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Yle sources: Foreign Ministry prepped plan for Finns who wanted to leave al-Hol refugee camp

Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto continued to deny the existence of a firm plan, saying that several options were explored.

Suomalaisnaisia al-Holin leirillä Syyriassa.
Women said to be Finnish citizens at the al-Hol camp in Syria. Image: Antti Kuronen / Yle

The Foreign Ministry took the lead in planning an operation to repatriate Finnish nationals who wanted to return to Finland from the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, according to official documents seen by Yle.

The material indicated that the draft plan was to have been executed this week and involved chartering a flight to bring Finnish citizens to the Helsinki-Vantaa airport via Erbil in Iraq.

The target schedule for the repatriation flight was week 50 of this year – this week.

Minister denies detailed preps

Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has been caught up in a maelstrom over allegations that he wanted to push through a plan to bring the women and children back to Finland, even going so far as to sideline a top ministry official in the process.

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, he rejected assertions that detailed plans existed to bring Finnish citizens home.

He added that the ministry must constantly have a number of different options ready for possible implementation.

He also avoided comment on whether or not government should adopt a formal position on the repatriation of Finns with ties to individuals who had fought among the ranks of Isis extremists.

"The Foreign Ministry’s policy is that at least the children should be brought to safety," he told journalists.

Safeguarding children’s rights

However the document that Yle saw contained a detailed draft dated 21 November. It stated that the Foreign Ministry had a working group plan dated 15 November, that would guarantee the personal safety and fundamental rights of the children according to the constitution, international agreements and other legislation.

The draft plan called for the return to Finland from al-Hol of "all individuals who agreed to repatriation". The documents describe the details of the plan and the proposed role of police at different stages of the operation.

Yle learned that ministry officials were prepared to make changes to the draft arrangements. The main goal was "to get all persons at the Al-Hol camp who were willing to return [to Finland] to Erbil in Kurd-controlled Iraq in one in attempt, from where they would be brought by charter flight to the Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland".

The document outlined one back-up plan that involved several charter flights and the possible use of other airports in Finland apart from Helsinki-Vantaa.

Police on board

It went on to state that the schedule for executing the operation was entirely dependent on conditions laid down by local players in the area and the security guarantees they could provide.

The Foreign Ministry would take the lead on the operation, which would end once the returnees were on Finnish soil, the document stated.

Police operations regarding the repatriated persons would be planned and executed separately, according to the official account.

The chair of the operation, which was drafted in November, is a ministry employee. The working group included representatives of the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry, the Social Affairs and Health Ministry and the Defence Ministry.

The operation was dubbed KORPI by the working group, and the document stressed its extreme sensitivity "from security perspectives and an international dimension". The document was signed by police commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen.

Kolehmainen has previously denied seeing any plan outlining preparations to bring Finnish citizens in the Syrian camp back to Finland.

Minister: "Communication could have been better"

Meanwhile Haavisto admitted during Wednesday’s press conference that there was room for improvement in communication on the matter. However he said that the situation had been complicated by the children’s right to legal protections.

"If for example, information emerged that only the children were being removed from the camp, people at the camp might start hiding them," he said by way of explanation.

The minister noted that different scenarios had been drawn up since last summer in the event that the camp was shuttered. However he preferred not to comment in detail on those options.

He said that the children’s mothers had done wrong by travelling to a conflict region. However the children needed help and he compared their circumstances to child kidnapping.

PM: Implicit approval from government

Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Sanna Marin commented on the situation in Parliament.

"I have no information about any official operation, dates or persons," she declared.

She had previously noted that the matter of the repatriations had been discussed at informal government sessions and that Haavisto’s policy had the government’s implicit approval.

At the same time, opposition parties tabled a confidence vote on alleged repatriation plans with a view to getting explicit an explicit account from the minister about his actions.

The government will respond to the interpellation next Tuesday before facing its first confidence vote on Wednesday.

Centre's Kulmuni: "No political decisions" yet

Meanwhile Centre Party chair and Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni said it’s now time to consider whether or not Finland’s legislation is up to dealing with the situation.

"No political decisions have been made. Just like you I am reliant on media information. However the Centre Party’s line is that terrorists should not be helped or supported," Kulmuni commented.

In a Helsingin Sanomat piece, President Sauli Niinistö called on the new government to make a clear political decision on whether or not to repatriate Finnish citizens from the al-Hol refugee camp.

"Various assumptions have been put forward at an accelerating rate in recent days. The new government would do well to take a moment and consider making clear political decisions," Niinistö a message to HS.

Last summer the Antti Rinne-led government said that it would not actively seek to return Finnish nationals from the refugee camp in Syria. At the time Rinne said that his administration was not considering evacuations via channels such as consular services.

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