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Report: Immigration Service circulates model negative asylum decisions for "assembly line" use

A band of independent investigative journalists has gained access to in-house Finnish Immigration Service "example material" that encourages employees to replicate negative asylum decisions.

Mielenosoitus maahanmuuttoviraston edessä.
Protestors gathered in front of the Finnish Immigration Service's office in Helsinki's Kalasatama district in August 2016. Image: Pekka Pantsu / Yle

The Finnish Immigration Service provides its employees with examples of earlier negative asylum decisions to use as templates, according to Long Play, an online publisher of long-form investigative journalism in Finland.

The journalist group published a report on May 3rd in which it interviewed six employees of the service, some of whom have worked at the authority for years. Others were recruited as part of an emergency hiring wave in early 2016 to help process thousands of outstanding asylum applications after over 30,000 asylum seekers entered the country in late 2015.

The interviewees were questioned separately, and their answers were similar. They commented on internal steering and work practices in 2015 and 2016.

"The capacity of the senior inspectors that were hired was understandably lacking last year […]. They just copied the earlier decisions and gave up trying to make case-specific assessments. They made assembly line decisions," says one respondent who worked at the Immigration Service for several years.

The Service hired 500 new workers in 2015-2016. Most of the new recruits had no experience in immigration work, and one interviewee reported not even being qualified. After a short introduction, they were expected to start meeting with asylum applicants and making decisions.

Problems acknowledged

Finland's Chancellor of Justice recently examined the internal problems of the Immigration Service and issued a statement in early February. The report also referred to these ready-made decision templates.

"Senior Inspector Jaakko Reinikainen says the Service used example decisions with prepared justifications. It has been observed that in practice [employees] have been able to just copy the earlier example decision's statements into their decisions," the report read.  

The interviewed employees say that the average number of negative decision templates that have been circulated throughout the Service has varied. For Iraq natives there are about ten, for Afghan and Somali applicants there are five.

Two of the employees interviewed said the example decisions have had a hand in driving the asylum decision-making process in a strongly negative direction. Long Play's investigation found no evidence of positive decision templates in use.

Hurried decisions break the law

The use of processing templates is nothing new, of course. The UN's refugee organisation UNHCR thanked the Finnish Immigration Service in 2012 for coming up with the example forms, as it made the decisions that were issued much clearer.

The problem is when earlier decisions are used as models in hurried and inexperienced conditions, for applicants whose place of origin, background, religion and profession are assumed to be similar. The law requires that each asylum application is reviewed individually, with consideration for the specific circumstances and merits of each case. Interviewees say this hasn't happened.

"People without the necessary skills have been entrusted with too much power," another employee told Long Play. "The example decisions are brief and cut corners. Decisions should be based on a careful investigation of the individual, but in the last year this hasn't been the case."

Employees who have worked for the Immigration Service for a longer period say the changing harried atmosphere there now shows little appreciation for experienced legal appraisal skills.

"The [Interior] Ministry's goal for decisions successfully processed lies behind everything. It was completely unrealistic from the start," says one seasoned respondent.

Earlier decisions on file

One employee told Long Play that there is a file named "OT model decisions"

"It contains different examples of negative decisions under headings like "Negative Iraq alcohol shop owner Baghdad" or "Negative Christian, not believable" or "Negative family Baghdad internal migration".  If a worker is lucky, they can find a template that matches their current case entirely."

The earlier decisions contain the original justifications for the refusal decision, but personal information about the applicant has been deleted. The interviewees related how some workers simply copy/paste the old information in a new form and then add new names and locations.

"After this they should read through the whole thing carefully, but not everyone does. That's why some decisions talk about Fallujah in one paragraph and Ramadi in another, even if the applicant is from Ramadi," said one employee.

Keeping a tally

People interviewed by Long Play say the processes are different among the Immigration Service's various units. Some seek to make quality decisions, but the slower pace is criticized. Other units celebrate large numbers of (negative) processed decisions.

"Many teams have a flipboard where they keep a running count of the decisions that are made," said one employee. "The more marks, the happier the supervisors. The directors have a competition, whose team is the swiftest. Families with children are favourites because they mean several marks in one go. They have lost sight entirely of the fact that the marks on the board are people."

Court overturns or sends back a third of decisions

The Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle reported in late April that the Administrative Court overturned or sent back close to one-third of all asylum decisions so far in 2017. The percentage for 2015 was 18 percent, while in 2016, the share of appeals where the Immigration Service's decision was either overturned or sent back was 24 percent.

"It's almost as if it's accepted that the Finnish Immigration Service can mess things up in the first stage," says Tuomas Ojanen, professor of constitutional law at Helsinki University, in reference to the Administrative Court's role as a guarantee that justice has been served.

"The law states that these decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. People with certain professions can't be lumped together any more than people who originate from the same place or part of the country." 

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