Recent problems between local residents and asylum seekers occurred in cities that are home to refugee reception centres. Last spring, a fight between asylum seekers and locals erupted in Rovaniemi, Lapland. There were also attacks at the reception centre in Kemi, also in Lapland. And a bomb went off at the centre in Suomusjärvi, southwest Finland.
Such aggression is quite rare in Finland, but officials are concerned. They believe the attacks could have been sparked by a number of reasons, including the economic downturn. Violence towards foreigners also intensified during Finland's financial crisis of the 1990s.
Meanwhile in Rovaniemi, the situation deteriorated when a group of asylum seekers began harassing women in the city. According to youth director Anu Rastas, locals in Kemi were aggravated by the behaviour of some asylum seekers.
”It can be small things. One example is if an asylum seeker walks on the bicycle path and doesn’t allow others to pass,” she says.
Tearing Down Prejudices
Refugee workers are now trying to smooth things over. In Rovaniemi, discussions at the reception centre have eased tensions. Officials have also tried to combat racism by writing about refugees in local newspapers.
”Newspapers will tell the asylum seekers’ stories: where they come from and why they are here,” says Paula Lauhamaa, the director at Rovaniemi’s Refugee Reception Centre.
In Kemi, officials are trying to improve relations by including refugees in local activities like football.
“We have collaborated with many different organisations and officials. However just hanging out naturally with locals is a challenge,” says Sirpa Tervahauta, a social worker in Kemi.
Veikko Pyykkönen, who works for the Migration Division of the Ministry of Interior, says he believes information and daily contact will break down prejudices. The Ministry says it is concerned about the recent attacks against asylum seekers, but hasn't planned to take official action to deal with the attacks.
”We all know what is right and what is wrong and how people should not be treated. We have to remember that asylum seekers are in a difficult situation. They have come from trying conditions and are living here in limbo,” Pyykkönen says.
Seeking Asylum a Human Right
Meanwhile, the Finnish Red Cross says seeking asylum is an international human right. The organisation is now working on multiculturalism talks to improve relations.
“We need more information for refugees and locals. We need collaboration with schools, and we need a media that is continually interested in this topic,” says Marisel Soto Godoy, a multicultural organiser at the Red Cross.
”One way to resolve these conflicts is to work openly and to be vocal. I think we are falling short of that right now,” she says.
Finland has signed international human rights agreements concerning asylum seekers. Currently nearly 200 people are waiting for a decision to be made on their asylum status at centres around the country. About half of the applications are rejected. This year, about one-third of the applicants have been granted refugee status or a residence permit.
Finland provides asylum seekers with shelter, food, healthcare and support for basic needs. Refugee reception centres also offer language and culture classes to asylum seekers.
The majority of asylum seekers in Finland come from Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan. Women make up just over one-fifth of the applicants. Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers in Finland is growing. This year, for the first time, over 5,000 people are expected to request for refuge in Finland. Nearly all refugee reception centres are currently at full occupancy.