IMAGE: PROTESTS WERE ORGANISED IN HELSINKI IN THE SUMMER AGAINST THE DICTATOR OF BELARUS ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO (ANTON’S HOME ALBUM)
EDITORIAL TEAM OF TINY VOICE
Anton’s youth and early adulthood have been overshadowed by living in two dictatorial regimes and a years-long uncertainty of where he will be living next month. This article is based on a Finnish article published earlier this month in Tiny Voice.
Tiny Voice interviewed Anton, a Belarusian citizen, who travelled to Finland to seek asylum in spring 2018. At the time, he was twenty-two years old. In spring 2020, Anton received a negative decision on his asylum application and appealed to the local administrative court. Now he is waiting for the court’s decision on whether he will be allowed to continue his life in Finland or whether he will be forced to return to Belarus, where he has visited last time in 2015. Anton believes that returning to Belarus would put him in danger.
In the beginning of the interview, we ask Anton to describe his experience of becoming an asylum seeker and his life as an asylum seeker in Finland.
‘When I first came to Finland, I wasn’t allowed to work for the first three months. They put me in a “hostel” in the city centre. There we were provided with food and a social benefit of 90 euros per month. Before I received a work permit, I collected cans and familiarised myself with the world in which I had arrived. I wasn’t accustomed to the freedom that I felt here. I had thought that I would be locked up in a prison-like setting, but everything was comfortable.’
By ‘hostel’ Anton means a reception centre (Finnish vastaanottokeskus) for asylum seekers.
Anton says that he no longer lives in the reception centre, because he encountered discrimination and bullying from his roommates while staying there. We ask Anton if he has a found stable housing elsewhere.
‘I have had to move very often. Only last year, I moved seven times. Once, my friends forced me to move out. But now I am living with another friend, and I don’t have to leave from here.’
A partial reason for Anton’s continual need to move has been the uncertainty of his income. The Finnish Immigration Service (Maahanmuuttovirasto, or “Migri”) pays a reception allowance (vastaanottoraha) of 316,45 euros per month to adult asylum seekers who do not dwell or eat in a reception centre. The amount is meant to cover both housing and living, unless the asylum seeker also has a paid job. Despite the scantiness of the benefit, Anton feels that he has not been left without means to cope.
‘I am almost always able to provide for myself. If I need help, the staff of the reception centre either gives me a place in the “hostel” or helps me in some other way.’
Apart from the asylum application process, Anton’s life involves many ordinary concerns, interests, and future hopes of a young adult. He likes the game Warhammer and building miniatures. He has a college degree in auto mechanics, but he considers studying for a care profession. Currently, he is learning Finnish and English. In addition to his native Russian language, he is fluent in Belarusian and Ukrainian and knows moderate English. In Finland, he has friends from both Finland and other countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. He hopes that, in the future, he will be able to live in Finland together with his Ukrainian partner.
IMAGE: WARHAMMER MINIATURE SOLDIERS CONSTRUCTED AND PAINTED BY ANTON (ANTON’S HOME ALBUM)
A year ago, Anton was diagnosed with a severe illness, due to which he has had to stay in a hospital a lot. When he heard that he needed an operation, his initial concern was that he would not be able to cover the expenses. As asylum seekers have a right to free essential health care, however, he was not required to pay for the vital treatment.
‘At the moment, my status is that of a petitioner,’ Anton reflects on his situation. ‘And I have had tree operations, all of them absolutely free.’
Anton’s illness has forced him to abstain from work. While living in Russia and subsequently in Finland, he has worked mainly in construction sites. In Finland, he has occasionally worked for a delivery company as well, distributing newspapers in the night. After his diagnosis, his doctor advised him to avoid physically demanding work, which meant that he would have to quit his job in a construction company. Nevertheless, Anton does not want to give up his work, since a work-based residence permit (työntekijän oleskelulupa) may turn out to be his only option of avoiding a forced return to Belarus.
We inquire Anton whether he would estimate that the reception allowance given to asylum seekers is sufficient for living expenses.
‘I believe that it is sufficient for someone who does not pay for a phone subscription, a travel card [for public transport], an apartment, or food. Otherwise, this money will be enough for no longer than a week.’
An asylum seeker in Finland can end up living for a long time in poverty and uncertainty of whether they will be allowed to stay or whether they will have to settle elsewhere. According to the current legislation, asylum applications submitted on or after 20 July 2018 must be processed in the Immigration Service within six months, but the processing times of applications submitted earlier are not limited. This has lead to a situation where earlier applications can take several years to process. A citizens’ initiative currently pending proposes that an unconditional residence permit should be granted to all applicants who submitted their applications before the year 2017 and are still waiting for their decisions.
Anton submitted his application in April 2018, which meant that the six months rule was not applied in his case. In March 2020, after waiting for two years, he received a negative decision on his application. The processing of his appeal against the decision in the administrative court has taken another two years of his life by now. During that time, Anton’s passport has expired, which has caused him various limitations: for example, he cannot draw cash from his old bank account nor open a new one, and he does not know whether he can be granted a work-based residence permit without a valid passport. In order to get a new passport, he would have to travel to Belarus, which would automatically terminate his asylum application process and, simultaneously, his current work permit (työlupa) based on his status as an asylum seeker.
We ask Anton whether he feels that he has been provided with sufficient support during the time that he has waited for the processing of his case, for example, in the form of information on matters concerning him in his native tongue Russian, reasonable chances for financial subsistence, and support for his mental and physical well-being. Instead of a straightforward answer, Anton tells us what he believes asylum seekers need most of all – that is, work.
‘Work – that is what asylum seekers need. Work means tax income for Finland, it means an occupation for asylum seekers arriving in depression, it means a rapid integration into society. You can’t take away work.’
When we ask Anton if he has encountered discrimination based on his status as an asylum seeker, Anton responds, however, that this has only happened in work-related situations.
‘[Employers] have repeatedly refused to offer me work without a Finnish residence permit. I have a right to work at least until the administrative court has made its decision, but my immediate supervisor and other employers don’t want to give me a job until I receive all documents.’
By documents, Anton refers to a residence permit and a valid passport. He clarifies, however, that the unwillingness of potential employers to hire him has been continual ever since he arrived in Finland and is connected most of all to his lack of a residence permit. However, some companies have offered him work without a contract: accepting such an offer would be risky, illegal, and useless for getting a work-based residence permit.
We ask Anton to describe, how he has experienced having to wait for a decision on his application for years and how the delayed process has affected his life.
‘Honestly, I’m so exhausted of fearing that I will be kicked out. I have applied for a work-based residence permit, but now it seems uncertain if I can get one, and I’m worried about the validity period of my work permit. I simply have to endure. I have fought with these papers for so many times that I am now just waiting for another paper to deprive me of something.’
We also inquire if Anton would like to comment on the political situation in Belarus. However, he is not eager to discuss Belarus.
‘I have lived in Finland for so long that I have removed both Russia and Belarus from my personal world map.’
Finally, we ask Anton if he has had other negative or positive experiences in Finland that he would like to share.
‘Negative experiences… apart from the bureaucracy that doesn’t allow you to survive here on your own? On the positive side, there are friends, work, beauty, and health care.’
In spite of the uncertainty and limitations that the status of an asylum seeker has brought, Anton feels that he has already settled in Finland and does not want to look for a home elsewhere.
IMAGE: ANTON ALSO LIKES TO GO FOR WALKS. THIS PHOTO WAS TAKEN BY HIS FRIEND DURING A WALK THEY MADE IN LAUTTASAARI (ANTON’S FRIEND’S HOME ALBUM)
. . .
A few days after the interview, Anton sends a message in which he tells that he is considering travelling to Kyiv, where his Ukrainian partner is defending the capital city against the Russian troops that have invaded the country. Despite his health condition and that he is a citizen of Belarus, Anton hopes that the Ukrainian embassy will agree to send him to defend the country against the invasion organised by the Russian and Belarusian dictatorships.
Useful links for asylum seekers:
- The Finnish Immigration Service (”Migri”): information on applying for asylum and other types of residence permit
- InfoFinland: basic information on moving to and living, studying, working and accessing services in Finland, also available in Russian and other languages
- The Finnish Refugee Advice Centre: legal aid and advice for refugees, asylum seekers, and other foreigners in Finland
- Website of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Finland: information about workers’ rights, employers’ responsibilities, and what to do in cases of unfair treatment at work or other problems at work place
- Victim Support Finland: organisation that provides advice and assistance for crime victims
- Assistance system for victims of human trafficking: if you suspect that you or someone else is a victim of human trafficking, you can contact the Assistance system, also anonymously. Available in Russian, Ukrainian, and several other languages.
- Finnish Courses: a frequently updated database of Finnish courses by various providers in seven big cities and online, also available in Russian
- Startup Refugees: a network that helps connect asylum seekers and refugees with potential employers
- Home Accommodation Network: a network that helps connect asylum seekers with people who are willing to offer them accommodation. They have recently published a guidebook for home accommodation that will be available in several languages
- Helpline of the Ukrainian Association in Finland: a phone service for Ukrainian asylum seekers
- Commu: a mobile application for requesting and offering help in your local area. The application is actively participating in helping Ukrainian refugees in cooperation with the Ukrainian Association in Finland. Also available in Ukrainian.
EDITORIAL TEAM OF TINY VOICE
Anton’s interview was conducted in Russian and English.