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Immigration debate heats up ahead of Finnish vote

Monday, February 14, 2011

Helsinki - As Finland’s April elections draw nearer, the country’s tiny foreign population finds itself the focus of debate, with the anti-immigrant, nationalist True Finns party expected to make runaway gains.

The party has catapulted to popularity thanks to its affable, charismatic leader Timo Soini and its “Finns-first” message, seen by many as xenophobic in a country where immigrants make up just 2.9% of the population.

“Immigration is a problem and not a solution,” Soini has argued in television debates.

Although the party won only 4.1% in the last elections in 2007, a recent surge in popularity saw it register 16.2% support in one January opinion poll published in Finland’s daily of reference Helsingin Sanomat.

But the party cannot quite shake off the taint of racism.

A small fringe group of the party, led by Helsinki city councilman Jussi Halla-Aho, has published an election manifesto blasting multiculturalism.

Halla-Aho was convicted last year over blog comments linking Islam to paedophilia and saying that Somalis are pre-disposed to mugging people and living on the dole.

The True Finns’ leadership, however, plays down Halla-Aho’s influence.

“Every party has these young radicals,” says founding member Raimo Vistbacka, a member of parliament since 1987.

Vistbacka insisted that official party policy, while sceptical of immigration, was not extremist or xenophobic.

“I can’t understand how it’s extreme for us to want immigrants to honour Finnish laws and legal system, and to participate in building Finnish society,” he said.

Political analysts say that the True Finns has been the most successful in transforming immigration scepticism into popular support – but they also argue that the party by no means has a monopoly on anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“Parliament long used pretty merciless and harsh language in the discussion of immigration,” says writer and political analyst Jussi Foerbom.

In his recently published a book on parliamentary immigration debates, Foerbom pointed out that mainstream politicians, such as senior National Coalition parliamentarian Ben Zyskowicz used similar rhetoric.

Last year, Zyskowicz insisted that Somali children smuggled into Finland should be deported back to Somalia to teach their families a lesson.

Politicians have been making similar comments for years, Foerbom argues.

In 1998 for example, Centre Party MP Sulo Aittoniemi’s expressed fears that “mud-hut residents” were plotting to bring their extended families to bask in the luxury of Finnish social welfare.

Back then, Somalis were just beginning to arrive in Finland: since then they have become Finland’s largest non-European immigrant population.

“I believe that as the elections get closer, some people will say things just to get votes,” said Abdirashid Dirie, a naturalised Finnish citizen and chairman of the Somali League.

The League is Finland’s largest umbrella organisation of Somali associations.

“The tone hasn’t changed that much, (but) the discussion itself has gotten louder,” Dirie said.

Yet attitudes to African immigrants had improved markedly since Somalis first began arriving as refugees two decades ago, he added.

Abdirizak Mohamed, who fled the war in Mogadishu and moved to Finland more than 20 years ago, agreed.

“People used to say ‘nigger’ a lot,” he recalled. “They didn’t even know it was a bad word to use.”

And although analysts point out that the True Finns’ party includes some hardline elements, they also say it is far less extreme than its would-be counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

“Compared to Europe’s extreme right, the overall party rhetoric is so much more conciliatory,” said cultural policy professor at Jyvaeskylae University, Miikka Pyykkonen.

Source: AFP