Finland Confronts Challenge to Overcome Racism

By Katja Heinonen, Reuters, Saturday 11 November 2000, 9:34 PM ET

HELSINKI (Reuters)—Television footage of Finnish and Somali youths fighting in a Helsinki suburb has confronted Finns with what it is like to be a foreigner living in their country.

A group of Finns assaulted a Somali youngster, which led to retaliation by Somali and Iraqi youths. Parents, fearing their children could be attacked on their way to school, kept about 60 Somali youngsters at home for several days after the fight.

The incident sparked a national debate over racism, with officials, ministers and President Tarja Halonen all condemning the violence.

The recent increase of racism in Finland is a worrying phenomenon, Labor Minister Tarja Filatov told a Council of Europe meeting on racism last month. We should not close our eyes to racist incidents, however small they may seem.

Foreign nationals in Finland comprise only 2.5 percent of the country's 5.2 million population compared with nearly 10 percent in Germany. The small percentage is due to Finland's location on the fringe of Europe, an historically tougher immigration policy than those of its Nordic neighbors, and a unique linguistic and cultural heritage.

But Finland is slowly changing. The country has seen the number of immigrants rise from some 18,000 in 1987 to 90,000 at the start of 2000.

And with the percentage of pensioners forecast to rise more quickly than the OECD average, the country will soon need fresh faces to keep the economy booming.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has forecast that Finland's ratio of people of working age to those of pensionable age will fall to two in 2035 from the current four, some 15 years ahead of the OECD average.

I fear (racism) is becoming (a bigger problem), and I actually fear it is one already...actions should be taken while we still can control it, said Magdalena Jaakkola of the Population Research Institute.

(Racism) is a serious problem...improvement can been seen in actions by officials and media, but for ordinary people on the street, it is unbearable, said Mulki Molsa, who represents Somalis on the Labor Ministry's ethnic relations commission.

Rising Racist Attitudes, Silence A Serious Problem

Recent studies show that racist attitudes in Finland -- especially toward Russians, Arabs and Somalis -- have risen in the past 13 years, although those toward foreigners were more positive now than during the deep recession of 1993.

A 1997 study by Eurobarometer, a survey on racism and xenophobia requested by the European Commission (news—web sites), showed that 10 percent of Finns considered themselves very racist, while the average for European Union (EU) countries was nine percent.

But Jaakkola, who has studied Finns' attitudes toward foreigners since 1987, said responses to other Eurobarometer questions and to her own studies showed Finns' attitudes were less racist than those of Europeans on average.

Violent attacks, especially on Somalis who arrived as refugees fleeing civil war in their homeland in the early 1990s, do take place, but more rarely than in Europe in general, said police officer Kalle Kekomaki.

And no anti-immigrant parties have either emerged in Finland like those in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Norway, which researchers and police say is due largely to a lack of charismatic leaders and the still small number of foreigners.

With the far-right groupings we have, either they are groups of young in which music and booze play quite a big role, while older groups are made up of middle-aged alcoholics, Kekomaki said. They do not gather support from large masses.

Jaakkola said racism in Finland appeared mainly in the form of job discrimination.

Outside the workplace Molsa said the biggest problem was verbal abuse by ordinary Finns on the street.

Officials, police and researchers said the silent approval of racism by a large part of the population was also a problem.

The biggest problem in my view is that there are so many people who do not take any view on the matter, who think this does not concern them, said Risto Laakkonen, a member of the Labor Ministry's ethnic relations commission.

Jaakkola said her study from last year showed that most Finns were least negative about immigration from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries. Their attitudes toward Russians, Arabs and Somalis were the most negative.

She said that in general those with high education, contact with foreigners, women and young people had the most positive attitudes toward foreigners, while those in rural areas, pensioners and the unemployed had the most negative views.

Must Teach Finns Tolerance, Do To Integrate Immigrants

Laakkonen said the problem should be attacked from both ends, with Finns taught to be more tolerant. Ethnic minorities should be encouraged to join civil organizations, sports groups, labor unions and political parties.

Several people with immigrant backgrounds were elected to the local councils in recent municipal elections.

The government is also preparing a plan of action to combat racism and ethnic discrimination which includes setting up a post to monitor official discrimination, and rules to promote hiring people from ethnic minorities in the public sector.

The program also includes a plan to set up a project in which immigrant youngsters would be trained and encouraged to seek education in the growing information technology, services and education sectors.

But a 28-year-old Somali male at a Helsinki metro station said officials should be more open in declaring immigrants an important part of the Finnish society.

People never say openly that immigrants benefit society, he said. We have to get acceptance. There is no use spending money on immigrants if we are not given a sign that we belong to society.