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Cooler heads prevail? Finland keeps door open for refugees.

While the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris spurred several European nations to slam their doors to Syrian refugees, Finland has stuck to its calm and collected welcome.

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    Asylum seekers and locals play soccer during the 'Let's play bAll together' event, which is a sports and welcoming event arranged by the locals for refugees, at a refugee center in Hennala, Lahti, Finland, on Sept. 30. Though Finland has had a checkered reputation in past dealings with refugees, it has responded to the refugee crisis with dedication – and minimal backlash.
    Martti Kainulainen/Lehtikuv­a/Reuters/File
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Finns, rightly or wrongly, are known for many things: their reticence, their efficiency, and minding their own business and asking others to do the same.

That last part may no longer be valid as the country copes with an unprecedented influx of migrants. As of Nov. 1, Finland has seen more than 27,000 asylum seekers stream across its borders this year – the fourth largest intake of any European country in proportionate terms – putting the once hidebound country’s nerves, as well as its vaunted social contract, to the test.

“The overload took us all aback,” concedes Pekka Hyvonen, the Foreign Ministry’s newly appointed senior adviser on migration. “Suddenly the numbers were 10-fold what we saw last year. We were forced to improvise.”

But where until recently Finns had a reputation for being xenophobic – in part because of the hostile treatment accorded the wave of Somali refugees who arrived in the mid-1990s and found themselves shunned by both government and citizenry – today Finland is endeavoring to set an example for how to deal with refugees in a calm and organized way, even in the wake of the Paris attacks. Some even suggest that the Finnish character itself is morphing, as Finns become more tolerant of immigrants.

'Adaptive and flexible'

By most accounts, the Finnish response has markedly improved.

“Like the rest of Europe, Finland was not prepared for the refugee crisis, either in practical terms or political ones,” says Eddy Hawkins, an American journalist working for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting System. “However, unlike elsewhere, the Finns very quickly formulated a response and started dealing with it in a methodical and measured manner. Registration hot-spots were set up. The basic needs of asylum seekers were met.” More than 70 reception centers were established around the country.

Where the government led, the Finnish people seem to have followed. Although there have been a number of anti-asylum seeker incidents – including, most recently and seriously, the stabbing of an Iraqi asylum seeker by a native Finn last Wednesday – Finland has not seen the sort of violence that has taken place in Sweden, where several asylum seeker centers have been put to torch.

“The latest wave of asylum seekers is testing our society in an unprecedented way,” says Petteri Orpo, the Finnish minister of the interior. “But these past few months have also proven Finnish society to be adaptive and flexible.”

To be sure, not all has been sweetness and light. In August, most Finns polled said that they would rather live next to an alcohol rehabilitation center than a mosque. And in September, after the head of the Finnish Lutheran Church urged churchgoers to take in refugees, several hundred members resigned. There also have been grumblings about the expense of taking in so many refugees at a time of extended recession.

Further, there have been a number of incidents, including an alleged rape by two Afghan asylum seekers this week, that could foreshadow a turn in the Finnish mood.

Still, thus far, discordant voices have been in the minority, and the government has avoided hasty reactions, even to the Paris attacks. While Sweden raised its terror alert to the highest level after the attacks, the Finnish Security Police refused an increase in Finland.

A change in character?

Some observers, like Mr. Hawkins, even suggest that the Finnish character is changing in response the crisis.

“Finland is on the periphery of Europe, the population and culture largely homogeneous,” he says. “Finns themselves are personally hospitable, however for various reasons – the climate, and more recently the poor economy – it has never much appealed to or drawn many immigrants. Frankly, many Finns are uncomfortable with immigrants, not because of some inbred prejudice or malice, but because of the lack of a social model for how to deal with groups of ‘others.’”

“This, though,” contends Hawkins, who has lived in Finland for 40 years, “is changing rapidly.”

For his part, Timo Soini, the Finnish foreign minister and head of the right-wing Finns Party, has remained in step with the government's message. Though his party is known for its anti-immigrant views, it has not broken with its coalition partners.

“Terrorism and the refugee crisis should not be confused with one another,” Mr. Soini told a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels two weeks ago. “There is a danger that innocent people fleeing tyranny and terrorism will come under suspicion.”

In the meantime, support for the Finns Party, within which Soini has come under fire for hewing to the government’s “be cool” message, has remained frozen at 11 percent, 6.5 points below its showing in parliamentary elections last spring.

By contrast, the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats have, according to the most recent polls, become that country’s most popular party. Though Sweden, it should be noted, has taken in more than 160,000 refugees this year, far more than Finland.

Logistical limits

Still, as government officials stress, Finland has only passed the first test, that of welcoming and processing the new arrivals in a reasonable and efficient way. The bigger test – that of integrating those asylum seekers whose applications are ultimately accepted (approximately half, according to the Ministry of Interior’s estimate) – remains.

Finnish officials also stress that the country will not be able to cope with the kind of numbers it has seen recently for much longer. The Ministry of Interior has declared that it could no longer guarantee new arrivals the same high-quality reception centers as before.

“We are approaching our logistical limits, and people should know that,” said Mr. Hyvonen. “However that does not mean that we are approaching the limits of our tolerance.”

“The situation divides opinion, and it is not and won’t be smooth sailing,” says Interior Minister Orpo, who represents the center-right National Coalition Party, “however despite the differing political leanings within the government coalition we have worked well together and been able to make swift and difficult decisions. On the whole, I think we have coped well.”

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