Some foreigners in Finland are finding they are not properly registered to vote thanks to an administrative mistake, even though they have lived in Finland for two or more years.
They now need to fix the problem ahead of municipal elections that are due to take place next April.
Yle News spoke to several foreign residents in Turku who were registered as temporary residents without rights to vote or access certain services,even though they are eligible to register a "municipality of residence."
The snafu can mean they miss out on voting rights, healthcare services, Kela benefits and daycare services.
Anna* moved to Turku from a non-EU country two years ago to study at Åbo Akademi and has had a temporary address for the past two years. Her name has been changed.
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"I only realized I was registered wrong when I went to the police to get an ID card and they told me I couldn’t because I didn’t have an address listed," she said.
Anna should have accrued nearly enough residency to vote on local matters and have access to limited Kela benefits. She declined to be named for this story, but Yle News has seen her registration documents.
After two years, a legal foreign resident is eligible to vote in local elections and to receive Kela benefits, but only if they have had a permanent address. That is not the case for residents with a temporary address, meant for people staying in the country less than a year.
The Digital and Population Data Services Agency (Finnish acronym DVV) is responsible for managing address registrations. In this instance, the issue was found at the Turku DVV, formerly Maistraatti.
To get a permanent address, foreign students should show intent to stay in Finland after graduation. Proof of registration in a degree programme lasting at least two years should be enough — but in Turku, officials have ignored this and wrongly registered at least a dozen foreign students as temporary residents, some holding that status for upwards of four years.
With a residence permit card valid for at least one year, the student is eligible to have a registered permanent address when they first move to Finland, according to Sari Määtillä from the DVV customer service line.
DVV Elections Senior Specialist Otto Palmu said all offices should operate the same way because they are using the same set of laws.
"While the law leaves some room for interpretation, it is clear that if they show they will live here more than a year and have a valid residence permit, they should immediately be able to get a permanent address," Palmu said.
Yle News contacted representatives who work with Turku international students.
"Our International Office has been more in contact with DVV this year, but unfortunately if DVV has given the wrong information then it is really mainly out of our hands. We work with them in informing our students, but must rely on their expertise in their field," said Johanna Kärki, International Education Specialist for the University of Turku.
"When it comes to housing, residence permits and these kinds of affairs, we instruct our tutors not to take a big stand in these matters but rather to forward the freshmen to the school’s International Services," said Lumi Sallinen, an adviser with Turku University of Applied Sciences.
The Turku Student Union (TYY) said they were unaware of the issue.
Students who believe they were incorrectly given a temporary address can file a written request for correction of information via email and can ask to have it backdated to the correct date, according to Alexandra Breider, an Administrative Officer with DVV who focuses on international registrations.
"If you answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘do you intend to stay in Finland’ and submitted the correct documents, they should correct and backdate the start of your permanent address," Breider said. She suggested students also send the request by email to email@example.com to have it reviewed by the main office.
Though, if a DVV clerk instructed you to select "no" even though you had a valid permit and university registration certificate, that was incorrect instruction and can be mentioned. Breider said she would contact the Turku office to make sure they know the correct processes.
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International Affairs managers at other Finnish universities said they take a different approach.
Officials said they maintain regular contact with their local DVV offices to make sure that students get a permanent address when they first arrive in Finland. Also, both Helsinki Regional Transport (HRT) and Tampere Regional Transport require students to have a permanent address to get public transport discounts.
"Before our student fair each year, I meet with the DVV clerks who will come to register students. I specifically check that they are still following the same process as the year before," said Larissa Vanamo, Planning Officer with University of Helsinki.
She said their online instructions clearly state which students are eligible for a permanent address and what paperwork they need to bring.
Tampere university’s combined website also features detailed instructions on registering a permanent address.
"We have always stressed the importance of registering the place of residence in Tampere because this entitles the students to many health care benefits as well. Information on how the registration is done and why it is important is also given to your student tutors," said Terhi Kipinä, Senior Specialist with Tampere University.
"We advise our students on the municipality of residence and usually cooperate closely with the local register office," said Kirsi Konttinen, from International Mobility Services at the University of Eastern Finland.
Laura Lipasti, Senior Statistician with Statistics Finland said they do not keep records of how many residents on student visas have registered temporary addresses or for how long. According to DVV, exchange students and EU citizens in full degree programmes are the only students who should start their residence with temporary addresses.
"I do think this is a communication issue we need to fix because we want all students to exercise their right to vote," said Maria Nyroos with the National Union of University Students.
You can check your address status here. You will need your Finnish banking information to log in. If you do not have a “home municipality,” you have a temporary address. The request for correction of information is submitted via email. Breider suggested submitting a short statement explaining the situation.
*Anna's name was changed at her request due to the sensitive nature of her story.