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Kolumnister Alexis Kouros Guardians of an empty land

Guardians of an empty land

Alexis Kouros

This January, a 25-year-old snow-dropper from Espoo decided to sell all of his belongings and move to Thailand. He put an advert on huuto.net (a Finnish version of the ebay), which caught the attention of a journalist. "Ville fulfils his dream of which many share but don't dare to carry out," wrote Helsingin Sanomat. The snow dropper soon became a celebrity and his story became the most read online article in the history of HS.fi. In hundreds of comments, readers expressed their encouragement and wished that they could do the same.

I couldn't help noticing two things that were left out of the reports and discussions. First, a Finnish taboo was openly broken, i.e. you are not supposed to talk about any other place in the world being better for living in than Finland. Even in the darkest days of winter, when you remove piles of snow covering your car and risk slipping on the ice, you'd better be open and expressive about how lovely the Finnish winter is and how lucky we are to have "four seasons". After all, being born in Finland is supposed to be like winning the lottery.

Second, I couldn't help wonder how this story would have been reported and what had readers commented if a Thai beach attendant was bored of renting out sun-beds to tourists (this is apparently what Ville is planning to do in Thailand) and was planning to sell all of his belongings in an effort to move to Finland - to, lets say, clear the snow from roof tops? How would the journalist write the story and how would readers comment?

Well, if not an exact reverse of this story, a similar exchange occurs every year when groups of Thai men and women come to northern Finland to pick berries for a month and go back with a modest income. Although not planning to stay - and undoubtedly beneficial for the Finnish economy - unfortunately the reaction that they get is not nearly as positive as what Ville has got.

This story, somehow reveals the twisted view dominating the issue of immigration in Finland at the moment. Globalisation and the "free" movement of people is a two way street, but is not always seen as such.

There are around 1.5 million immigrants of Finnish decent living around the world. Between the years 1965 and 1970, an average of 21,000 people left Finland for other parts of the world, mainly to Sweden, Australia and the US. Finns are the number one foreign minority in Sweden. Without emigration, the population of Finland would today be 7 million.

Most of these people who left Finland for other countries did so in search of a better life, more sun or for love. Statistically, the 140,000+ people from different countries living in Finland have ended up here exactly for the same reasons. Only about 30% of foreigners living in Finland are refugees or asylum seekers, many of whom have been brought here as quota refugees by the Finnish government itself.

So Finland, being a clear "winner" in the global peoples' movements - with more that seven times more human exports than imports - why and what is all of the fuss about the problem of immigration?

Some may say that the Finns who left for other countries were mostly good citizens and hard workers who benefited the societies that they migrated to - and that the immigrants that we get coming to Finland are not always useful and lots of them are criminals. Well, according to YLE news, Finns are the largest ethnic group in Swedish prisons. There were 350 Finnish nationals in Swedish jails at the end of 2010. By comparison, there were 200 foreign nationals in Finnish prisons, i.e. from any country in the world.

Another argument would be that Finland is a small and homogenous country and that the rapid flow of foreigners has caused a reaction. In fact, the rise of the "immigrant-critical" and xenophobic thinking has been even more swift than the influx of foreigners.

Polls give the True Finns (perussuomalaiset) increasingly higher support estimates, rising from a mere 6% to up to 17%, in less than 2 years. In a country with 2.7% of immigrants, these popularity levels are out of proportion by any standards.

In Sweden, which has a 14.3% immigrant population the Sweden Democrats polled 5.7% of the votes in last year's elections. Contrary to the lenient reception that the True Finns have received in Finland, the Sweden Democrats were boycotted by the media and all other parities and numerous celebrities pledged with the people not to vote for them.

Belgium, which is the size of Kainu province, has double the population of Finland and a 7% immigrant population.

Geert Wilder's anti-immigrant party gained 15% of the votes in the Dutch elections. Then again, The Netherlands is 10 times smaller than Finland and has a population of more than 16 million, with 10% being immigrants.

Then again Rotterdam has a Moroccan born mayor and there are several immigrants in the parliaments of Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Belgium.

Finland is the sixth-largest country in Europe and has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Belgium, Denmark and Netherlands put together, would fit into Finland three times yet their combined population is 32 million, which is more than six times the population of Finland.

In a recent interview with Helsingin Sanomat, Timo Soini, the chair of the True Finns party, admitted that immigration is a minor issue in general but that it is a major issue for - by his estimate - 10% of the party's supporters. "These are nationalistic, angry young men who like sausages (makkara) and motor sports and for them immigration is a big issue."

So, if anti-immigrant sentiments account for only 10% of the True Finns' potential voters, what is behind the rest of the 90%. Protest, some say. "People have a right to be angry," said the leader of the National Coalition party Jyrki Katainen himself. Well, supporting a party that doesn't have a programme on anything - not even an immigration policy - just for the sake of protest, sounds like jumping into a broken car because your train is slow.

Despite Soini's honest confession, immigration seems to be one of the major themes for this years parliamentary elections in general, and for the True Finns in particular.

Is it then patriotic to divert nations attention from real problems to a minor one, which is much easier to digest, to get their votes?

Emotions aside, just a little bit of common sense is enough to acknowledge that immigration is not in the Top 10 list of Finland's real problems at the moment, which would be in the areas of alcohol, domestic violence, financial crisis and national debt, loss of international compatibility and an ageing population, to name a few.

Could it be that these angry patriotic men are afraid that immigration will become a problem in the future if it is not controlled?

According to the United Nations world-population prospect, Finland's population in 2050 will be 5,445,000. From this number, every third person will be aged over 60. No need to go too far into the future; 27% of Finns will be over 60 by 2015.

Net migration to Finland is estimated to remain on average 6,000 per year.

It goes without saying that immigration has its problems and the need for a well functioning and fair control system is obvious. But its also essential to realise, that the world has changed for good and people move from country to another more than ever.

We all have to cope with the new global society where Internet and cheap flights, among others, connect every small village to another in other side of the globe.

If immigration would become a problem for Finland in the near future, I dare to claim that it would be the lack of people willing to move here despite rising demand for a larger work force, because an ageing Europe will soon have to compete for its work force from developing countries.

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