This interview has been given by Eva Biaudet, some days before she was included in the list of candidates for the Swedish People Party for the next Parliamentary elections. It is focused on her career, on what is important for her and on her activity as the Finnish Ombudsman for non-discrimination. She tells about herself and expresses her views on how the situation of human rights in Finland is threatened by an unwholesome evolution of the Finnish public.
Before her recent candidature, Eva Biaudet has been Ombudsman for non-discrimination after serving in political positions as Member of Parliament, Minister of Health and Social Services, and City Councillor. She has also held the diplomatic post of Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Since the 1st of January 2015, the Non-discrimination Ombudsman oversees that people may not be discriminated against on grounds of sex, sexual orientation, age, origin, language, religion, faith, opinion, health, disability or another similar reason, including the advancement of the status and legal protection of ethnic minorities in Finland, preventing and tackling ethnic discrimination. The Ombudsman also acts as the national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings. The Ombudsman targets its services at immigrants, foreigners living in Finland, and Finland’s traditional ethnic minorities such as the Roma and Saami people.
Eva Biaudet is and has been in her career a very determined person, and as she states it, a person who is unable to stand aside and look at injustice without intervening. She has also got during her career the necessary knowledge and political weight to be able to tackle difficult questions for the Finnish society.
From the Finnish Parliament to non-discrimination Ombudsman
When I look back I have lived a very modern career, because I have never had a job that lasted more than 5 years at a time. Of course when I was in Parliament it was 16 years, but it was 4 years and 4 years… I never knew if I would have my job after the elections. And then in the very end of the last term, I did not really plan to end my political career, but then people got me interested in this diplomatic job in Vienna as OSCE Special Representative on Combating Trafficking in human beings. In a way it has always be my dream to be able to work in an international organisation with the possibility to focus on a topic that I felt was very important, on which I had already worked on, as I have always dealt in politics on minorities’ rights, women’s rights…
So I just tried my wings, and decided to do something different. And then when I came back from Vienna I did not have anything, and it was really difficult to know what could be there. I had always the possibility to run in the elections, but it was more than a year until the elections, and anyway I was feeling I needed to do something in between. I always felt that I might try to go back into politics, as I have always enjoyed that immensely, it is not a thing that I wanted to go away from, but then this position of non-discrimination ombudsman was opened and somehow it felt interesting.
As an ombudsman, I have to fight against all types of discriminations, but I am also National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking. In that sense, I felt I was a rather strong candidate. In addition, I know everybody, and there is a need in this position to call the politicians, talk to people, know the administration… So I thought that I would be able to use my network in trying to influence things. So I tried. To be honest, I also tried in parallel to apply for the position of party secretary of my party (Swedish People Party), but they did not choose me (laugh)!
But now I am glad it came out this way, as in a way I have been working with the same issues as a legislator, as a diplomat and now at a more grass-root level. I look into how society is implementing the fine things we have been designing internationally and in the national legislation, Now, in my office, we are really seeing how it works, or how it does not actually work in a number of cases. So it is immensely interesting.
In a way, my evolution as an ombudsman has been a lot about chance, but now I feel that there has been definitely a thread, a continuity with issues I really care for. After all, I really grew up through the issue of minorities , being a Swedish-speaking Finn, having a Swedish-speaking mother and coming from a bilingual background, having always this feeling that I was not part of the majority. And it has been also something I have been politically interested in, so there is always something that feels really me. So it feels very right, and I enjoy it, and I have been enjoying working on very important issues only. In politics, you can certainly concentrate on what you really care for, are interested in, but you have to deal with a lot of other issues.
Ombudsman, a wonderful tool to create trust in a society which does not always respect human rights when implementing the laws
I did not realise initially what kind of fantastic institution the minorities ombudsman is. Of course the Parliamentary Ombudsman is in a way the highest and most traditional, but all the specialised Ombudsmen, for minorities, for gender equality, for children, are social inventions which are remarkable, it is among the finest social inventions that exist, with the idea that you lower the threshold for people who have been discriminated upon or treated badly, or in human trafficking.
It is really about trying to protect people nobody is really interested in, it is really seeing where the gaps are and trying to mend them. Also, the Ombudsman is working to create some kind of trust towards society, because people who fall in between feel that nobody cares, and usually lose their trust in society, which is dramatic and dangerous. We all think that there are laws, good laws, social networks, but there are always specific situations where you are not getting your rights. In that sense, the ombudsman is here to correct wrongs against individuals and addressing also structural discriminations and errors, gathering information on what is happening, advising and recommending towards the government and authorities in general, among other things.
The interesting part about the special ombudsman institutions, as opposed to the Parliamentary Ombudsman, is that the latter only supervises authorities, when we cover also the private sector. It is a rather interesting concept, because we can actually go and talk to for example banks, and insurance companies, to all those who supply services to the general public. In all these instances, we have to intervene if we see discrimination. So I think that this is a rather large mandate. And then, even if we are not a court and we cannot intervene in enforcement, we can give recommendations ,we can investigate and request responses, we have the right to see the information, they always have to answer when requested, they cannot say “we don’t care”!
So we can enhance equal treatment and we have a large menu of possibilities: we can cooperate with the competent organisations, we can use the media, and we can use legal means to push for a correction of a situation which is wrong. It is a fantastic soft tool, with a low threshold, and we have a proactive attitude, as we are aware that there are a lot of people who are not going to find us. For example people with foreign background are less likely to complain: they do not know their rights so well, they might have a situation where they come from a particularly difficult background, as for example refugees, they feel very grateful and they do not want to complain about anything- Other people are more aware of their rights and thus better at claiming. It is then necessary to be proactive and identify situations where people cannot be the drivers, and act even if we do not have any complaints.
When I look at the situation in Finland today, I feel that we have a little border guard inside all of us, European and Finnish people
The Ombudsman is a marvelous tool, particularly in a society where there is a little bit of an illusion that we have a very tight social security net and everything is in place. It is not true, and it would anyway happen that people fall between, for example people with mental problems or disabilities, or human trafficking victims, or foreigners, depending on the circumstances.
Our legal system is not in fact such a protective structure, and even with an adequate legislation, the problem is how we implement the legislation. The gap is there, where you can decide, where there is room for interpretation, and we say that the authorities have always to interpret the law with a human rights approach, in favour of the person’s human rights, when they tend to implement the law in ways that spends less money, to give less residency permits, and in fine it happens that their interpretation is not right. So we try to come in that space too, as there are a lot of possibilities for authorities to make decisions apparently based in the law, but using a lot of discretionary power, and not in an apolitical way.
When I look at Finnish society today, and this is what I get from my experience, I feel that there is a little border guard inside all of us, European and also Finnish people, who has moved in due to a political atmosphere looking at migration as a very very big threat. And it is understandable for some countries who are receiving a lot of migrants, and where everyone can see that it makes a heavy burden in particular on services.
But for some reason this kind of atmosphere develops also in countries where there is nothing of this kind: for example in Finland, we have nothing, we have no history of immigration, and even when there has been wars and conflicts in Europe, the persons displaced and the refugees have not particularly found their way to Finland, so we have no reason to fear that we would be more burdened than the others countries in Europe. And yet I think that there is a common idea when you make policies and new laws, or when you implement them, everything is then seen through this illusion of a threat of massive immigration: if we give rights to human trafficking victims, if we do not apply forced returns, then it is a sign for all people in the world to come and move to Finland, which is ridiculous,against common sense and the history of how things have happened in the past or in the last years.
In fact, we are a country that could be more generous in individual decisions, without changing the present legislation, because we have such a light burden of responsibility in terms of immigration. We have very few foreigners, we have very few immigrants. In addition, in Finland, there is this idea that foreigners are very welcome but they all should be somewhat well off, which is a very naive idea, as these kind of people are going to countries where foreigners are really welcome, I guess. If you have the choice, you definitely not go to a place where there is some kind of sign that foreigners are a little bit scary and where people are not especially welcoming for them. So I think that we would need is to be a little more open to immigration.
There is this crazy thing happening in Finland: we are very proud of our education system and at the same time we are very scared of receiving people without education
It also means that we have to see that even among people who have not chosen Finland, but just had to come here, there are a lot of resources that wait to be used, if we are clever. In particular, there is this crazy thing happening in Finland: we are very proud of our education system and at the same time we are very scared of receiving people without education! We could certainly use our education system to give people an education and in that way get very useful citizens , even if they come from very bad circumstances. It is quite crazy when you think that some people have calculated that we would need more people at work in order to pay for our pensions. I would not like that we take steps in the direction of having only work immigration, and only select guests who are well off and educated by another country, and let down those who arrive here in less favorable circumstances!
We would also need to apply to foreigners the same principles we apply to ourselves, the right to live in a society where you feel like you belong, where you can have your family, be it that you are here for 3 years or for you don’t know how long. And this idea that the Nordic countries have been including all members of society, with an inclusive social policy is something which has been good for the economy, for the faith in a society where all children have good schools, with nobody being left behind. Why would it not apply to foreigners moving to Finland for whatever reason? But it is such a new idea and concept to all politicians that for some reason they lose their knowledge and their common sense, they do not remember the characteristics of a good social policy, which has perfectly worked until now for Finland!
In some way, it is as if different rules apply now in Finland: for example, we have a few undocumented and paperless people, and there was this proposal from the government to the Parliament to provide them and their children the necessary health care. It was not going very far, it would not have given all health care to everybody, which I think should have been done, but anyway there were a lot of voices to say “why should we give anything to these people?”. At the same time, we ask the poorest countries in the world to give health care to their children! In addition, we all see that it is a good thing for a society, for all of us, that everybody is included in health care, that for example all children are vaccinated.
It changes our morale, our ethics, and our values, everything we Finns have always believed in… I think that the politicians have to be blamed for that
So when we all turn in some border guards, it changes our morale, our ethics, our values, it changes everything we Finns have always believed in. To me this is very odd, I don’t understand it, but it is happening now, and I think that even if we think that we are not influenced by the Finns Party or other extreme right wing politicians, still all of us are influenced in some way. We don’t know it, and we try to fight it, but still we are not unaffected, and somewhat it makes a difference in what is going on here and we react differently today compared to yesterday.
When a dentist receives a child who is obviously from Somalian background, but has lived in Finland for many years, it happens now that the dentist thinks: “this child seems old, older than on his official papers, I have to send her dental records to dental registry for verifications”, which is completely illegal. When we brought such a case to the legal ombudsman and people supervising the medical profession, nobody believed it, because they thought that the ethics in our health system was so strong about protecting the patient’s privacy that they were sure that “no, this cannot happen here”. And yet it did! Of course we intervened, everything was corrected in a ethical and legal way, but it shows that when even a dentist may think that it is her job to start protecting the border, something has changed.
I think that the politicians have to be blamed for that: somehow, their reaction when the Finns Party got more support was some sort of silence. Many politicians thought that they should not step down to what they considered as a common or vulgar level of debate. And I think that this was a big mistake because not responding to these ideas meant that they had a free space, and the Finns Party filled the space with a lot of words and speeches made the general public think that they represented a big and important matter. And I don’t think that it is the case.
It was a very different reaction than in Sweden where all the politicians said: “well, we do not agree, we do not accept, this is racist, these are not the values we believe in, this is not the country we want to have”. So even if these toxic ideas have some support there, there is a different atmosphere and a much bigger consensus around anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, a more diverse society… Of course the Swedish society is very very diverse: when Finnish politicians speak about Sweden, they usually use it as a scary example, which I do not understand because Sweden is a very good example of how diversity has really brought prosperity and a lot of good examples for other countries. Having said that, of course I am aware that there are also problems, as it is naive to think that people do not bring problems, and we Finns have also our problems! (She laughs). And the more difficulties people have met, the more problems there are, it would be ridiculous to expect something else.
I lived in Vienna, and my kids were doing some mischief, which obliged me to intervene and sometimes apologise. But I would have never expected somebody to say “because you are foreigner, your children should be more perfect than other teenagers”. But if I would have been Somalian or Roma, I probably would have had this sort of feeling that people were stigmatising me and my family. But being with a white skin, coming from Finland, I never had this idea of shaming, when in Finland I think that it happens more and more.
We make discrimination visible
And this is what we fight for in this office. We are handling individual complaints, and people can bring their issues. We then can find that they is discrimination, or that there was no discrimination. We can ask for some compensation, or apology, or change of behaviour in the authority, or even in the legislation, and people are usually happy about that. Interestingly enough, I think, people are even satisfied when we say that “we do not find any discrimination, it is just bad service, they should certainly apologise, but it is not about your ethnicity, it is just bad policy”. And we feel that working in this way we can create trust between these people and their host country and society, here in Finland.
We also make discrimination visible, we had a study last year, based on a Fundamental Rights Agency questionnaire. Initially it was intended to look at Somalians and Russians, but we did also one on Romas. It shows that almost 70 % of traditional Roma people, not the newcomers, those who have lived here for hundreds of years, had experienced discrimination during the previous year. This is really the top level in Europe.
However, for the Romas, I think that in a way their situation is improving. There are a lot of things which have happened. Today we can see that the Roma children are in schools, they have homes. They have problems of discrimination in the labour market, definitely, they have problems in the housing market, definitely: many of them are depending on public housing. But there are improvements.
For the Samis, the discussions on the ILO convention on rights of indigenous and tribal peoples in the Finnish Parliament is scary
The situation is different for the Sami minority, a traditional community in Finland, which has no socio-economic disadvantage, but of course their culture and their way of life are threatened.
Finland is now on the verge of ratifying the ILO 169 (an International Labour Organization convention, which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples). It has not yet ratified by a lot of countries, in Europe only Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and Spain already did it. They are now having the related law at the Sami Parliament, but the discussion in the Finnish Parliament is worrying: Finland had for a long time a policy meant to protect Sami’s people rights, with even specific legislation on health, on childcare, with very strong expression of the rights: for example Sami children have the right to have kindergarten in their own language, even if they do not live in the Sami area, even I they live in Helsinki region.
But now, when it is about ratifying the frame ILO instrument, suddenly there is a very big discussion on the ratification, in particular in the northern part of Finland, where people are afraid that giving more rights mean that it will be taken away from someone else, which is not the case. It is a strange debate. Of course, I champion this ratification very much, it is important as it create a process where we have to follow continuously the situation and we have to report to the ILO, it keeps the issue alive, and it gives the Samis the right to negociate with the government in all matters that concerns them, when until now they had only the right to be heard. Now, the right to negociate does not mean that they have to agree on everything, but there would be the need to have a proper and real dialogue where the parties are trying really to find a suitable common solution, which is not the case today.
The current law is certainly more than in most countries, but does not seem sufficient. And I am worried because it is difficult to know if the law will pass or not.
The policy on migration, on refugees, and aliens is implemented in Finland in the strictest manner, and everything is done with the purpose of giving a signal that it is not easy to come to Finland
For migrants, the general climate is quite unfavourable: the general idea is that we should be very hard on giving residency permits. Family reunification is almost strangled to nothing. We have children who came alone in Finland as unaccompanied minors, and the process of reunification is drawn out, so that they will become 18 and lose their rights to family reunification. We think that it is very serious. There is a very strict way of implementing the law, as if we would really have an issue, as if there would be a real need to be very strict, which is not the case. We live like we would be Italy, in a way, which is ridiculous, because we all know that it is in everybody’s interest that of children live with their families.
There are some parts of the Alien Law that are shameful, and there is just a law in Parliament stating that you can give a negative decision on a residence permit even if you know that you cannot return the person to his or her country. In these cases when you cannot implement a forced return, because the country is not receiving the person, for example because it does not agree on the fact that the person is their citizen, yet we can refuse the residence, which is ridiculous: does it mean that we force the person to become undocumented: which means living in a limbo in Finland, with no work, no easy access to housing … The person is illegal in a way, but the police cannot return her or him. This is evidently against human rights, you cannot oblige somebody to become undocumented or illegal. There was a lot of discussions about it, and the government only indicated that they will follow the situation to determine if it creates problems!
And I think there is a series of these kinds of decisions, at the same time as the government makes a programme on migrations: when they declare that “we would like to have more foreigners and we would like for foreigners to feel very welcome and be integrated”, it is a problem that they cannot get work, we have to address discriminations… How can you take this seriously when in the hard core decisions you are in fact basing everything on the idea that foreigners are in some way unwanted, or at least certain foreigners. The policy on migration, and on refugees, andaliens is implemented in Finland in the strictest manner, and everything is done with the purpose of giving a signal that it is not easy to come to Finland.
Fighting racism is not really on the political agenda
And then you do not address racism in a proper way. It is interesting to see that politicians have a lot of influence on the public opinion, which I always believed: when the Syrian situation was worsening and we were talking about taking a little more refugees in our quota, there were problems because municipalities had an autonomous decision power to decide to receive more refugees. It had happened before that many municipalities who had economically difficult situations, even if it was a matter of 30 or 20 or 10 refugees, which is not really a big burden considering the financial compensation from the state for the first years. In the Syrian case, suddenly the government decided to talk more seriously to municipalities asking them to take their responsibilities by increasing their quotas, and suddenly there was no problem, all refugees were placed… It is a small matter, but it shows that the politicians cannot say that they have to wait for the public opinion to change, they really have to be the forerunners and create the space where the public opinion can change. It is a fact that we have extreme-right people, but the more reason for other politicians to show that they are not sharing any values with them.
Now the Centre Party has got voters from the Finns Party, and as the other main parties they try to say as little as possible on the topic in order to avoid losing voters. It prevents them from expressing the differences of values with the extreme-right, there are very few discussions on human rights, and it sends the wrong message to the Finnish people. I was worried, so we tried to make some kind of initiative because we felt that there was a need for a debate on anti-racist political agenda, to have people express anti-racist opinions, to have anti-racist work in the politics. So we invited the ex-minister of Integration and some media people and activists from Sweden, and we invited politicians representing all parties to talk about what can be done to fight racism. And all agreed about fighting racism, but that was it! It was not an issue that they were thinking about! They were not asking themselves any question such as: what should be done? Which way could we fight racism? How can we make it be visible that we fight racism? It was something which was not on their agenda. It was the same with gender equality, there was another panel where the biggest parties were present, and very poor: of course, they were for gender equality, but they did not have anything to propose, and the women were very shocked in the audience, in front of the absence of concrete proposals.
What should be in the programmes of the political parties
I would actually to see the values supporting the human rights and civil rights, and the direction of the politics: I would like them to say: “if we have no more money, if we have to cut in the budgets, we consider that this is more important than that, based on our values”. I would like them to be more concrete, to really give us political options, and also to say how and why they decide on these options. Now they seem to agree on certain topics, but based on slogans, using marketing techniques, which makes people really confused, because you do not really know what they really stand for.
For minorities, I would certainly like to hear parties and politicians indicate that there is no danger for Finland, that we have to take care of everybody. We should not have a speech focused on the costs of individual rights, we need to take care of children, be sure that they have their families around them, and protect their rights in the same way. And the most important and probably the most difficult is to see that we are really fighting discrimination in the labour market, because entering the labour market is key for anyone’s integration, when at the same time people with foreign background have more difficulties than others: the more different you look, the more difficult it is, for example for Africans, or even for Finnish Romas. I think that there is also a need for public services, such as the police for example, to recruit more people with different backgrounds, so that people get used to it.
I think also that we have now a good tool for the long term with the new anti-discrimination legislation, which gives new duties for example to schools and workplace: they have to create plans, to think about the problems, why are people treated differently depending on their names or their looks? Why certain groups are never interviewed? Why certain groups are more dropping out of school? Why Somalis boys and girls become nurses and help nurses more than engineers? In the schools, these children claim themselves that the adults are telling them “you don’t need to go to the gymnasium, you don’t need to go to the University, but you can be a nurse, you can get a job there”. So in fact we do not treat people as individuals with the same chances.
For the legislation, there are a lot of small things to change, but the main problem is the way they are implemented
There are many laws that I would like to see voted in the Parliament. Definitely the one for healthcare for undocumented persons, in order to treat them in the same way as the Finnish residents: they are only some dozens or a few hundreds, we should not create a separate system for them. It would be important to have all included, the children who are here even 3 months may have no health care in their home country either, so it would make sense for example to allow them to be vaccinated or treated, which in a number of case would also benefit those around them in Finland.
Then I would definitely change the laws which concern family reunification for refugees and the proceedings there. I would change the laws that today create a situation where foreigners who have an outside EU background get a note in their identity files indicating that their original identity has not be verified, which prevent them from having a bank account …
I would also change some laws on human trafficking, in particular I would recommend to adopt the Swedish law on buying sex. It is very important, we need to address the demand, as we will never be able to help all the victims, it is an endless battle. And the criminals have really a big incentive in the money. So we need also to address the demand. The reason why we have not a big prostitution market in Finland is because we have had a very strict attitude towards prostitution, it has not be generally accepted as normal. But still it is too late to help somebody when they are very much hurt, and violated, even if it is the least one can do. It is not an enormous issue in Finland, but it is schocking that it simply exists here. There are domestic victims and foreign victims. We should take our responsibilities.
So there are a lot of things I would like to change. Of course, most of these things are going forward, but sometimes not sufficiently from my point of view. Money should not be a limiting factor when it is about human rights: if we do not have sufficient money, then we should share. But the costs are not that big, it is only marginal issues with limited financial impact. It certainly feels difficult to invest in these things that people do not feel close to, but we should realise that it would create definitely a more secure society, which is priceless.
There are in fact a lot of small things, but the main thing is the implementation: many of the laws would give room for a more human rights approach. For instance, when we talk about refugees and others, we have the Dublin EU Regulation that determines the EU Member State responsible to examine an application for asylum seekers seeking international protection under the Geneva Convention. But there is no necessity that we send back Syrians to Sweden or Italy when they request asylum in Finland, even if they first enter the EU there. We could investigate the claim in Finland, there would be no need to change the law. But we have the right to send them back, and we do it, even if Italy is already overwhelmed by the flow of refugees, as well as Sweden, and even if it would be more a more humane way to treat people. In particular, we receive a number of young people, barely over 18, almost children, and we send them back to Italy, where it is so difficult there for them!
When you work on these issues, you cannot stand aside and look into it in a very neutral way
In some way, I am in politics here, as I was in the Parliament: the ombudsman is non partisan, but not neutral. In the issues we have to deal with by law, we can be very political. We are not very scared of anything. We just came back today from the Parliament, and all along we were asking ourselves “Did we advocate too much? Did we go too far? Have we been too harsh?” Because sometimes you need to have a political nose to know how far you can push it.
It gives me satisfaction in this job, because I think we are very strongly on the political side for specific issues. It is not extreme, it is the simple implementation of basic human rights, which can go with different political sides. But today it is surprising to see that we are sometimes considered as some kind of extremists. When you work on these issues, you cannot stand aside and look into it