There has been a strange happening in Finland these last days: the Parliament held an excellent debate on the limitation of family reunification for refugees, and there was almost no media coverage, even if it was quite interesting. And, against all logic, a decision purely motivated by low-level political arrangement from last autumn will hurt families and create problems in Finland.
New family reunification rules in Finland
For those who have missed the last episodes , the rules on family reunification for immigrants from outside the EU are being tightened, and a vote is soon expected in the Parliament. On 7 April, the Government submitted its proposal to Parliament for amending the Aliens Act. According to Finland’s government website, “the Government proposes that the criteria for family reunification be tightened so that they comply with the EU Family Reunification Directive“, which is a joke: the directive was not obliging countries to tighten reunification rules, more the opposite, it was written to oblige some countries to accept family reunification.
In the future, beneficiaries of international or temporary protection would be required to prove that they have sufficient means of subsistence before they could exercise the right to family reunification. For your information, the lower monthly income limit would be 1,700 euros. If the spouse is accompanied by two children, the minimum required monthly income would rise to 2,600 euros net (after taxes).
However, there is one exception that the government was obliged to implement, because it is a part of the European directive: family members of those granted asylum can apply for family reunification within three months after the sponsor has received the asylum decision and they are not required to provide proof of sufficient means of subsistence. The same would apply to refugees admitted under the quota. After these three months, the condition of proof of sufficient means of subsistence would also apply to them.
Religious leaders against the new regulation
After different protests against the new legislation, according to Yle News, Helsingin Sanomat published an opinion piece contributed by the high-profile leaders of seven different religious communities in Finland, asking that the state reconsider its tightening of family reunification policy in Finland.
In the piece entitled “Asylum seekers have an equal right to their family”, the leaders remind Finland’s government to adhere to the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The main religious leaders have signed it: the chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Finland, the archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, the Archbishop head of the Finnish Orthodox Church joined, the bishop of Finland’s Catholic Church, the leader of the Finnish Islam community, the chair of the Islamic Council in Finland and the head of the Finnish Ecumenical Council were involved, in a quite rare ecumenical move.
In the letter, the seven leaders say they share a concern about hardened attitudes in Finland and what they say is the slow dismantling of equal human rights in European society. They argue that every child and parent is entitled to protection and care, and that families have a right to live together, regardless of their social, cultural or religious background.
Even if M. Sipilä and M. Soini consider themselves religious, M. Sipilä as a member of a fundamentalist protestant group called Lestadians, and M. Soini as a catholic, there was no reaction except indifference on their behalf.
The debate in the Parliament
The debate in the Parliament, which was lasting several hours, was particularly interesting. The question of the 2 600 euros was considered quite outrageous, as there is less than 50 % of the people in Finland who have this type of net income, so there is practically no chance that a refugee could get a job with this kind of income before many years. This kind of rule is also applicable to minors coming alone: a 16 years old boy or girl will not be able to have his widow mother join him or her because one cannot see how they could get 1 700 euros income monthly.
The government presented the 3 months rule as a solution for them. However, even parliamentarians from the coalition noted rapidly that it is quite difficult to respect this rule for the Middle-East population in the middle of a war: family members have to go to a Finnish embassy with their passport, and Finland has no real embassies in the war zones. Furthermore, it is quite impossible for Syrians or Irakians in the war zones to get an passport in less than 3 months. Even if they had it, they would have to travel to a neighboring country such as Lebanon or Turkey, which is not so easy. The 3 months rules is impossible to respect, as noted by a majority of MPs.
There was also a more general discussion about the opportunity to facilitate family reunification for refugees accepted in the country. The new legislation will make it practically impossible, but there is a danger that this absence of family will be an element of destabilization which will feed unrest and extremism in Finland, when a person in a family would be more prone to integration in the Finnish society. This quite sensible approach did not change the mind of the government. One can ask why, and we have the answer.
A shameful agreement
The interesting part is that, according to Yle News, in February, when the proposal was submitted for comments, Center Party parliamentary group leader Matti Vanhanen, who has a good knowledge of international affairs and a social approach, said he understood the concerns raised: “I’m not surprised that these financial limits have sparked critical comments.“But he said something else which show how this decision was made: he added that the proposal is part of a larger concept that the government had agreed last autumn.
It is not surprising: this initiative, contrary to what a lot of people are thinking, is not a part of the government’s programme. It comes, as explained by M. Vanhanen, from a deal done in Autumn 2015, when the Finnish government was almost collapsing over the health and social services reform, the SOTE reform: Kokoomus, the Finnish conservatives lead by Alexander Stubb, wanted to limit the number of regions after the reform to 5, for efficiency reasons, and Keskusta, the Center party of Prime Minister Sipilä, wanted 18 regions . An expert group has proposed a maximum of 12 regions, and everybody was expecting that a compromise would be agreed on this basis.
But there was no agreement, because M. Sipilä wanted to have a majority of regions where his party had chances to win the future regional elections in a maximum of regions, and get the relevant managing positions. He had to get the support of the 2 other parties: so he accepted for example the privatization of the health system (see our previous article) in order to get the conservative (Kokoomus) vote, and he gave among other elements this reform of family reunification to the populist/extreme-right party of M. Soini.
One could say that the refugees’ families have been sacrificed for politics and big money, but in Finland a deal is a deal: even if this story of family reunification is a stupid decision, nobody will change it.
One last word: this is what happens when you invite a government a party who is not caring about human rights. Everybody, even M. Sipilä, gets contaminated. The wives and children of refugees will stay in Syria, Irak and Lybia, in the war zones, alone…