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UNHCR criticises Finland over repatriations

The percentage of asylum seekers returned to Iraq and Afghanistan has risen dramatically since 2015, largely due to authorities' application of the internal flight concept.

Mielenosoittajia maahanmuuttoviraston edessä.
Asylum seekers protested outside the Migri office last summer. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

The United Nations refugee organisation UNHCR has sharply criticised Finland for increasingly relying on 'internal flight' in its asylum decisions.

Also known as internal relocation, the concept is that a person who might otherwise have the right to asylum may receive a negative decision if the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) decides that he or she can be safely returned to a different part of their home country.

Finnish authorities have adopted stricter asylum policies since the sudden influx of asylum seekers in late 2015, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, a larger proportion of asylum seekers have received negative decisions on their applications. While in 2015 it was still relatively simple for Iraqis to gain asylum in Finland, the situation had changed dramatically by mid-2016.

In June of that year, 77 percent of Iraqi applicants were rejected, compared to 13 percent a year earlier.

"The fact that we began increasingly using internal flight solutions led to a rise in the number of negative decisions," says Jorma Vuorio, head of the Interior Ministry's migration department.

In need of protection - but returned anyway

In practice, this means that Migri may first decide that an asylum seeker meets the criteria for international protection. But it may then decide that the individual could settle down somewhere else in their country of origin and on that basis hands down a negative decision. Finland's Supreme Administrative Court has already ruled that Migri acted improperly in one such case.

According to Vuorio, there is often one part of a war-torn country where it is safe for people to return to, even if they come from an unsafe area. He sees no problem in such decisions, although he is aware that Finland has been criticised for them by the UNHCR and others.

"That is of course the UNHCR's view of the matter but their view is not binding. They put together valuable country surveys that map out the security situation. But they are just part of the overall decision-making process," says Vuorio.

UN worried

Thomas Bergman, a legal officer at the UNHCR's Regional Representation for Northern Europe in Stockholm, says that his organisation has long been concerned over the situation in Finland. He says the UNHCR has an exceptional position as an expert on refugee law.

"We see in statistics that Finland increasingly applies internal flight in its decisions, especially regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. This concerns us, and we have raised the issue with the Finnish authorities," he told Yle's Swedish-language news.

Katja Creutz, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, also says that these concerns should be taken seriously. She notes that French courts, for instance, have decided not to hand over asylum seekers to Finland or other Nordic countries sunder the EU's Dublin Regulation because of the risk of potentially dangerous repatriation.

In Bergman's view, there are clear stipulations as to when one can use internal flight in the asylum process – and the UNHCR is worried that Finland is not following these rules.

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