NGOs face difficulties in helping refugees – not a money issue

As one of the most northern countries receiving refugees in the European Union, Finland is still exploring a way to help these people coming with misery and completely different culture backgrounds. NGOs here share a heavy responsibility for receiving and integrating refugees. Even when NGOs get enough finance support from the Finnish government, they meet other difficulties, including social resistance, language barriers and refugees’ unpreparedness toward the ordinary life.

by Jiaxin He (Ellen)

Four minor refugees are relaxing in the common room of an underage asylum centre in Helsinki, run by an NGO named Helsinki Deaconess Institute. Photo: Jiaxin He (Ellen)

When the peak of the refugee crisis came to Europe in the second half of 2015, Finland was not expected to be impacted greatly, due to it being so far away from the European-Asian border – the air travel distance is about 2.300 kilometres between Finland and Turkey. But it turned out tens of thousands of refugees tried to get into the country last year.

Regardless of whether it is due to geographical or historical reasons, Finland is a relatively ethnically homogeneous country. This makes refugee crisis a serious challenge there, says Tuomo Kurri, a director at Migration Department, Finnish Ministry of the Interior. When the government sign contracts and buy services from NGOs, the challenge of dealing with this huge group of refugees is partly transferred to the NGOs running reception camps and minor asylum centres.

Unlike some other charity activities, “money is not the main problem” for running refugee centres, says Tuija Åstedt, Director of Child and Family Work at Helsinki Deaconess Institute (HDI), a Finnish NGO that is older than the independency of the country. The Finnish government fully cover the cost at the centres if the contracted organisations run the place following all the agreed requirements.

Even so, the path of NGOs helping refugees is bumpy in Finland and the problems begin with setting up reception camps.

The demand for these camps is large. When asylum seekers come to Finland, they firstly need to submit asylum applications and then receive asylum investigations and asylum interviews, according to the government website. During the process, they are accommodated in refugee camps and later on underage refugees will be relocated to special minor reception centres.

Residents say NO to minor reception centre

Kauniainen is a small yet the wealthiest municipality of Finland, of around 9.300 residents in 2016 in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The HDI plans to accommodate 9 underage asylum seekers in a rental property here by Christmas this year.

The city hall of Kauniainen. The town has the nation’s lowest tax rate and the highest average income. Photo: Jiaxin He (Ellen)

To help the local community accept new reception centres, HDI has organised Information Nights in advance, during which local residents can express their concerns.

“Our staff can explain to them why the worry is unnecessary,” Åstedt, a director of HDI, says. HDI will arrange an Opening Day after the reception centre opens so that local residents can get into the place and see how it is and what kind of people are living there.

The Institute has found a house and got an approval from the town’s Building Committee – everything seems to be on the right track until 8 residents near the house complained about it. They filed an appeal to Administrative Court of Helsinki on Building Committee’s decision.

Map: The location of the chosen property for minors’ group house in Kauniainen.

Although Mayor Christoffer Masar tried to persuade them into agreeing the plan but failed, he shows an understanding of their anxiety.

Christoffer Masar, the mayor of Kauniainen. Photo: Jiaxin He (Ellen)

“It is very natural to get worried about things they don’t know. I believe after the centre is open and they get in touch with the children, these concerns will be relieved,” Masar says.

In Finland, the dominant ethnicity is the Finnish people, while hardly any Middle Eastern or African minorities can be seen in some regions. This means having an asylum centre brings “uncertainty” to the community, “and people are fear of ‘uncertainty’”, says Rolle Alho, a Postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN), University of Helsinki.

Eve Kolari, 26, comes from Oulu and is now a primary school teacher in Helsinki. She says in the small village her parents live in, there is seldom any immigrant.

“For them, it’s harder to accept refugees, unlike Helsinki, where people are used to foreigners moving in and out,” Kolari says.

Graph: Number of immigrants by country and time: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden


“They just don’t want to talk to me”: A digression

Finnish society’s resistance appears clearer toward individual refugees.

Portrait photo of Ali Talal in his cousins’ home. Photo: Jiaxin He (Ellen)

Ali Talal, a refugee coming from Babylon, Iraq, came to Finland in November 2015 and has lived with his two cousins in Turku, a south-western city, for 10 months. He says he wants to talk with Finns because he wants to know local culture and practice Finnish.

“I don’t have any Finnish friends here. I tried so many times (to have a conversation with Finns) but they just don’t want to talk with me,” Talal says. “Finnish society is a closed society. It is very hard for me to get inside.”

Video: The Daily Life of Ali Talal

However Talal is already quite satisfied with his situation now, compared to what he had been through for the first 2 months in Kuopio, a city in the middle of Finland. People there are not friendly to him, Talal says.

“Their words really breaks my heart. Really really breaks my heart. That’s why I don’t like to go outside now,” Talal says, unwilling to recall what kind of words people in Kuopio said to him.

NGOs feel that they can hardly change people’s stereotypes toward refugees by themselves, but social resistance can have huge influence on their work with refugees. At the same time, opinions among Finns seem to be “polarised” recently, especially in social media, according to Niko Pyrhönen, a postdoctoral researcher at CEREN.

Dr. Pyrhönen talks about the rise of a nationalist-oriented political party, True Finns, which joined the government coalition last year. To get more votes in the 2015 election, True Finns promised to reduce the number of refugees and “used social media to generate fears toward refugees within Finnish society,” he says.

Finnish language: a huge barrier

Finnish is in a totally different language family than English is. As a member of the Uralic family of languages, Finnish demonstrates an affiliation with Hungarian. However, English is a West Germanic language, while Danish and Norwegian are North Germanic languages.

When refugees come to asylum centres run by NGOs, communication is the first challenge for them and the charity.

“Since refugees are speaking different languages that most Finns know nothing about, and some of them can’t speak English, it is a big problem for the staff at the beginning,” Åstedt says at the office of HDI.

Noori*, a 17-year-old asylum seeker, says he did not know Finns speak Finnish rather than English until he arrived in Finland.

One minor asylum center located in a southern town seems to find a good solution to language problems.

“We have a good variation of language skills in our staff, so communication is seldom a big problem. If needed, we can also use interpreter,” says Hanna Bussman, the director of the center called Harjulinna.

The solid and mature structure of Harjulinna benefits from its long history in a way – run from April 2009 to April 2013 and started again in September 2015.

Although NGOs know learning Finnish is crucial to refugees for their integration, teaching this language is not easy. Usually, the underage group house provides basic Finnish courses for the children, like having 1 to 2 teachers coming to the centre twice a week. But for adults, language schools can only provide a limited quota for each phase. For those who register too late like Ali, the school has to ask them to wait until next period of registration.

 “Blind to the future”

Based on the process of applying for asylum in Finland, the result of asylum interviews – an approval or rejection – decides whether the residence is granted, or if they will be deported or refused entry.

But how likely is it the asylum application will be approved?

In 2015, 32.476 asylum seekers came to Finland, while the number of asylums granted was 1.112. In comparison, there were 21.316 people seeking for asylum in Denmark and 10.849 permits were granted in 2015. The Danish population in 2015 was about 5.700.000, similar to Finland’s 5.500.000.

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One thing making refugees even more worried is the Finnish governement’s attitude. According to Dr. Pyrhönen, although the official policy towards refugees has not had any critical amendments recently, many policy-related terms have been interpreted differently.

One example can be the definition of “a safe country”, he says. “Like the situation of Iraq hasn’t changed much, but many parts of Iraq are regarded ‘safe’ now.”

“Could I stay or must I get on the road again?” has been a question troubling many refugees until they get a result for residence permit. Under such tremendous pressure, it is hard for NGOs to teach refugees new rules and culture about Finland or get them starting an ordinary life. Charities can provide refugees with temporary accommodation, food and financial support, but feel that it is hard to equip them with necessary knowledge to live normally and independently in the society.

Noori*, 17, already got his permit, which is valid for 4 years. He describes the time before the result as “a nightmare”.

“I was like a blind person. I could see nothing in my future,” says Noori. “I was so worried and stressed that I could hardly eat and I could hardly sleep.”

Noori* says there were 10 volunteers coming live with them in the group house and everyone left at least one handprint on this canvas inside the house. Photo: Jiaxin He (Ellen)

Director Bussman of Harjulinna says “Stress in the residents caused by the uncertain situation while waiting for the asylum process is sometimes difficult to relieve and manage.”

NGOs come to this tough situation with not only minors, but also adults refugees.

“I am desperate now.” Montaser Khalid, a 30-year-old refugee, says. “I have no future. I am just living with the situation. And I’m not the only one. There are many refugees like me.”


Read more on Montaser Khalid and other refugees’ story in Finland


Slideshow: An underage asylum centre in Helsinki (run by Helsinki Deaconess Institute)


*Noori is a modified name, for the protection of the underage boy.

Supplementary Stories:

How it is to be an asylum seeker in Finland

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