Helsinki finds housing of large Somali families challenging
Family reunification will bring thousands of Somalis to Finland in coming years
By Kristiina Markkanen
The first Somali refugees arrived in Finland 20 years ago. Thus far in 2009, the figure for Somali asylum-seekers has been more than 1,000, of whom the number of minor asylum-seekers without a parent or guardian is nearly 200.
In the next few years, Finland is expected to receive thousands of Somalis, as the number of asylum-seekers has turned upwards.
Almost every applicant who has been granted asylum will apply for family reunification.
The increase in the number of new arrivals will challenge the social services, as Somali families are often large. Moreover, they seem to have grown further in recent years, as many families have several foster-children.
Over the past couple of years, Finland has received a couple of thousand asylum-seekers from Somalia alone. They have now begun to be granted residence permits, along with which they are entitled to apply for family reunification.
”We have examples of families with even 10 to 15 members”, says Kerstin Söderlund from the Immigration Unit of Helsinki’s Social Services Department.
In the course of the past two years, a total of some 300 Somali family members have arrived in Helsinki alone.
However, this number is small compared with those around 2,000 persons who are queuing for entry into Finland in various parts of the world.
Moreover, immigrants from all over Finland are also flowing to Helsinki.
Some families with more than 15 members have been seen queueing for council housing in the capital city.
One of those who have been long in a housing queue is Amina, who was an asylum-seeking child when she came to Finland - unaccompanied - four years ago.
When she was eventually granted asylum, she was also entitled to apply for family reunification. Eight months ago, her family of 15 members arrived in Finland from a Somali refugee camp in Addis Abeba.
Now the entire family - three generations - is living in a small two-room flat in Helsinki. There is no room for beds, which is why they have to put down a number of mattresses on the floor in the evening.
The whole extended family, including Amina’s grandmother, grandfather, sisters, brothers, father, mother, and her sister’s family with a small baby, have to lie down next to each other.
All members of the family have started language courses, and the children have begun to go to school.
Their life has got started, but they do not have a proper home as yet.
The family does not wish to have any publicity, but they gave us their permission to describe their situation.
”This is a major problem”, says Annika Forsander, the Director of Immigration Affairs in Helsinki.
Helsinki is poorly prepared for the situation. Only a week ago, the City Board ordered the officials in charge of town planning and residential areas to draw up an action plan relating to immigrants’ housing conditions.
In addition, research-based information is required. Even the data acquisition process is beginning at the last moment, as the situation is already turning from bad to worse, something which the city’s officials freely admit.
It has been known already for a couple of years that the upcoming family reunifications could multiply the number of arriving immigrants.
”One in four Somalis in their integration process is homeless or lives in poor conditions”, says Sari Karisto who is in charge of Helsinki’s immigration services. The matter was last studied in the spring.
When one household may comprise 15 to 20 members, even the large apartments in the Greater Helsinki area turn out to be too small.
”We have been forced to provide them temporary accommodation in small apartments, even for several weeks”, says Karisto.
Even a person residing in her or his friends’ small one-room flat or at a reception centre may apply for family reunion.
”A proper home should be arranged before the relatives arrive”, Karisto concludes.
At present, family reunification talks and DNA tests are being conducted in the Embassies of Finland in Addis Abeba and Nairobi in order to establish the family ties of applicants.
DNA tests are required as most of the applicants for family reunification have no identity papers. Many of them are illiterate.
At the same time, attempts are made to examine carefully the backgrounds of such applicants already in the country of departure.
The purpose of such scrutiny is to avoid situations where it turns out upon arrival that the foster-child has a family of his or her own with 10 members in Somalia.
In other words, contrary to previous allegations, the parents have not died.
A total of around 2,000 applicants are currently in the queue for a residence permit on the grounds of family ties.
The system is log-jammed as a result of the high number of arrivals and the intricacies of the investigations into family ties, to a point where an applicant may have to wait for an appointment for an interview for at least one year.
According to the Chairman of the Somali League in Finland, Said Aden, the family reunification process has been slow. He does not believe in any kind of influx of immigrants.
”I know that many people are looking forward to getting their families into Finland, but we do not have any idea of when they might possibly arrive”, Said Aden notes.
According to the EU Directive concerning family reunification, the applicant is to receive a decision within nine months from the submission of an application.
However, in exceptional cases a decision can be issued later.
In compliance with the Finnish immigration system, Somalis are treated as exceptional cases.
It has been proposed that the status of foster-children should be legally defined. They should be entitled to move to Finland only if it can be proved that they are de facto in the custody of their alleged foster parents.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 16.11.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
DEBATE: “Time running out on immigrant integration” (9.6.2009
Up to a third of “underage” asylum seekers prove to be older (5.5.2009)
EU survey: Half of Somali immigrants regard discrimination as widespread in Finland (24.4.2009)
Surge in number of underage asylum seekers (24.11.2008)
Number of asylum-seekers shows upward trend (9.6.2008)
Finnish Immigration Service
Somali League in Finland
KRISTIINA MARKKANEN / Helsingin Sanomat