August 1998                                      This article is only available on the Internet

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        Somali refugees trigger debate on racism in Finland

"Somalis are the most hated minority in Finland." This was the conclusion of a recent magazine article analysing the plight of Somali refugees in Finland.

As in so many European countries, asylum seekers and immigrants from other countries and cultures are testing the national tolerance of difference. Although Finland has over the centuries experienced many contacts with foreigners, the nationalist self-identity and nation-state ideology tend to emphasise the country’s cultural homogeneity.

These historical attitudes often surface when the population tries to cope with new ethnic minorities. The country has witnessed manifestations of outright racism. Debate about racism is raging in the media. Racist and anti-racist sentiments clash not only in everyday arguments but often inside people’s minds as well.

Traditionally, racism in Finland has been directed against minorities like the Sami or Romany people. Earlier groups of refugees, like those from Pinochet’s Chile and the Vietnamese boat people, may not have found living in Finland easy. However, it is only since the first Somalian political refugees arrived in Finland in the early 1990’s, that racist sentiments have started to be expressed in a more open and aggressive way.

At the moment, there are approximately 5 300 Somali people living in Finland constituting the biggest -- and at the same time the most discriminated against -- group of minorities in the country. Even if the status of minorities in Finnish society has generally improved during the current decade, Somalis still suffer bad treatment in places like schools, shops and restaurants. Compared to other minority groups, they are also more often the target of racist crime or behaviour.

The integration of Somali refugees into Finnish society has been slow. Moreover, while education is seen as an important part of this process, in 1997 only 30 per sent of the Somali who finished comprehensive school in Helsinki continued their studies further.

A new-comer’s adjustment to new surroundings and a new culture also depends on the attitude of the native population. The Finns have often quite strong prejudices against refugees, and according to some estimates, six Finns out of ten believe that refugees come to Finland only to take advantage of the welfare state’s social security provisions. It is also generally thought that the increase in the number of foreigners will bring more criminality in its wake. At the same time, while many Finns don’t express any strong opinion on questions of racism, it has been argued that their very silence actually encourages racism.

On the positive side, moreover, most Finns believe that the presence of foreigners enriches the indigenous culture.

This autumn the Finnish Parliament will be debating a bill which aims to make it easier for immigrants and their families to settle down in Finnish society. If approved, the law would come to force at the beginning of 1999. It would oblige immigrants to work out ‘a settling down’ plan for themselves, together with local authorities and the job centres. The immigrants would be required to take a language course, some other education, as well as job training. These would also be conditions of eligibility for job seeker’s support. Thus the law would include both rights and duties for immigrants.

Nevertheless, the adjustment to a new society is hardly ever easy. The cultural differences between Finnish and Somali people are considerable. Some of the habits adapted from the Finnish culture might even do harm for the internal relations of Somali families, shattering their feeling of togetherness. For those dreaming of returning home, the motivation to integrate into Finnish society may not be strong.

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