The Nordic way: challenged by the refugee crisis,
The Norden Association Stockholm, 31.5.2016
”Lessons learned from the crisis: point of view of the Finnish Red Cross”
Mr. Pertti Torstila, President of the Finnish Red Cross
I want to thank the Norden Association for inviting us to discuss a topic that has been a major focus of action for most of us during the past year. The unprecedented situation with asylum seekers raises questions which must be answered, problems which must be solved nationally and through a broader European cooperation.
Red Cross Societies have a unique role in this work. We are auxiliary to the public authorities and share special responsibility in burden sharing. The authorities know that we are prepared and what they can expect from us. At the same time, we as humanitarian actors provide shelter, health and other assistance to vulnerable migrants. In both cases our action is based on need and necessity. In this double role the Red Cross Societies keep the basic principles of our Movement in mind. We stress that any efforts made by the EU and its Member States must comply fully with international treaties and obligations. Needs of the vulnerable are primary for us.
Lessons learned at the Finnish Red Cross during the present humanitarian crisis can be clustered around the following three words: preparedness, attitudes and integration.
Finland, alike many European countries, went through something quite exceptional last year. Finland, a country used to relatively low numbers of migrants and a few thousand asylum seekers yearly, suddenly last summer and autumn saw and felt how massively the world came to visit. In relation to its population, Finland received the fourth largest share of asylum seekers entering Europe.
The Finnish society and the Finnish Red Cross were quick to respond. Our Red Cross had a tested preparedness plan. We had exercised for large scale influx of migrants, and there were joint plans with national and local authorities on how to respond to this kind of situation.
In addition to the six existing reception centers in July 2015, a hundred new centers were opened and operated by December by the Finnish Red Cross. Over 1500 employees were recruited in the span of three months. Other operators, private companies and NGOs, opened their centers too. The opening of a Registration Centre in Tornio was exceptional even by international standards, and received attention as a model to be followed elsewhere. International experience and expertise of the Finnish Red Cross, including the Logistics Centre, were taken into use in this domestic operation.
The exercise as a whole has gone well and continues to be an important model for our future preparations. We have now a tested pattern for creating teamwork solutions between governmental, private and voluntary sectors.
The resources of our international preparedness system were used for the first time domestically and it became clear that better integration of domestic voluntary knowledge with international expertise is necessary.
We also realized that planning and preparedness must be coordinated and regularity monitored in order to avoid overlapping. We must have existing agreements with relevant partners in advance, and clear mandates on who does what. Guidelines and models were in place, but it took more time to put them into action than expected.
A common feature in Nordic countries is smooth cooperation between public and voluntary actors as well as open information sharing and ability to network. In an operation like this information sources are many, and not all are reliable. To find the right level of coordination between the public sector and the civic sector domestically and internationally, and to receive correct and timely information in order to get a full view of the situation, is of crucial importance.
In the Finnish Red Cross we are now assessing the entire domestic preparedness system against the experiences gained. We had good plans on paper, and we had trained for this kind of situation, but more can be done in advance.
We have in Finland a loud minority sowing hate speech and dominating discussion in the social media. Human values are being challenged and human rights norms are being questioned. Extremism and racism are flaunted in the streets and in political discussion. Even the Finnish Red Cross, a traditionally highly valued organization, has been targeted and attacked. Hate speech against volunteers was common during the peak period in September and October, and we witnessed violence against reception centers too. This is unusual in Finland and reflects degradation of traditional values.
At the same we have a silent majority which turned out to be very receptive and helpful towards the asylum seekers. They offered in tens of thousands to volunteer and helped in all possible ways. Our annual Hunger Day fundraising last autumn marked a new record of 4,2 million euros against 2,1 million in 2014 and our membership figures after many years of decline have begun to grow.
The public debate has a tendency to emphasize the downside risks, costs and negative consequences of migration. Global responsibility to protect vulnerable people and possible benefits of migration attract less attention. ”We cannot handle this large number of asylum seekers, they cost too much, they will change the profile of our nation, and they are a security threat”, are often heard slogans. These questions are real and they must be answered adequately in order to win hearts and minds of the people to support the humanitarian efforts. And yet, seen from the humanitarian perspective the suffering before our eyes cannot be hidden with political bargaining on numbers and financial arrangements. Behind the political theatre there is the desperate plight of refugees, men, women and children who are risking their lives in order to seek safety. Global migration has reached immense dimensions, with around 60 million people displaced owing to violence, war and natural catastrophes. No one leaves one’s home, family and entire life behind, on a whim. People flee for reason and these reasons will not disappear anytime soon. This crisis is far from over. We humanitarians are not political decision makers but we raise our voices when politics fails and hate speech begins to dominate.
The dangerous sea crossing to Greece and Italy has led to thousands of people losing their lives. Tens of thousands of people have been stuck in transit in countries along the migratory routes. The countries neighboring the war-torn Syria - Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are currently hosting millions of refugees in camps and communities.This places immense pressure on the resources of these countries. A dire humanitarian emergency has been created and images are shocking.
Ending of violence and finding political solution in Syria is the key the international community must find. We would not be here today if peace talks had been successful. The European focus has been mostly on the Syrian war but there are other war raging - Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Eritrea, just to mention a few. And there are also other reasons than man-made conflicts which push people to leave their homes. I’m thinking of global warming, climate change, natural disasters, famine and poverty. We know that the refugee situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
While longer-term solutions at a broader regional and international level wait to be found, national authorities are tempted to find quick-fix solutions. Solidarity is at a difficult test, public opinion is not easy and populism threatens democratic institutions. Agreements, if any, reached in Brussels are too quickly forgotten in national capitals. The failure of the EU to jointly take up its responsibilities and find durable and humane solutions is discouraging. Tightened asylum requirements, tighter criteria for family reunification, reduced legal aid to refugees, gates and fences erected, aim at curbing the numbers of arriving refugees.
We in the Red Cross are aware of the difficulties which the migration situation implies for the governments. Nevertheless, we are convinced that EU Member States and our Red Cross National Societies should address the challenge together. We expect more from our governments and stand ready to provide our support. In the midst of the current economic and social recession the questions regarding financial and other resources are critical but they cannot push aside our international humanitarian obligations, empathy and humanity.
I want to emphasize the role and responsibility of our political leaders. We cannot overlook the true nature of desperation. Our leaders must show, in speech and deed that violence and hate speech cannot be tolerated. Human being must be put back at the centre of our response, our governments’ and the international community’s action. States cannot focus on what happens inside their borders alone. Migration routes go across borders, and so must our joint response.
In Finland we have passed the first demanding test: reception of the asylum seekers. An even bigger question now is to succeed in integrating into society those who are allowed to stay. Early start of the integration process – already at the reception centers while waiting for the processing of applications – has been one focus area for the Finnish Red Cross. Long periods of uncertainty feed negative implications for the migrants concerned, and legitimacy of admissions policies.
The lesson of the present refugee flow is that our societies are changing rapidly and unavoidably. We cannot close our eyes and borders from this mass migration. It is critically important that the two actors in the integration process, immigrants and the society, become connected by sound integration policy. Refugees and asylum seekers should not be left waiting in camps. They should be enrolled in work, social and other programmes. In this, government policies that aim at steering integration should actively involve non-governmental players and immigrants themselves.
Finland stands much to learn from the experiences - successes and failures - in the integration programmes of our Nordic neighbors Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. Governments guide immigration policies, state authorities and general public institutions carry the main burden, but numerous non-governmental actors influence the integration process as well and the Red Cross is among them. There is a general perception in the world that the Nordics can give answers to many of the migration questions being posed just now. Therefore I call for the Nordic state and third sector actors in putting their best practices together. Durable solutions to the present migration problems must be found and we can be instrumental in helping to find the right answers.