“Politicians awake! Finland is sick, and the name of the disease is open racism.”
This is a warning of journalist Pekka Mykkänen, writing in Finland’s biggest daily, Helsingin Sanomat (HS, 2016). Mykkänen’s choice of title for his column in late March reflects a growing worry about a wave of xenophobia, hate speech and racism that is sweeping the Nordic country in the aftermath of the refugee crisis.
The ongoing refugee influx is proving to be something of a shock to the system for the country. Finland, a preferred destination for a large number of refugees, saw close to 33 000 asylum seekers enter its borders in 2015. This number is ten-fold compared to the previous year.
The effect of the influx has been polarization of the extremes of the migration debate. Unprecedentedly racist arguments and actions dominate the one extreme, while the other extreme is swift to label any criticism of migration policy as racism.
The middle ground -the majority – is reserved for a mostly sober discussion on the best ways to plan and finance the processing and welcoming the refugees in a humane way.
One manifestation of the racist extreme is the emergence of local militia, patrolling the streets of the towns where refugee reception centres have been established. The militia emerged after reportings of rape and harassment of local women by asylum seeker males.* These militia, operating under the name Soldiers of Odin, claim to operate solely in the name of security of local folk, but their leaders are proven to have far-right connections (HS, 2016). On social media, militiamen have made thinly veiled threats of the use of violence during their patrolling.
The city of Joensuu, in Eastern Finland, is one of the places where Soldiers of Odin patrolled in the winter months. A local woman, appalled at the militia, decided to get active and respond in kind.
Niina Ruuska started her own parody militia, the Sisters of Kyllikki. This group of women roamed the streets of Joensuu in January. Their motto: good deeds and empathy instead of force and violence.
Soldiers of Odin draws its name form Norse mythology. Sisters of Kyllikki is the namesake of ”Kyllikki” from the Finnish national epic Kalevala. She was the strong-headed wife of one the male heroes, a woman who sneaked out to village festivities against the will of her husband.
– We seem to have an ice age of empathy going on in this country. Let’s stop it with warmth and have a constructive debate! Ruuska exclaims.
Respect is a matter of learning
The story of Sisters of Kyllikki started on Facebook. Ruuska rallied all willing women of Joensuu to take to the streets with her. “Bring your babies with you, if you wish, and pack some warm pastries in your baskets”, she urged.
The Sisters share the same goal with the Soldiers of Odin: to create security. The means, however, are very different.
– We are armed with a smile.
And just like the Soldiers of Odin, also the Sisters of Kyllikki have their own code of conduct for patrolling.
– Our strategy is to have a jovial talk with whoever we meet on the street, if they want it.
And if the women should run into patrolling Soldiers of Odin, the strategy does not change: engage in conversation. However, a meeting between the two groups is yet to happen.
– We want to reinstate respect and trust in interaction, on the streets, all the way to social media, she explains.
This requires a learning process into media etiquette and ultimately media literacy.
– Adults should be an example to young people who are still learning the ropes of social media use. Adults should guide youngsters to understand the technique of argumentation and the “rules of the game”. Even if you disagree on something, do not take the debate onto a personal level!
A tidal wave of goodwill
The Sisters’ ranks have grown since Niina Ruuska first summoned likeminded women on Facebook. An offshoot group has been founded in the Northern city of Kemi. The groups’ popularity has been meteoric on social media, with a tidal wave of “likes” on the groups’ Facebook page. The end of the world is perhaps not nigh, after all.
-There are masses of people who give a thumbs up for a good cause. It is really motivating to get feedback, even from abroad, that our message has given people hope, Niina Ruuska says.
* Some twenty asylum seekers are under suspicion of harassment or rape in 2015 in Finland. The total number of reported rapes in 2015 is over a thousand cases. Source: Finnish Broadcasting company YLE
Unprecedented numbers of refugees
In the year 2015, 32 476 asylum seekers arrived in Finland. In the previous year, the figure stood at 3651. Upon arrival to the country, the refugees are mostly accommodated in reception centres, situated in different parts of the country.
Learning activities such as Finnish language lessons are arranged in the centres. The refugees can also work while waiting for the processing of their asylum application – but only after 3 months have passed since the application.
In the year 2015 7466 applications have been processed: 1879 asylum seekers have been granted asylum, while 1307 have been denied it. The rest are expired or unprocessed applications.
Source: Finnish Ministry of the Interior
Helsingin Sanomat. (2016): Mykkänen P. “Herätkää poliittiset päättäjät -Suomi on sairastunut ja taudin nimi on avoin rasismi”, [Politicians wake up -Finland is sick and the name of the disease is open racism] 21.3.2016
Helsingin Sanomat. (2016): Kerkelä, L. “Katupartioiden johdossa useita väkivaltarikoksista tuomittuja”, [Several leaders of street patrols are convicted of violent crime.] 5.1.2016
Adapted and translated from Finnish by Markus Palmén. A Finnish article on the topic was first published in Souli media, published by the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation.