Finland is working to convince asylum-seekers that it is no more appealing than the rest of Europe after it emerged as the top destination for Iraqi refugees behind Germany.
Iraqis make up a small part of Europe's refugees, but people like Firas Afandi, an electrical engineer from Iraq, made the rugged 25-day journey across Europe, confident that Finland would welcome him, reported the Associated Press.
"For me, this is where I want to be," Mr. Afandi told the AP in Helsinki. "People here are civilized, calm and it's quiet."
Immigration officials realized in September that although Finland had been granting automatic asylum to refugees from certain parts of Iraq, other European Unions nations were not, reported the Finnish news site Uutiset. Finnish officials halted work on all Iraqi applications Tuesday for two weeks while they review – and probably tighten – the policy. They will also decide whether they can legally deport those whose applications are rejected.
The announcement was met with dismay by commenters on an Arabic Facebook page called "Finland," who voiced their frustration with Europe's asylum process.
A group of 358 Iraqi asylum-seekers at the Hennala, Lahti reception center announced a hunger strike Wednesday to protest the decision, Uutiset reports. They urge Iraqis at other reception centers in Finland to do the same.
Finland has received 11,900 applications from Iraqi asylum seekers this year, with 8,600 arriving in September alone, the Associated Press reported. This is a huge increase from last year, when only 790 Iraqis applied for asylum. Only 123 of last year's Iraqi applications were approved, mostly for reasons of age, poor health, or pregnancy. More than 100 Iraqis were even deported.
This was not due to anti-Iraqi sentiment. Finland actually accepted more asylum-seekers from Iraq than any other country in 2014, even neighbor Ukraine, according to the Finnish Immigration Service.
Rumors about the easier standards for applications in Finland had circulated through the complex social media network that guides plugged-in refugees out of the Middle East and across Europe.
A Iraqi refugee named Ghanem said Iraqis view Finland as being safer from deportations than Sweden. "But Finland is very good," Ghanem, who did not give his full name for fear of the authorities, told the AP. "I will love it. In Iraq, all people talk about Finland."
Iraqi Facebook networks have told refugees on the run that in Finland, jobs are abundant, asylum applications move quickly, and benefits are better than in the rest of Europe, claims that Finnish officials are actively trying to deny.
"We don't know where these ideas came from," Hanna Kautto, a spokeswoman for the Finnish Immigration Service, told the Associated Press.
Ms. Kautto said processing asylum applications in Finland takes about six months compared with Sweden's eight. Finland's economy shouldn't be a draw either. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year high of 10 percent, the Christian Science Monitor reported in July. One of five young people are unemployed, and some see welfare services as the cause.