Finland Calibrates Its Flow of Immigrants To Let In Only a Few

A homogenous society debates an open door

IN an old-fashioned Finnish shopping hall where bland Baltic herring makes mouths water, Habib Dohogu spends his days trying to tempt locals with extra-spicy kebab sandwiches.

Four years ago, Mr. Dohogu managed to be one of the 500 refugees Finland takes in each year. The Iraqi Kurd eventually sent for his family, and now works six days a week.

Some Finns have developed a taste for spicy food, and Dohogu is not complaining. Next year the tall, well-dressed businessman expects to become a citizen of this homogeneous Nordic nation of 5 million.

He's an exception to the rule in this isolated country, where only 1,300 people - refugees and others - are allowed to immigrate annually. If the United States is seeking a model on restricting immigration, they might take a look at Finland's tiny quota system, which immigration officials here say could be increased at least eight times without putting undue pressure on the economy.

Paradoxically, however, those refugees that do gain entrance to Finland receive free housing, medical care, monthly stipends, and language lessons. In a nation struggling with painful budget cuts and an unemployment rate of 18 percent, such perks have prompted some resentment. They also may be exacerbating what some see as Finnish xenophobia, a tendency which is behind the government's tight immigration policy.

"The atmosphere ... is that during World War II we fought to make ourselves a free country, and now we are the ones who should enjoy the fruits of our country," explains Mervi Virtanen, chief of the Office for Refugee Affairs, which has lobbied for a larger quota. "On the grass-roots level, people are asking themselves,'Why should I share my wealth with other people?' "

"Many people say that perhaps we should take in more refugees. But it's no use to take them if you can't give them a better life," says Kauko Holopainen, spokesman for recently elected Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen. "We simply don't have the resources."

The bulk of today's quota refugees are from Iran and Iraq and were hand-picked with the help of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A few years ago they came from Somalia; before that, the former Soviet Union and Vietnam.

In part to prevent ethnic ghettos from forming, the government sends refugees to different municipalities. They are often placed in small villages where locals have never seen a foreigner.

"Finnish people are not yet used to the fact that we have colored people who ... speak very good Finnish," says Ms. Virtanen.

Educational programs have been set up in recent years to teach children about the growing number of foreigners in their midst. But for people like Dohogu, who speaks enough Finnish to serve his customers and carry on a simple conversation, Finland will never feel like home. "I don't have any Finnish friends," he says from his kebab stall. "Finns don't like foreigners."

Antti Seppala, the government's Ombudsman for Aliens, meets daily with immigrants and says that many see their social worker as their only Finnish friend. "Finns are shy when it comes to foreigners," he says. "When they are drunk they aren't shy, but then there are problems of street fights and violence."

Zairean student Mark Ngabidulu-Manilindu says he has suffered only one racial incident in his four years here. Three Finnish men drove up behind him and began to taunt him.

"They began to insult me...." he recalls. "I told the police and they helped me and everything was fine. But I understand that anyone can have problems like that. Nobody's perfect."

Mr. Ngabidulu-Manilindu, who is a Jehovah's Witness, says he faced religious persecution in his home country. He doesn't regret the move here, although he has spent most of the time being shuffled around refugee centers. Would he marry a Finnish girl? "Love is blind," he says, laughing. "I just want to marry a girl who loves me. But she must be a Jehovah's Witness, of course."

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