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Researchers: Tougher asylum decisions due to suspicion, not legal reform

Finnish researchers have attributed stricter asylum policies to officials' disbelief in the accounts of asylum applicants, rather than to legislative changes.

Mielenosoittajia maahanmuuttoviraston edessä.
Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

With just a few years, the Finnish Immigration Service, Migri, has adopted more stringent policies in evaluating the applications of 16 to 34-year-old Iraqis seeking international protection, according to the findings of a Finnish research group.

the Turku University Faculty of Law, the Åbo Akademi Institute of Human Rights and the Equality Ombudsman collaborated on a project to review approved and rejected applications for international protection in Finland. The study revealed that between 2015 and 2017 there was a change in the approach to evaluating such applications that did not hinge on legislative reform.

A matter of the right to life

The researchers found that the status of individuals seeking international protection in Finland appears to have deteriorated significantly. Turku University Professor of Public Law Juha Lavapuro ruled out amendments to the Aliens Act as the reason for Migri’s more draconian policies.

”Legislation does not explain the change. The changes are the result of Migri’s stricter analyses. This is a major problem, both from the perspective of the rule of law and the protection of human rights,” Lavapuro added.

The research group also attempted to unpack the increase in asylum applications that were rejected. Lavapuro noted that more stringent decision-making could mean the difference between life and death. During the asylum process, officials make decisions that ultimately affect an applicant’s legal status.

”Ultimately, it is a question of the right to life. In this respect, the legal status of these people has deteriorated significantly. And it is a direct result of Migri’s new policy for assessing the law,” Lavapuro noted.

The professor said that according to the rule of law, changes to policy should be made by legislators, not public servants.

”Officials should not be able to change the interpretation of the law so substantially. Not even because of administrative or political direction. But something like that has now occurred,” he said.

Officials doubt applicants

Professor of International and Constitutional Law Elina Pirjatanniemi lined up with Lavapuro on the apparent changes to Migri policies with respect to asylum applications. However she also noted that officials are more sceptical than before when it comes to applicants’ accounts of their travails.

”Migri’s assessment policies have become more rigorous. The reforms that have been made to the Aliens Act in the interim do not explain that rigour. The issue is that applicants are not believed the same way that they were in 2015,” she added.

Public discourse on the matter has raised the question of whether or not asylum seekers who arrived in Finland later on have been different from earlier arrivals in some way. Some have claimed that the number of single men seeking asylum explains the rise in negative asylum decisions. However the researchers say they have not observed this relationship.

Pirjatanniemi described as "startling" the research group’s finding of asylum seekers’ weakened legal status for asylum.

“I am left to wonder if the asylum applicants receive an assessment of their individual situations?” she asked.

Researcher Elsa Saarikkomäki, now of the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) summarised the study’s central finding.

“They no longer believe asylum seekers who arrived later. For example, in applicants’ accounts of [human] rights violations, such as whether or not they experienced violence or were kidnapped, there was no difference. But we noticed a difference in how Migri treated the information provided by applicants. In other words, the policy has been tougher,” Saarikkomäki pointed out.

Fear often deemed baseless

When an applicant seeks international protection, decision-makers must evaluate whether the individual would be subject to extreme danger or persecution in the country of origin. Merely the fear of previous persecution is no basis for receiving international protection.

Nea Oljakka of Turku University noted that human rights violations were much the same in 2015 and 2017.

“Applicants cited torture, kidnapping and other kinds of violence. In 2015 it was still believed that these kinds of abuses were an indication that there was a danger that [they] could also face similar threats in the future,” she commented.

By 2017, immigration officials no longer held that view, researchers said. Migri officials also evaluated applicant’s fears. In 2017, they were viewed as unwarranted unless applicants could outline in detail who the threat came from, as well as why and how the rights abuses constituted persecution. In effect, in 2017, applicants were required to provide more detailed evidence of persecution than before.

Behind the scenes political and administrative direction

The entire research group described the current trend in Finland as worrying in terms of guaranteeing fundamental and human rights as well as upholding the rule of law.

“Protection of rights should not depend heavily on official assessment policies and possible political and administrative guidance behind the scenes,” it said.

The Equality Ombudsman commissioned the study to determine what kinds of recent legislative changes have been made to affect the status of persons seeking asylum.

Professor of Legal Sociology Anne Alvesalo-Kuusi described the study as unique.

“The research is remarkable internationally as well as nationally. It marks the first opportunity to conduct a systematic analysis of decisions made by the Finnish Immigration Service.”

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