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RIGHTS-FINLAND: Tough Asylum Policy Opposed by Civil Disobedience

Linus Atarah

HELSINKI, May 7 2010 (IPS) - Juha Suoranta had until recently been a professor of sociology, pursuing a quiet academic career in the University of Tampere, unconcerned with issues surrounding asylum for foreigners in trouble.

But a message from a friend in Minneapolis in the United States, saying that Finnish immigration authorities were about to deport a minor Afghan asylum seeker to Greece, spurred him into action.

“I could not have tolerated a situation where a young person was about to be sent into an uncertain, perhaps life-threatening, situation. If it was in my power to do something, I had to do something,” Suoranta told IPS.

In an act of civil disobedience Suoranta decided to take Ashraf Sahil, who said he was fleeing from the Taliban in Afghanistan, into hiding defying a court order to move him to Greece immediately under the Dublin Regulation that identifies the EU member state competent to process an application for grant of asylum.

The Dublin Regulation came into force in September 1997 and Finland became a signatory in January 1998.

“Although I did not know what asylum, deportation, irregular immigration, or the Dublin agreement meant, it was necessary to try to do something, search for help, at least. When I found out that there was no organisation, including the church, which could help, I realised that I had a duty,’’ said Suoranta.

Suoranta’s defiance is not an isolated case. Many individuals here, as well as the mainstream Lutheran Church, have increasingly resorted to protecting individual asylum seekers facing deportation, because they believe Finnish immigration authorities carry out deportations without properly studying individual cases.

Suoranta has since documented his experience in a booklet titled ‘The Hider’s Diary’, published this spring. He says his aim is to recount the daily realities of the life of an ordinary asylum seeker as well as that of his protector, which is often hidden but which, according to him, needs to be unveiled to the Finnish public “in a globalising world”.

Individuals and local churches often take individual asylum seekers into hiding while pursuing their cases in the courts, especially if there is the likelihood that there was an official oversight.

In Sahil’s case the police had failed to submit his original birth certificate, which confirms his minor status, to the Finnish Immigration Service and that was crucial in determining his fate. Based on the birth certificate, the Helsinki Administrative Court cancelled the deportation.

Finland, a small Nordic country with a population of 5.4 million, turned back a record number of people seeking refuge in the first half of last year. By the end of June, Finland had deported 1,100 asylum seekers, which is equal to the number of people that were deported during all of year 2008, according to statistics from the immigration service department.

Finland is using the Dublin Regulation to accelerate its asylum procedure. Under the European Union (EU) agreement, Finland is able to deport refugees who have applied for asylum in other member states.

However, the Dublin law is non-binding and countries can exercise discretion as to whether to turn back asylum seekers from other European countries or not.

But says, Sanna Rummakko, information officer at the Finnish Refugee Council: “Finland has always been strict in following the Dublin Regulation and only very rarely takes Dublin cases into normal procedure in Finland, even though the flaws and risks to asylum seekers rights are well known”.

“In Greece asylum seekers live on the streets, have very little possibility to claim asylum and are 97 percent likely to receive a negative decision,” Rummakko told IPS.

According to her there are hundreds of asylum seekers in Finland every year facing deportation to Greece, Italy, Malta or another member state where common European rules of international protection are violated.

“The asylum seekers are not protected by our authorities regardless of how serious the grounds they have for asylum may be. In these circumstances it is completely acceptable to resort to civil disobedience, either by individual citizens or churches,” she said.

Due to the essentially secret nature of protecting asylum seekers, it is not possible to know the accurate number of individuals involved in offering protection to asylum seekers, but since the year 2000 Finnish churches have taken about 20 asylum seekers into hiding.

In February, Assistant Parliamentary Ombudsman Jussi Pajuoja reminded a parish in the city of Turku that the church has no legal right to protect asylum seekers facing deportation.

But Jouni Lehikoinen, vicar of the parish against whom the strictures were aimed, hit back by saying: ‘’We do not take the immigration laws into our hands. Rather, we carefully examine the documents of people seeking protection and intervene if the process has been found wanting, or the person is facing a serious threat”.

By European standards Finland admits relatively few asylum seekers. Last year 5,988 people sought asylum in Finland but only 116 were accepted, according to the interior ministry’s Immigration Service. By comparison, 10,000 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden, Finland’s Nordic neighbour, within the first six months of last year, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Finland’s policy of accepting annual quota of 750 refugees has not changed since 2001 but Sweden accepted 1,900 quota refugees last year.

Most of the refugees coming to Finland are from ongoing conflict areas such Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia (Northern Caucasus area) and recen asylum seekers have been Roma from Bulgaria.

Rummakko accuses the Nordic countries of unwillingness to reform the Dublin Accord because the system benefits them and allows them to offload the burden to southern European countries.

“The Nordic countries have not been active in EU arenas to amend or replace the Dublin system. they simply have no political will to do that,” she said.

In spite of a long-running battle with the Finnish officials Suoranta says Sahil is not entirely safe because his case is still with the Immigration Service and could be revisited anytime.

“But the fact that he was not deported and that he now studies in a Finnish vocational school is, I guess, due to the persistent civil obedience,” she said.

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