Separation between central and local government hinders migrant integration

The Finnish system for the reception of asylum seekers is highly organised and could function well. But while the system is based on short processing times, asylum seekers may currently have to wait several years for a decision on their application, says migration researcher Östen Wahlbeck.

“The system would work well if decisions on asylum applications were quick. The whole system is based on a short reception stage, after which the people whose applications are accepted are integrated into their new home municipality. But unfortunately asylum decisions take a long time and integration suffers because people have to wait so long to be admitted to integration programmes,” says Östen Wahlbeck.

Statistics from the Finnish Immigration Service speak for themselves: in 2015 asylum seekers had to wait an average of 124 days for their first decision. The next year the average wait had increased to 270 days, and in 2017 to 373 days.

What is, following bureaucratic logic, a clear and well-functioning division into reception and integration has, in practice, led to several problems. The system is rigid, and many rules appear almost counterproductive in terms of integration.

“It’s clear that many asylum seekers fall between the cracks, living in uncertainty for an extended period of time and being unable to plan their lives.”

Unprepared for mass immigration

Östen Wahlbeck, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Swedish School of Social Science, participated in the European CEASEVAL research consortium, which evaluated the European asylum system. The researchers explored how the system worked in practice, comparing experiences from 12 countries.

The research project was established in the aftermath of the refugee crisis of 2015, when it became apparent that the European reception policies and European cooperation on asylum issues were flawed. Wahlbeck’s role in the project was to examine the situation in Finland.

The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is a set of legislation and rules on the reception of asylum seekers. Efforts to establish this legal framework began in 1999, and the regulations have gradually been expanded and made more ambitious – some say too ambitious. According to Wahlbeck, countries such as Greece and Italy had no chance of meeting the requirements of the Reception Conditions Directive when tens of thousands of migrants arrived on their shores.

“When the EU decided on the new rules and directives for the reception of asylum seekers, the possibility of mass immigration was not even considered; instead, officials counted on considerably smaller numbers of arrivals. It may be easy for us in northern Europe to complain about countries not following the rules, but the rules were unrealistic to start with.”

Nor was the EU alone in being unprepared for what happened in 2015. Finnish officials were used to the arrival of a few thousand asylum seekers per year. As part of his research, Wahlbeck interviewed a high-ranking government employee who said that just a few years earlier the authorities had made crisis plans for the ‘highly unlikely’ scenario of 10,000 people seeking asylum in Finland.

Separation of reception and integration

The Finnish immigration system differs from the systems of many other European countries in the separation of the central and local government levels. In Finland, the central government is responsible for the reception of asylum seekers, whereas the local government, i.e., municipalities, carries the main responsibility for integration.

Although reception centres organise a certain number of integration courses, the primary responsibility lies with the municipalities, and their integration programmes are much more extensive. Entry into a municipal integration programme requires that you are a resident in the municipality in question. And to be a resident requires a positive asylum decision. This is where the long processing times and the clear separation between central and local government create problems.

“In a highly organised bureaucratic system, such as the one in Finland, what often happens is that these two parties have different priorities and fail to communicate sufficiently with each other. There are a number of built-in structural conflicts of interest,” Wahlbeck notes.

Many asylum seekers quickly move out of the reception centres. They try to find housing through the private market or move in with relatives who have previously settled in Finland. Most asylum seekers do not physically reside in reception centres, but elsewhere in the local community, which is also more sensible from the perspective of integration. But because they are not official municipal residents, they do not have access to various social benefits, such as a housing allowance or income support. Moreover, the social workers and other employees tasked with helping them work at the reception centres. The only support provided to the asylum seekers is the reception allowance which is supposed to cover their basic needs during the processing of their asylum application.

The other option – not moving out of the reception centre – also involves problems. As a rule, asylum seekers living in reception centres have little contact with the local community, which means that their integration proceeds slowly.

The third sector bridges gaps

Where possible, volunteers and the third sector help to bridge the gap between the reception of asylum seekers by central government and their integration by the municipalities. The Finnish Red Cross plays a particularly important role thanks to its considerable experience in the reception of refugees and its impressive organisation with tens of thousands of volunteers.

“The volunteer organisations do a great job, particularly the Red Cross. They support the asylum seekers in various ways and begin their integration during the waiting period, so their role must be emphasised. It’s incredibly valuable that local integration efforts get off to an early start,” notes Wahlbeck.

But he adds:

“The activities can be very haphazard. There is a great deal of variation among the municipalities and the volunteers the asylum seekers come into contact with.”

Wahlbeck has also found that rigid bureaucratic boundaries are not just a problem for the new arrivals – the volunteers also find it difficult to understand the Finnish system. People are often uncertain about who is responsible for what, and whom they should contact if they have questions.

“The volunteers would prefer to do things as simply and effectively as possible, but they often come up against bureaucratic structures that can appear peculiar and incomprehensible.”

Europeanisation and harmonisation

In Finland, asylum policy is often seen as a national issue, but this is something of a misunderstanding, says Wahlbeck. Our migration policy is closely connected with developments in other European countries. This applies to both how asylum decisions are made and how strict our asylum policy is, but also to how the administration is organised and how people work with these issues in concrete terms.

“Although I have worked for quite a long time in migration research, I, too, have been surprised by how European everything has become and how dependent on the EU our migration policy now is, both directly and indirectly. A harmonisation has taken place almost without us noticing.”

One of the aspects of this development is the concentration of all asylum issues in the 2000s in the Ministry of the Interior and the Finnish Migration Service, which operates under the Ministry. Previously, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health were much more involved. This is in line with what has happened in other European countries, where the ministry of the interior is usually responsible for migration issues.

From the legal perspective, Finnish legislation has been amended to comply with EU agreements and directives. But European harmonisation is taking place not only at the legal level, but also in practical terms, with the development of common administrative solutions for the purposes of well-functioning cooperation.

“There has been a process of ‘Europeanisation’, in which national policy and administrative solutions are increasingly affected by developments in Europe,” Wahlbeck points out.

What is solidarity?

The issue of how to handle the reception of migrants in the EU has been discussed for years, but remains unresolved. The EU is still trying to reach a compromise on effective solutions.

According to Östen Wahlbeck, researchers have found a great deal of willingness at the local level to take in refugees, and identified examples of good local solutions in all of the countries investigated.

“The problem has not been about the reception of migrants. Instead, the big issue has been the division of responsibility between the EU countries and, within them, between different regions and municipalities. There are various views on what is fair.”

The issue is fundamental for the future of the EU. One of the essential ideas and principles on which the EU is based on is solidarity between member states, but it is clear that the principle of solidarity is not being implemented.

“The question is: what does solidarity mean? Does it mean that we should distribute asylum seekers evenly between different geographical areas? Or should we in some way divide the financial costs or the work involved?

“The capabilities of countries and local communities vary considerably. So what does solidarity actually mean when there is so much variation in capabilities and opportunities?”

More legislation is not the answer

One of the clear recommendations issued by the researchers is to increasingly take the local level into account when making decisions. After all, that is where the actual work takes place. It is also necessary to find solutions that do not violate people’s sense of solidarity.

“I don’t think the solution to the problems can be found on the legal level and through forced harmonisation. Rather, what we are calling for is more cooperation between the different levels of administration,” says Wahlbeck.

But despite the researchers’ recommendation, the EU seems to be heading in the opposite direction. The European Commission is currently considering the conversion of certain directives regulating the reception of asylum seekers into regulations, in other words, binding legislation. It would represent a concrete step towards more top-down management and more control. Psychologically, it can also be a misstep.

“People have too much faith in the European Commission being able to solve problems by issuing orders. It can actually prove counterproductive because many people react against it. The eastern member states, in particular, oppose what they see as technocratic decisions from Brussels. It is easier for the public to accept decisions if they are locally rooted.”

Östen Wahlbeck

Östen Wahlbeck

Universitetslektor