We can respond flexibly to the arrival of refugees – if we want to

We have a lot to learn about responding flexibly to the arrival of a large number of refugees. Professor of Ethnic Relations Suvi Keskinen calls for the equal treatment of all those seeking sanctuary.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians have fled their country and more refugees have arrived in Finland than during the so-called refugee crisis of 2015.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting the mass exodus of Ukrainians, the EU decided to activate the Temporary Protection Directive. This directive aims to provide temporary protection in the EU in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons as an alternative to asylum. Another aim is to prevent overburdening the member states’ asylum systems. The directive encompasses all EU member states with the exception of Denmark due to its opt-out on legal issues. Although adopted 20 years ago, the directive was triggered for the first time only in response to the Russian invasion this year.

Polarised views in 2015

Civil society actors have played an important role in supporting Ukrainians and helping their country. In addition, authorities and NGOs have shown solidarity in various ways. In Finland, for example, Ukrainian refugees have been permitted to travel free of charge on public transport in the Helsinki region.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in 2015 when refugees arriving mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan applied for asylum in Finland, notes Suvi Keskinen, Professor of Ethnic Relations at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki. Keskinen and her research team have investigated the arrival of refugees in Finland and Sweden in 2015.

“It’s fair to say that people’s views in 2015 were polarised. Sure, there was solidarity activism then too. People met refugees at train and bus stations and helped them with accommodation, food, clothes and asylum applications,” says Keskinen, adding:

“But there was also a great deal of opposition, and some groups objected to the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. For instance, a group of demonstrators formed a ‘human wall’ along the border near the towns of Tornio and Haparanda, and many protested against people crossing the border from Sweden to Finland by foot or other means.”

From restricting borders to helping those seeking refuge

Since then, researchers have criticised the Finnish Immigration Service for its failures in receiving and processing large numbers of asylum applications. On the whole, public discussions at the time focused on border controls and how to prevent people from entering the country rather than on how we can help people who are fleeing their countries. In 2015 each country had its own approach, whereas this year the EU made a collective decision on temporary protection. The visa exemption granted to Ukrainians has also made it easier for them to travel from one country to another within the EU.

“Attitudes towards Ukrainian refugees are positive. Even populist right-wing parties that traditionally oppose immigration have taken a very positive stance, siding with the Ukrainians. We are not seeing the polarisation witnessed in 2015,” notes Keskinen.

One reason is that people see Russia’s attack as an aggression against Europe and European and democratic values. The war is experienced as being close to us geographically, and the aggressor is Finland’s neighbour. Finland and Sweden’s fast-track applications for NATO membership also reflect this.

Many saw the civil war in Syria and the unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan as more distant. In summer 2015, the desire to help Syrians fleeing the civil war remained strong, but as the autumn progressed, the rhetoric toughened and EU countries attempted to restrict the entry of refugees.

Solidarity decreased, and refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were discussed mostly in terms of border controls. They were described as a threat to European values, emphasising the strain put on European economies.

“The fact that we now talk about the Ukrainian refugees in very different terms shows that we differentiate between groups and whom we think should be helped,” points out Keskinen.

Solidarity with whom?

A more sensitive issue that Keskinen thinks has been somewhat overlooked relates to solidarity and racialisation: with whom do we feel solidarity and whom do we categorise as white or non-white? The racialisation of people as non-white means ascribing to them preconceived characteristics based on appearance or culture and their supposed ‘difference’; for example, presuming that people from the Middle East and African countries are less civilised, that their social systems are of less value or that their education level is lower or work experience irrelevant. We lump together an immensely heterogeneous group of people, ignoring the fact that many refugees from, for example, Iraq and Syria are well educated and possess years of work experience. At the same time, we have notions of affluent refugees who are able to afford smartphones and, hence, are not regarded as actually in need of sanctuary.

“I think we need to look also at racism and its history, at our ideas of people from Africa or the Middle East both now and before asylum seekers from these regions arrived in Finland.”

The reason this is a sensitive issue to discuss is partly because it is easily interpreted as being against the positive reception given to Ukrainian refugees, and partly because the racism occurring in Finnish society has not been discussed comprehensively and genuinely.

Lessons from a flexible system

Suvi Keskinen believes that we should now focus on what we can learn from how Ukrainian refugees have been treated. Going forward, the number of refugees is expected to increase, not least because of the climate crisis. The treatment of Ukrainian refugees has demonstrated that it is possible to show solidarity and flexibility, and that the arrival of refugees does not necessarily cause any major societal crisis. Keskinen hopes that instead of focusing on border controls, we would concentrate on how refugees can become part of our society and how we can build an inclusive society.

“People fleeing their home countries need protection, and Finland needs people to come here to work, live and develop our society. There is a great deal of opposition because many people don’t want our society to change. Obviously, if a large number of people come here from elsewhere, not all of them wish to live exactly as we have done until now. But the society will change no matter what. We should try to see the positives in people coming here and making an important contribution to our society,” says Keskinen.

Lack of solidarity strengthens right-wing populism in Europe

The problems inherent in the Dublin Regulation are well-known. Italy and other Southern European countries are under significant pressure due to the arrival of refugees from the Middle East and African countries who are restricted from travelling onwards to other European countries. The countries most affected by the arrival of refugees feel insufficiently supported and aided by the rest of the EU. This has increased anti-immigrant sentiment and demands for tougher action in Southern Europe.

“I think this is one of the reasons for the success of right-wing populism in Italy.”

Greece and other countries in Southern Europe have also resorted to illegal measures, such as sending rubber dinghies carrying refugees back out to sea. The practice has even been supported by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, as revealed in a report by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office, which was leaked to the media in July.  

Thanks to the visa exemption granted to Ukrainians and the Temporary Protection Directive, the responsibility for refugees has now been more evenly distributed between the EU countries, rather than putting considerable strain on individual countries.

“The arrival of refugees from Ukraine has shown us that if there is a will, there is a way to organise refugee and asylum policies more flexibly,” states Keskinen.