True Finns party sparks immigration debate in Finland
Despite its tiny immigrant population, Finland is engaged in a fierce debate over its immigration policies – with some commentators drawing allegations of xenophobia.
Finland has relatively few foreigners but that has not stopped a heated debate on immigration recently, rousing bloggers, the media and politicians amid rising support for the nationalistic True Finns party.
"Xenophobia has become organised in Finland," said Pasi Saukkonen, a senior researcher at the Foundation for Cultural Policy Research.
The immigration issue has for months topped the agenda in newspaper op-eds, blogs, special television debates and community websites.
Saukkonen said he had observed a change in attitudes, noting that the weakness of the far-right in Finland for a long time made the country "quite abnormal" compared with other European countries.
In recent years, however, there has been growing support for the Perussuomalaiset party, or True Finns.
The party kick-started the debate on immigration late last year when a number of its local election candidates made headlines for their controversial remarks.
But the publicity did not hurt the True Finns.
The party raked in 5.4 percent of votes in the October polls, increasing its support by over a percentage point from the 2007 general elections.
The leader of the party, Timo Soini, insists that neither he nor his party is racist, stressing instead that the True Finns promote conservative and patriotic values.
"I am offended by allegations that I or my party is racist,” he said. “It is an unfair statement and against my beliefs.”
Foreigners make up only 2.5 percent of Finland's 5.3 million inhabitants but increasing numbers of immigrants have prompted an outcry in some quarters.
"There are very few foreigners in Finland,” said Johanna Suurpaeae, a state-appointed advocate for minorities. “In recent years, more immigrants have come here to work and that has been a big change for Finnish society."
Last year, the overall number of asylum requests in Finland soared to 4,035 from 1,434 in 2007, with the number of Iraqi asylum seekers nearly quadrupling to 1,255, according to Immigration Service statistics.
The increase came at a time when numbers were declining in other Nordic countries that have traditionally been more hospitable to refugees.
A new immigration law that, among other things, will for the first time allow immigrants with temporary residence permits to work in Finland has also attracted criticism.
Despite being adopted by a broad parliamentary majority, a number of dissenting voices insisted the new law was dangerous and called on the house instead to tighten existing immigration legislation.
Raimo Vistbacka, an MP for the True Finns, said he believed the "current government's liberal immigration policy" had actually attracted people traffickers.
Even the opposition Social Democrats have called for tighter rules, with MP Kari Rajamaeki telling parliament the country "needs to have better controls on immigration."
Conservative Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen has lashed out at xenophobia.
"We mustn't give even the slightest room for racism in Finland," he said recently.
The fact that Finland still lags far behind most other Western countries in terms of numbers of immigrants and refugees has, however, done little to calm some Finns' fear that the country will soon be deluged with foreigners.
Finland is one of the world's fastest ageing nations and statistics show its labour force will start declining by 2010.
"Finland is a small country and Finnish companies need more skilled workers in the future," Migration and European Affairs Minister Astrid Thors said.
Immigrants will be needed to keep the wheels of Finland's generous welfare state rolling as the number of Finnish workers declines.
Observers note that attitudes towards immigration tend to toughen during economic downturns like the current one.
"In a way it is understandable that when many people suddenly become unemployed, people start to ask why we should have more immigrants," Suurpaeae said.
"Winter is six months long and the language is difficult," said Hannah Artes, an English woman who has lived in Finland for a decade and notes the Finns’ famous taciturnity.
"To have (a Finn) smile back at you makes your day as a foreigner.”
Singer Bina Nkwazi, who moved to Finland about a decade ago from Zambia, however said there was less racism now as Finns had gradually become more accustomed to immigrants.
"Finns are more open concerning foreigners,” Nkwazi said. “They have realised we are here to give and to contribute to society.”