Finland is changing. Everyone I speak with here acknowledges this. It is diversifying.
It is worth noting that the country is not as homogenous as it appears from afar: there are, among others, Swedish-speaking Finns, Sami, Roma, Karelians, Estonians as well as Somalis and their Finnish-born children, all in addition to the so-called “ethnic Finns.” Multiculturalism is not a foreign word here. Most Finns assume that the thousands of migrants applying for asylum here are the beginning of something long-lasting. The most widely publicized response is the vigilante group the Soldiers of Odin, but what do most Finns think?
This week I have spent a few hours with five students at a local upper-secondary school here in Jyväskylä, a college town of about 100,000, talking about migration, migrants, and the “crisis.” We made a document for globalclassroom.org that other teachers can use to open up conversation about migration with their students.
We began by coming up with some questions to ask other students. Then I asked my little group to fan out into the school and talk to their colleagues, to hear what they were thinking. Here are the questions they asked:
- How do you think accepting lots of immigrants will affect your daily life?
- What do think about how migrants will affect employment?
- Some worry that migrants will increase the crime rate. What do you think?
- Finnish culture has been Christian for a long time. How will migrants or refugees change this?
- Do you worry about terrorism when you think about 1,000,000 refugees?
What did the students discover?
Most striking was the unanimity and generosity of the opinions they gathered. Asked about the risk of extremist violence, one student answered, “I’m aware that there is probably an increasing risk but I don’t worry too much. I don’t think that fear of terrorism should stop people from helping refugees.” Others worried about the mental health of the people in refugee camps and thought that increased crime could be addressed immediately by offering mental health services to people traumatized by war and the agonies of the trip here.
The most concern seemed to be about employment, rather than culture, religious difference or violence. Some students expressed the desire that jobs should go to Finns first (unemployment is high here at the moment and the economy isn’t adding many jobs); still, others felt that immigrants would likely start businesses and might actually add jobs to the economy in the next few years.
Most of the students seemed either unconcerned about asylum seekers, others looked forward to a more diverse society. Many agreed with the student who said, “I don’t fear terrorism, the immigrants are people just like us and the threat comes from treating the immigrants like garbage making them feel angry and wanting to do something about it.”
I found some of the comments the students brought back from their interviews plainly moving: “Migrants are just like all of us and therefore there will just be more of us in Finland.” It impresses me that these 17- and 18-year olds look at images of Iraqi men living in “reception centers,” the camps outside of the cities, and see people “just like us.” This phrase kept coming up in their interviews. How, I wonder, is such empathy and generosity taught and learned.
Other sites on this topic:
Finnish Immigration Service, “Statistics on Asylum and Refugees”
Lucify.com, “The Flow Towards Europe”
How many people are we talking about? Looking at the statistics kept by the Finnish Immigration Service, there were 1879 successful applications for asylum last year and about 1350 so far this year. So while the number of people entering Finland is smaller than this time last year, more are being granted asylum and, I assume, leaving the “reception centers” for life in the general population. (In a population of 5,000,000 this represents about 0.007%. But this number will rise, of course.)