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Undocumented migrants legally eligible for income support, still get refused

Rejected asylum seekers no longer get allowances from reception centres, but they can claim income support from local councils. The right to support is guaranteed by the Finnish constitution—but apparently some municipalities remain unaware of it, and reject applications from undocumented foreigners.

Turvapaikanhakijoita.
This year the Immigration service has rejected some 7,300 asylum applications. 4,300 of them came from Iraqis. Image: Tommi Parkkinen / Yle

Over the past year some 7,300 people have had their asylum applications rejected, and more than 4,300 of those were Iraqi citizens. Once their appeals have been exhausted, those decisions are official and their right to payments from reception centres will end.

They won't be allowed to work either, as they will then be undocumented immigrants. But according to Finland's constitution, they are allowed to apply for income support from municipalities.

In practice it's rare for that right to be successfully exercised. There are cases where municipalities which administer Finland's system for income support seem to be unaware of the rules.

That's probably down to a directive from the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health in 2013 which stated that foreigners had to be resident in Finland for five years before they were eligible for income support. Decisions based on that guidance have been overturned in the administrative courts, however.

Acute need for help

"It's clear that income support is intended for those with an acute need," said Karri Välimäki, the lead lawyer at Helsinki's social and health department.

Last December the deputy Parliamentary Ombudsman Maija Sakslin clarified whether or not the ministry's guidelines were in line with the law. She decided that they were not. According to the constitution, a residence permit can't be a condition for receipt of income support.

Despite that ruling, undocumented foreigners are still being rejected when they try to claim income support. Yle has seen one decision made by Helsinki council in the spring, which rejects an application for income support because the applicant "is resident in the country illegally".

Fear of deportation

Välimäki says that the deputy ombudsman's message has not gotten through.

"The (ombudsman's) statement should put this to bed," said Vällimäki. "The main goal is that we don't end up in the administrative courts."

To avoid that eventuality Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa are drawing up guidelines for their social workers in case similar situations arise. Only a few have come to the administrative courts so far, possibly because of a lack of knowledge about the rights of applicants to appeal income support decisions.

Undocumented migrants also often try to avoid the authorities because they don't want to be deported. Iraqis don't have to be too worried about that, because Iraq refuses to accept deportees from Finland. If many of those denied asylum decide to remain in Finland, the number of applications for income support—and appeals against decisions—could rise.

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