Helsinki’s unity makes its welfare state


Picture of Ritva Viljanen
Ritva Viljanen

Ritva Viljanen is Deputy Mayor for Education and Cultural Affairs, City of Helsinki

As with many other European cities, the flood of asylum-seekers late last summer caught Helsinki by surprise. In 2015, a total of 32,476 asylum-seekers came to Finland – ten-times more than in the previous year. In proportion to the population of Finland, that number is among the highest in Europe: 591 asylum-seekers per 100,000 inhabitants. But Helsinki did not stop dead in its tracks. The city and local organisations immediately started arranging accommodation for the newcomers and planning for their integration. At the same time, thousands of volunteers went to the stations to greet the refugees, feed and clothe them and accompany them to reception centres.

The starting point for the Finnish integration policy is an equal Finland. We must create opportunities for immigrants to reach a situation equal to the rest of the population in society, both in terms of rights and responsibilities.

The number of volunteers surprised us all, and it also generated new volunteer networks

Like elsewhere in Europe, the significant increase in the number of asylum-seekers coming to Finland has provoked hate speech and even demands to close the borders. But it has also inspired an unforeseen expression of generosity from thousands of people. Throughout the Autumn, local volunteers collected massive amounts of donated clothes and toiletries and distributed them at refugee reception centres. Volunteers have also worked as language teachers, support personnel, chaperons and even shared hobbies. The number of volunteers surprised us all, and it also generated new volunteer networks. The City of Helsinki instantly started coordinating volunteer activities by bringing different organisations to the same table. At these joint meetings, people continue to share experiences and plan joint functions. Training and employment counselling is arranged for volunteers, and have proved very popular and important for coping with the workload.

It is vital that we create an enduring sense of affinity between the newcomers and the locals. There must be places in the city where different population groups can meet and get to know each other. Such meetings reduce public prejudice against asylum-seekers and allow newcomers to feel accepted in our society. This is why we will soon launch a new café meetings experiment. The city and various humanitarian organisations are cooperating to organise pop-up cafés across the city, especially close to reception centres. The objective is to create places where asylum-seekers and citizens can meet for a cup of coffee and there dispel any negative rumours and assumptions. Other city bodies have also worked actively to arrange activities for asylum-seekers. For example, the Youth Department has arranged football practice for asylum-seekers twice a week, and each event draws almost 60 players. There have also been music and visual arts activity groups for asylum-seeker musicians and artists, who have since performed at various events in the city.

The fantastic activities of the volunteers and local organisation have shown just how much goodness the people of Helsinki possess. Volunteers have been very helpful to the humanitarian organisations and the reception centres, but above all to the asylum-seekers. After all, these human encounters are what help people cope with the challenges of everyday life and make us all feel important, welcomed and human.

All asylum-seeking children in Helsinki are guaranteed a place in school

Quite often, discussion about the integration of asylum-seekers focuses on their chances to find employment. To that end, all asylum-seeking children in Helsinki are guaranteed a place in school. Social workers at the city’s reception centres work with families to estimate when it is appropriate for the child to start school, and what preparation is needed. The schools of Helsinki already offer preparatory education for immigrant children at different levels, as well as for different ages, to ensure that a newcomer’s basic knowledge meets the requirements of the Finnish education system. These classes include basic reading and writing courses, Finnish language and cultural courses as well as education that combines language and vocational studies. Short introductory Finnish language and cultural courses are also available to asylum-seeking adults.

A distinctive feature of Helsinki is that the schools here receive an appropriation for so-called affirmative action – extra financing a school can use to hire additional teachers or educational material. The system has been in place for more than 15 years, and is used to ensure the equality of schools across the city and prevent segregation. The following criteria are considered when granting the appropriations: the share of adults in the school’s admission area without upper-secondary education, the average annual income per citizen in the area, the share of foreign language speakers in the school and the attractiveness of the school. Last year, schools were granted a total of €2.55m for affirmative action, and the results have been good. Even though people with immigrant backgrounds still tend to settle in certain areas, there are no ghettos in Helsinki. This has been supported also by Helsinki’s city planning, where rental flats of various sorts are built in the same areas as owner-occupied flats to create an economically and socially diverse population.

Helsinki aims to create an atmosphere where there are many different kinds of Helsinkian

Helsinki has grown rapidly over the last 25 years, and the number of foreign language speakers has grown in an unprecedented way. Helsinki currently has 630,000 inhabitants, 13.5% of whom speak a mother tongue other than the official languages Finnish or Swedish. That figure is relatively small compared to the other European capitals. But the number of immigrants in Helsinki has more than doubled over the past ten years and estimates show that by 2030, 23% of Helsinki’s population of 709,000 will be speakers of a foreign language. Our continuing challenge is therefore to reinvent our own methods, to make Helsinki’s approaches and policies even more international and open than today.

It is good to remember that in the future, all the countries of the world will be increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Meeting people is the most important thing in the growth of a peaceful multicultural environment. Integration happens locally, among the people. This is what we in Helsinki want to invest in. Everyone can play a part in mutual interaction, but we must remember that the majority always has the greater power, and thus our responsibility is special. The emergence of multiculturalism challenges the welfare state’s feeling of solidarity, but we can do something about this. Helsinki aims to create an atmosphere where there are many different kinds of Helsinkian, and we are happy about the prospect of each of them.

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