When can we have a balanced and meaningful debate on immigration?

This question keeps on popping up in many recent newspaper articles, on discussion boards and in seminars debating immigration issues in Finland. At the core of the question is a general impression that, between the enthusiastic supporters of multiculturalism and the pessimistic nationalist rednecks, very little constructive discussion is possible in Finland.

At one end, humanitarian help organizations, as well as politicians from the Green Party and the Swedish Folk Party, keep on taking excessively generous initiatives towards refugees and asylum seekers, all while labeling their detractors as racists. At the other end, nationalist candidates in the National Coalition Party and True Finns Party keep on painting every immigrant as a refugee who is abusing social security and label their detractors as turning Finland into the easiest country to abuse social security, at the Finnish taxpayer's expense. In between, candidates from the Christian Democrats and Center Party spread equally among these two camps. Meanwhile, while the Left is currently avoiding discussions on this topic, Social Democrats have previously shown that they tend to side with the nationalists in labeling all immigrants as social security abusing refugees.

One interesting point is that, no matter at which end of the political spectrum one looks, the whole Finnish immigration debate keeps on focusing exclusively on refugees and asylum seekers, despite the fact that migrant workers and foreign spouses of Finnish nationals make up for a good 70% of the foreign population residing on Finnish soil.

This recalcitrance to discuss immigration from any other perspective than refugees is rather painfully noticeable. Some recent examples:

  • At the Maailma Kylässä ethnic festival, last month, the podium was given to a number of speakers to discuss immigration issues. In once case, Minister of Immigration Mrs.Astrid Thors made an appearance at the tent of Demo, an NGO promoting active participation in the electoral process. Sure enough, Thors repeatedly brought back the issue of refugees, leaving other aspects of immigration completely out.

    The next day, on the Mekong stage, a panel discussion was introduced by the MC as "discussing issues that affect refugees", despite the fact that the program read "panel discussion on immigration"... In fairness, the organization sponsoring that particular time slot was the Refugee Help Center but, thankfully, issues brought by the panelists clearly discussed a much broader perspective than merely refugees:

    One Estonian-born researcher said that she'd rather avoid putting all immigrants into the same bag, because there's so many different reasons for coming to Finland and few of those have anything to do with seeking asylum and one cannot make any assumption about an immigrant's motives for coming here.

    The other panelist, a professor from the university of Turku, astutely said that, if it was up to him, Maailma Kylässä should not exist, because the actual intent of the event is not to give immigrants a chance to be heard, but rather to entertain Finns with exotic culture and food, which is not the right way to make immigrants feel a part of society, in his opinion.

  • Independent member of the Helsinki City Council, Mr.Jussi Halla-Aho, repeatedly makes the headlines because of his blog's rather controversial statements. Probably his most famous stunt was the day he jokingly declared in his blog that, if the women of the Green Party are so keen on getting more immigrants admitted to Finland, they also ought to be enthusiastic at the prospect of becoming rape victims, cynically implying that immigrants all come from 3rd-world countries where women's rights are non-existent and, correspondingly, where the probability of women being raped is greater.

  • National Coalition Party candidate at the EU elections, Mr.Kai Pöntinen, used as his campaign slogan a decisively nationalist Sosiaalipummien maahantulolle stoppi! (Stop the immigration of social security abusers). Further reading on his homepage shows a rather misinformed statement, alleging that immigrants are systematically taught Swedish in language trainings offered via the Integration Act:

    Myös kotouttamispolitiikkamme on metsässä, on täysin järjenvastaista että tulijoille opetetaan ensimmäiseksi kotimaiseksi kieleksi ruotsia. Kyllä ensiksi on osattava suomea ja sitten muita kieliä.

    Reality is that, unless an unemployed immigrant lives in the monolingual Swedish municipality of Närpes or on the Åland archipelago, the only language they can learn via integration measures is ... Finnish.

  • At a recent "Meet the Immigration Department" seminar at cultural center Caisa, it transpired that the vast majority of the audience and of the employees working for the City of Helsinki's Immigrant Services department came to Finland as refugees. The moderator of the event also came to Finland as a refugee. Can anyone guess what issues were given preference by the moderator during that evening? 12 points go to ... those who answered "refugees and asylum seekers." Was there at least meaningful discussion about any aspect of the immigration process? As the former chairman of a particular Finnish political party's English section used to say:

    I will not tolerate this meeting turning into a Wall of Lamentations or a Complaint Choir! Are we here to discuss real issues or what?

What's remarkable about all these examples is how public opinion is so persistently hardwired into thinking that all foreigners living in Finland came here as refugees from 3rd-world countries whose culture is radically different from Finland's and that they all became perpetually unemployed, forever living off social security, to the point that even politicians who ought to know better go along with it.

When will we be able to have a balanced and meaningful debate on immigration, you ask? The day both multicultural hippies and nationalist rednecks will have been kicked off the podium. Of course, it would also help if the refugees themselves stopped monopolizing the podium, whenever the opinion of immigrants is solicited. Then again, perhaps these 3 groups benefit so much from the current status quo that they'd rather not see the day when others can participate in this debate on equal footing with them, so that a balanced and meaningful debate can finally take place?


Linuxhippy said...

Its exactly the same in Austria :-/

Unknown said...

Great post! Couldn't I have said it better.

No wonder why, if you are foreigner, despite you hold a PhD., the only jobplace you will get fast is as siivoja or bussikuski (with all my respect to them)

Unknown said...

As a Finn, I can understand the discussion. Most people actually think about the refugees when they think about immigrants.. this is mostly because the problem lies with those "refugees" that run away from work.

For me, I'd love to make it easier for workforce to migrate from abroad, but make it a bit more strict for the refugees. Of course Finland should welcome people who have a good reason to run away from their homes, but reject those that are just running to somewhere...

Sigh.. too early to write anything more meaningful.

Martin-Éric said...

Even the term "economic migrant" is misleading.

Those "economic migrants" are not running away from work. Rather, they are running away from countries that offers no possibility for gainful employment and whose economic standards are extremely low and with no chance of improving.

They often live in slums all their life, in countries where economic aid is hijacked by warlords or even by the government itself.

They have a bleak future ahead and no access to tools that would allow them to improve their chances.

What would you do, in their position? You'd go and try your luck elsewhere, that's what.

So they did.

Look at it this way:

Even a janitor job at minimum wage, living in a flat in Jakonmäki, is better than spending the rest of their life in a country perpetually plagued by corruption, diseases and violence. Their country might not be at war or the victim of a natural disaster, but their future is still bleak for as long as they remain there.

Can you really blame them for trying their luck elsewhere, then?

Even then, getting accepted by a foreign country is only half the battle. Once they get there, they have to fight discrimination just to get a job. In countries where the discrimination is too high, many of them eventually give up in frustration and resign themselves to living on social security.

Believe me, Africans are proud people. They do not enjoy being labeled as parasites. However, to quote what one said at a seminar last week:

«Once this country has accepted us, it's up to the Finns to make sure that we don't become social outcasts as the result of persistent discrimination.»

While I'm very much from a Western country and white, I have to agree with that guy, because I, too, routinely experience discrimination on the job market and whenever dealing with the Finnish bureaucracy.

While I've had some high-profile jobs, I've also had far too many long bouts of unemployment, despite being very active at sending in well-target applications and at professional networking.

Given this, I've had to come to the conclusion that this country indeed has deeply ingrained racist attitudes, because I've experienced them myself. Besides, those attitudes are abundantly documented by several researches done by Finns and foreigners alike.

As such, immigrants simply cannot take the blame for a situation where they all routinely end up on social security.

Unknown said...

I completely agree that finns are mostly racist. It has a lot to do with the fact that we have been so isolated for so long, that people haven't gotten used to anything else but Scandinavian people. So yes, there is a looong way to go for the whole country to become the country that is perceived by most finns (a friendly country for everyone).

What I was referring to in the original comment was the class of immigrants that actually work the system by applying for refuge and just taking it easy while the application is processed (and usually rejected) and then move to a different country to do the same. I think that that class of people causes the most harm to all immigrants. People start to see all immigrants as lazy bums that come here to live off the people.

It's not a justification for the behaviour, but it's a likely reason.

willie said...

Nice post. I too am tired of the hippie-redneck-refugee triumvirate.

I've been constantly employed since I moved here (with the exception of a totally useless six months in an immigrant language class that seemed to be designed to keep refugees on the dole rather than actually getting them ready for work. One of my classmates observed that he would rather be given a shovel, some streets to clean, and a Finnish-speaking coworker than spend 7 hours a day with a bunch of foreigners who don't know shit about Finland.

Perhaps the secret to my constant employment is the fact that I have tried to speak only Finnish with Finns and also maybe because I am a certified alchohol therapist (read bartender), and we all know that bartenders and alko clerks will be the last to lose their jobs in this country...