the Ombudsman says.