As an institution, the University of Helsinki does not have established contacts to the professional fields of so-called frontline workers (contrary to some specialised research institutes in Finland). Therefore, most contacts to potential ARU members have been created from scratch. However, Finland is a small country in terms of population and the public sector is quite centralized. It was thus rather easy to figure out possible members and potential experts for the Finnish ARU.
The core team of the Finnish ARU was established in a meeting in September 2019. ARU members in more local levels have been recruited during spring 2020.
A quite distinct challenge in the process of starting the Finnish ARU was the language issue. The public and third sector experts even on refugee and Forced Displaced People – FDPs – matters tend to be white Finnish-speaking majority not skilled in languages of the FDPs. Consequently, as one of the first steps in setting up the ARU, there was a need to find people who could master Arabic and Dari/Farsi (most common languages among FDPs in Finland), as well as English or Finnish. The solution was to recruit two subcontractors as research assistants. A further challenge in forming the ARU was the multi-sited and two-fold approach of the Finnish sub-project. The aim was to promote two Tailored Attention and Inclusion Strategies – TAIS – in various reception centres.
In Finland, in fact, the TAIS is designed in the form of two parallel pilot activities that target asylum seekers who are in a vulnerable situation. First, a multilingual online forum for asylum seeking and Finnish-speaking men is piloted with men from several reception centres and with the help of many professionals. Second, childcare activities are developed in the context of two reception centres. Thus, the composition of the Finnish ARU is not fixed while different people are involved in developing, implementing and evaluating different activities.
Overall in Finland, asylum seekers are among the Forced Displaced People (FDPs) in the most vulnerable position. Particularly those who arrived in Finland during 2015-2016 have been forced to live in uncertainty with marginal legal status and with restricted rights for several years. As said, the Finnish ARU focused on asylum seekers. The action was designed in two parallel activities, one targeting young men with no social connections, and the other targeting single parents with small children. Young single asylum-seeking men are rarely seen to be in a vulnerable position. However, these men miss the support of their families, are treated as adults in the asylum process and reception system and are susceptible to discrimination and labour market exploitation and lack targeted services. More specifically, young asylum-seeking men lack the opportunities to use and learn everyday language with Finnish-speaking peers. Most of the contacts they have with Finnish-speakers are elderly women since they tend to volunteer through NGOs. Particularly in smaller towns and rural areas there are few possibilities in contacting Finnish-speaking young people. Moreover, according to several asylum seeker interviews, the language tuition within the reception centres is not enough, takes place only in classrooms and is too repetitive due to constantly changing teachers and learners and the huge diversity of educational backgrounds different asylum seekers have.
The Multi-lingual online forum has been a new experiment in the field of Finnish reception centres. It was conceived involving a voluntary group of young asylum-seeking men to join, together with Finnish-speaking voluntary young men in an online thread to discuss the experiences of asylum seekers and everyday life in the Finnish society. The discussions are moderated and, when needed, translated from languages used by asylum seekers into Finnish.
The second activity is about the development of child-care services in reception centres. It was aimed to develop already existing services and not to invent new ones. It targets asylum-seeking parents with small children. Parents of small children, particularly single parents, suffer from lack of child-care services while trying to cope in highly stressful conditions. Finnish society provides quite all-encompassing services for families with small children. However, this applies only to families with a residence permit. In most Finnish regions, asylum seeking families do not have the right to early childhood education in municipal day-care centres. Asylum-seeking children are entitled to enter the Finnish education system in pre-school at the age of six. Moreover, the level of child-care services provided varies significantly between different reception centres. Some centres do not organize childcare services at all while, at best, some centres provide help in childcare for a few hours per week. For many families and particularly to single parents, this type of context tends to cause problems or aggravate already existing ones. Children miss structured activities with their peers and their learning and integration to Finnish society are often severely hampered. As for parents, they have difficulties in using the services they are entitled to and their abilities to work or educate themselves and rest are highly limited. Consequently, lack of childcare services has several repercussions on both parental and child wellbeing.
Positive and innovative factors of the ARU working
Careful work and knowledge production among asylum seekers has been the key issue in the Finnish sub-project. This has opened up new insights to vulnerabilities of the FDP population and revealed important gaps in the service provision within the reception system in Finland. Consequently, the familiar lesson learned has been the importance of thoroughly involving the so-called end-users in knowledge production and in designing new practices.
The experience of the Finnish ARU is told from different perspectives. A young asylum seeker coming from Ghana and living in Finland for two years now, the director of the Rovaniemi Reception Centre, a small city in Northern Finland and the assistant manager and a physiotherapist of the Kristiinankaupunki Reception Centre, in Western Finland. Both these two centres are part of the Finnish Red Cross.
Stephen Oppong, member of the ARU in Finland
“This is what I want to do, to calm people down whenever they join this forum, give them the necessary information and ask them the things that I know the camp is not going to ask them”
Stephen Oppong, a young man from Ghana, has participated in the Finnish ARU, at first as final beneficiary and then as a moderator to help further young men, asylum seekers, who have arrived in Finland.
Stephen is the direct testimonial that the Multilingual Online groups for young men have had a positive end. He arrived in Finland two years ago. He heard of the RAISD project while he was living in a refugee camp. He was at first a final beneficiary, using the forum to get information. Information such as being enrolled in schools, the kind of information, he said, it was not easy to reach out by staying in a camp.
Since last August he is not living in a refugee camp anymore, he works and he is married now. Stephen is currently participating in the Multilingual Online groups for young men, as a moderator and trying to help out other young men that are experiencing the same path he went through.
About the RAISD project, it’s very important and actually I saw the essence of it because personally I experienced difficulties when foreigners or immigrants come here and try to integrate, try to get acquainted or adapt to the lifestyle and there are so many problems at your arrival that you go through. As a moderator, I was always motivated because when we were living in the camp it was very difficult. Taking you away from the family or the society and being isolated is very difficult psychologically, so the reason why I decided to be a moderator is basically to help people who are also passing through the same situation and be available for anyone who joined [the forum] and ask questions of what they need. It was a good platform for me to actually use my experience and use what I have learned to give people the advice that they needed especially when they come in, because it is very difficult. It is not an easy thing being at the camp for more than 6 or 7 months. Some people have been there for like 4-5 years, and this affects you psychologically. This is what I want to do, to calm people down whenever they join this forum, give them the necessary information and ask them the things that I know the camp is not going to ask them and support them. So yes, this is me and I am happy to be here.
“The Rovaniemi reception centre has been operating for 30 years and the centre has had various activities related to children’s activities for several years. It has been interesting to work on an international project”
Ritva Metsälampi is the Director of the Rovaniemi Reception Centre. She has been working in the Centre since December 2015 and has heard about the RAISD project through the Finnish Red Cross Central office, which is one of the stakeholders of the Finnish ARU. The services provided in the reception centre are activities in accordance with the law “Act on the Reception of Applicants for International Protection and the Identification and Assistance of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings” and the guidelines of the Finnish Immigration Service. The centre provides accommodation for asylum seekers, social work, health care, guidance and counselling, interpreting services, work and study activities, leisure activities and various club activities.
Mrs Ritva has been involved – within the RAISD project – in planning activities in the reception centre collaborating with the University of Helsinki and she has also worked actively in the Finnish network of the project with various actors. During the implementation of the work, there were some difficulties that had caused the fragmentation of the activity plan and less impact than the one expected. “During the project, the reception centre moved to new premises. The premises were not safe in all respects and we had to wait for the renovation work to be completed. The Covid19 epidemic brought problems to the centre’s children’s club activities and also to the project’s activities for more than a year. When the situation calmed down, there were no more children in the target group at the centre. The parents had obtained a residence permit or had started school and the children had municipal early childhood education.”
Mrs Metsälampi continues “We would have liked to have implemented a new operating model for the kids ’club in the project, but unfortunately it did not succeed due to the small number of children. However, we will try to adopt this model later if the number of children of asylum seekers of target age increases. We want to further develop the functions of the centre with asylum seeker families. The implementation of children’s club activities is one part of our overall activities.”
Among the factors of success, Mrs Metsälampi counts the good experiences interviewing the children’s parents and staff. Through the interviews it was possible to learn about the families’ wishes for the development of children’s hobbies at the reception centre. Also meeting new actors and hearing of different ways of working provided her with new ideas for her own work and for the development of the reception centre.
Representatives of the Kristiinankaupunki reception centre (Western Finland)
“We have found that it works, and we want to continue using this strategy”
Raimo Varpula, assistant manager in the Kristiinankaupunki reception centre (Western Finland), and Anneli Turja, a physiotherapist working in the same reception centre, have been involved in developing family services and childcare activities in reception centres.
The reception centre carries on activities from more than 10 years, the centre has been contacted by the Finnish ARU about 3 years ago and since then, they are collaborating in implementing activities focusing on children and involving their parents in each process.
Mr Varpula is in charge of almost everything, managing the office and supporting the staff and the users of the centre. The centre welcomes people coming from several countries, two years ago they had many people coming from Iraq and nowadays the majority are from Russia. Last year the centre was following 20 children and this year 11, and several other children are waiting to access the services the centre is providing. The children currently present at the centre come mostly from Russia, Chechnya, Caucasus region and then also from Middle East, Africa and Nepal. “They come to our centre and they have interviews here and then we find the programme, what is necessary, which professional should follow them” said Mrs Turja.
Mrs Turja works as educator and physiotherapist and with other colleagues she takes care of the children who manifest some delays in motor skills, cognitive skills and also social skills. They work on individual therapy as well as in groups and this is also why they have a limited number of children each year because of the time they have to dedicate to each of them considering that in some cases children also have traumatic backgrounds. “We have three times a week activity connected to work on these skills as they are very important: they are functional for the children’s integration, for their wellbeing. This aspect has been managed with success because nine children last year went to the school and the feedback even from the teachers was very positive. Children also knew some Finnish and they possessed important skills before they went to school.”
The staff check the improvements in the children using standard tests and the results are wonderful, as told by Mrs Turja. Indeed, one of the major challenges is the parents’ involvement in their children’s activities and needs. It requires time for the staff to involve them and explain the activities they are following. They often do not receive feedback from the parents during the path, but in the end the parents seem satisfied about the children’s improvements. The other challenges to be managed are the different languages and cultural backgrounds that can sometimes slowdown the working process.