Lawyer defending the weak turns fifty
When Johanna Suurpää was founding the Refugee Advice Centre in the
1980s, there were hardly any refugees to advise
By Hanna Syrjälä
The Ministry of Justice's Judicial Administration Department Unit for Democracy, Language Affairs and Fundamental Rights is located on Helsinki's Kasarmikatu. That is where Johanna Suurpää is currently to be found, working as the unit's director.
Her five-year stint as the Ombudsman for Minorities was interrupted when the Ministry of Justice founded the new unit.
"It was a shame, but this was such a fascinating new post," explains Suurpää in her office.
As the Minorities Ombudsman, Suurpää represented ethnic minorities and foreigners in Finland.
Her current duties have her pondering, amongst other things, how to get the younger generation voting in the municipal elections this autumn.
"The older demographics are active voters, and their proportion is increasing. At the same time, young Finns are voting less and less. This presents a challenge for democracy."
From the start of her legal career, Suurpää has tackled questions pertaining to immigration and human rights.
She was initially motivated to study law, or oikeustiede [literally translated "justice science"] because she felt that a lawyer's duty was to help those who were at a disadvantage.
"That combination of words was just so beautiful: justice and science."
She graduated in 1988. That same year, she founded the Refugee Advice Centre, which offered legal aid to refugees.
In the late 1980s, Finland was an entirely different place compared with the situation today.
There were few immigrants, and legislation concerning immigrants was vague at best.
"Every group to cross the border into Finland made the news. The law roughly stated that a person can be deported if advisable."
A lot has happened since then . According to Suurpää, most of the policy lines under the Aliens Act are just about in order, but foreigners landing here should be received more openly.
"Immigrants are not employed in all levels of society. There are hardly any in governmental positions. Immigrants should be given the opportunity to influence and participate in what happens in Finland."
During her years of work in the field, Suurpää has received plenty of feedback from those who oppose immigration.
During the years when she was involved in the Refugee Advice Centre, she received letters and phone calls - even, on occasion, visits to her home.
Later on, most of the debate moved to the internet.
Suurpää is pleased that there is lively debate, so long as it doesn't become aggressive.
In her capacity as Ombudsman for Minorities, she was questioned by users of the Homma-foorumi [an internet-born community of immigration-sceptic activists].
"It was actually a positive experience."
Recently, there has been criticism that attitudes towards immigration have become harsher and more negative. According to Suurpää, though, this isn't exactly true, at least not when seen from a broader perspective.
"Compared with the 1980s, Finland certainly hasn't become more racist. These days, acceptance of internationalism is on an entirely different level."
As attitudes have changed towards foreigners, they have also changed towards human rights. Previously, the entire term was scarcely known.
"When Finland joined the European Union in 1989, the European Convention on Human Rights was implemented.
That resulted in a very rapid activation on the ground", says Suurpää.
Suurpää sees no reason for Finns to hang their heads in shame as far as human rights are concerned, but notes that there is certainly room for improvement.
"All people should have the same basic rights. At the moment, however, the implementation of these rights may vary. For instance, the quality of geriatric care depends heavily on the individual's municipality of residence. This can lead to inequalities."
Suurpää's most rewarding career-moments were those where she worked directly with people.
"It has felt important to help, for example, some human rights activists from some country."
Individuals have also stayed in her mind.
"During my years at the Refugee Advice Centre, I heard stories about children being tortured. I especially remember one Lebanese girl who told me she still had nightmares about snipers. I thought, 'This girl is certainly not going to be sent back to Lebanon'. And she wasn't."
WHO: Johanna Suurpää
Born March 6, 1962 in Helsinki.
Head of a unit established in 2010 at the Ministry of Justice, which handles elections and the delivery of basic rights.
Ombudsman for Minorities from 2007 to 2010. Eva Biaudet (recently the Swedish People's Party candidate in the presidential elections) followed her in this task.
Former employment includes the Refugee Advice Centre, the Asylum Board, the United Nations, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs' human rights unit.
Bachelor of Law.
Married, with two children.
Hobbies include walking with her dog and various arts and culture interests.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.3.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
UN takes issue with Finnish expulsions of torture victims (13.2.2012)
Espoo shooting: why was Ibrahim Shkupolli not deported? (4.1.2010)
Work-based immigration grows by 60 per cent (22.5.2008)
Ministry of Justice: Unit for Democracy, Language Affairs and Fundamental Rights
Ombudsman for Minorities
Refugee Advice Centre
Hommaforum in English
HANNA SYRJÄLÄ / Helsingin Sanomat