Since Finnish authorities decided to centralise processing of residence permits at Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) offices, customers have found themselves facing long queues and waiting times to have their applications dealt with.
The lines and processing times are reportedly longest in Helsinki, where in recent weeks, dozens of people had to wait on the street just to get a number for official service.
Gillian Ngwane is one of them. She is awaiting a residence permit extension for herself and her daughter. Ngwane told Yle that she arrived at the Finnish Immigration Service’s Helsinki office at 6.00am, two hours before opening time, after finally learning how to beat the system and get a service number to see an immigration official. However her tactic failed to pay off.
"Yesterday I was here for two hours. They came and counted from one to 50. They said that I was number 51 and told me to go home; they had no more queuing numbers. I’ve never seen anything like this," she added.
Ngwane said that she was not happy standing outside in the rain. But the next time, she got a number.
"I just want to say to them that they should change the system. Maybe they think that it is good for them, but it’s not so good for us."
Scarcity of service points
Another residence permit applicant, Agro Mehmet, said he arrived at 6.30am. Mehmet is a former student who decided to stay in Finland to work. He needs a permit renewal to continue working.
"I came from Hyvinkää and this is my third time here, but I haven’t got a number. I was not lucky the previous times."
Mehmet said that he was puzzled by the scarcity of Migri service points, especially in southern Finland’s Uusimaa region.
"I don’t know who made this decision, because it is well known that most foreigners in Finland live in the Uusimaa area. They decided to have just one point in Helsinki. For example, from Hyvinkää I can only take my documents to Helsinki, Tampere and Lahti – very few places," he complained.
Mehmet said that quantity of documents needed for the application makes online processing difficult. He added that attempts to place phone calls were fruitless as no one answered. He said he had no choice but to physically visit the Helsinki office to find out how to proceed.
He finally succeeded in getting a service number on his third trip to the capital – number 37.
Over 300 customers daily
Anna Lindström is unit manager for Migri’s immigration department. She is also responsible for the Helsinki service point, which serves more than 300 customers daily.
Lindström said there are many reasons for the long queues in Helsinki.
"It has been more difficult to get appointments. However more of them are becoming available every day. Customers want to get things done in time. Maybe word has spread that they need to be on time to get in, so people are coming," she noted.
In the face of the lengthening queues, Helsinki has increased the number of customers processed daily to 60, and on some days to 70. However, not even that is always enough.
More than 40,000 applications to process
In addition to new permit applications, Migri also faces a log jam from last year, the result of permit applications that the police did not get around to processing last year. However officials have been able to slash through the backlog, reducing it from 9,000 to 3,000.
All the same, officials are facing an increase in applications during the early months of this year, compared to last year. And this is especially evident in Helsinki.
Official estimates put the number of applications for citizenship and residence permits at more than 40,000 so far this year. Migri said that it will be forced to close some service desks to ensure that it can process the mass of applications.
Lindström said that the agency has done everything it can to ease the situation.
"We have the situation under control. We need to remember that we only started at the beginning of the year, and we have still been able to serve more customers than during the same period last year," she declared.
She added that officials are monitoring the situation and they will evaluate what needs to be done, and that they may set up new service kiosks during the summer.
Lindström stressed that it is possible to make an appointment online without queuing at Migri offices. However she admitted that there is still a two-month wait for face time with officials at all of its service points.
She pointed out that whereas previously customers could lodge residence permit applications at local police stations, these services are now provided by just nine service points across the country.
Refugee NGO: Permits needed to secure rights and benefits
The Finnish Refugee Council told Yle that it is also concerned about the situation. The organization said that a residence permit is essential for basic rights and benefits, so it must be valid. Refugee Council director Iina Helldan said she has heard of many cases where young adults in particular have experienced difficulties because of the situation.
"You may lose your labour market benefit because you don’t have a valid residence permit, although you meet all the requirements for a renewal, but you just can’t get an appointment," she commented.
She noted that Migri’s advice to go online is not for everyone. She added that there are people who either can’t or don’t know how to use online services.
"It can work if you have an online bank account and 182 euros for an extension permit. Or if you have a credit card, then you can leave an electronic application. At that point the application is in principle pending, although the process will only begin when the person visits the Migri office," she explained.
However if the customer has no money but has a Kela payment voucher, then he or she must file the application in person.