Legislation has not put an end to discrimination against Roma
Helsinki seen as an easier place to live than in the provinces
By Kaisa Hakkarainen and Jouni Kantola
Social worker Unelma Bollström, a member of the Roma minority in Finland, recalls how a shopping trip to a clothing store a couple of years ago ended abruptly at the door, when the shop-owner began to yell at her and accuse her of previous shoplifting incidents.
"It was offensive and it became embarrassing, when people began to gather around to listen. I asked for evidence, of which there was none. Now the case is being heard in court", Bollström says.
The outlawing of discrimination on ethnic grounds in the service sector has been set out clearly in the Penal Code and in Finnish legislation on equality. The Equality Act came into force in February 2004.
By way of a further example, a restaurant's "right to choose its clientèle" will be clarified this autumn and codified in law.
Access to restaurant services can be upheld only on justifiable grounds relating either to the preservation of order or the restaurant's operating principles.
Merja Söderström, legal counsel for the Finnish Hotel & Restaurant Association, explains that an established dress-code could be one reason for admission or refusal.
"But even then it is not possible to say that the formal dress associated with a specific culture would not satisfy the requirements of dressing up", notes Söderström.
On Tuesday last there was a report in Helsingin Sanomat on how the Roma residents of Pori were frustrated at the blunt refusal of entry to restaurants in the city [see attached articles].
A few years ago the Finnish League for Human Rights examined the same issue in Helsinki, where a quartet of Roma sought entry to restaurants on two evenings. The result was eleven reports to police of an offence having been committed: in six cases fines were issued against the restaurants barring entry.
Leif Berg, a former prison inmate and currently a youth worker with the City of Helsinki, explains that the standard operating procedure for preventing access of Roma to a restaurant is to claim that the staff cannot guarantee the individual's own safety.
"Another canny approach is to demand proof of age and ID, even in the case of a man in his sixties, and if he does not have ID along with him, then he doesn't get through the door", says Berg.
Unelma Bollström is convinced that each and every Roma representative experiences discrimination in some shape or form that limits his or her movements. In her view, the most serious problems are nevertheless the difficulty of getting an apartment, discrimination in recruitment for apprenticeships and the like, and the general indifference shown by the authorities towards the minority.
Project leader Annamari Salonen from the Finnish League for Human Rights believes the bar on the door to restaurants or shops reflects a wider discrimination against the Roma minority.
Rainer Hiltunen at the Office of the Ombudsman for Minorities reports that housing issues are the most common cause for Roma to contact him.
"It is discrimination and forbidden under the law if a municipality or a housing rental firm attempts to justify a negative decision on a prospective tenant on the grounds of the behaviour of some previous Roma tenant", states Hiltunen.
The opinion shared by Helsinki Roma Leif Berg, Unelma Bollström and Henry Bollström is nevertheless that the metropolitan area is an easier place to live than elsewhere in Finland.
"There are also a good many migrants here nowadays, who carry their own share of the ‘being different' burden", says Berg.
The trio took the view that these days there is less and less discrimination encountered on the streets. They believe the problems are not always direct, but that for instance a case of possible discrimination by the authorities requires of the victim the skills and the knowledge of how to stand up for his or her rights. These skills are not always present.
"It would be important for people to make the right complaints to the right people about alleged discrimination", Henry Bollström says.
The three Roma adults offer some positive feedback to the police. "Things have improved, although even now too often our requests for investigation of offences get put on the back-burner", says social worker Henry Bollström.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.6.2006
More on this subject:
BACKGROUND: Roma have been in Finland for 500 years
Previously in HS International Edition:
Discrimination against Roma leaves Pori residents astonished (7.6.2006)
Numerous Pori restaurants denied entry to Finland´s Roma minority (6.6.2006)
Why do the doors stay closed to us? (23.5.2006)
Equality Act - A toolkit against discrimination (.pdf file)
Finnish Hotel & Restaurant Association
Finnish League for Human Rights
Office of the Ombudsman for Minorities
KAISA HAKKARAINEN AND JOUNI KANTOLA / Helsingin Sanomat