Posted on June 15, 2005

A Blond Nation, in a Bind on Immigrants

Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post, June 11

HELSINKI — Finland is Europe’s most homogenous society, a nation of mostly blond ethnic Finns whose declining birthrate creates the classic 21st-century European dilemma: a fast-growing population of senior citizens whose promised benefits under a generous welfare state will soon be unaffordable.

To compensate for fewer Finnish births, the country could encourage foreigners to immigrate, a subject much discussed here. But like most of Europe, “Finland is allergic to immigration,” in the words of Manuel Castells, the renowned Spanish-born sociologist who lives in the United States.

Castells, a professor at the University of Southern California and a student of Finland since the mid-1990s, chided Finns at a seminar in Helsinki last week. “Either you make more babies,” he told them, “or you make immigrants.”

But that is easier said than done, as Castells quickly acknowledged. Finnish women, enjoying careers and other fruits of the relative gender equality here, “are on strike,” he said, when it comes to bearing children in large numbers. As a result, Finland is “a small country with an endangered culture.”

Altogether, immigrants constitute barely 2 percent of Finland’s population of 5.2 million. There were 108,346 foreign-born residents at the end of 2004, according to government statistics. Of those, fewer than 25,000 were born in non-white countries whose residents would look conspicuous on the streets of Helsinki. Russians, Estonians and Swedes together represent more than 46,000 people.

The 4,700 Somali refugees in the country, by far the largest group of black people, get more attention in the local news media than all the other immigrants combined, according to Finns. The country continues to accept political asylum seekers — it is now taking in a group of Montagnard hill people who fled Vietnam.

In principle, Finns often support the idea of immigration. In an interview, Eero Huovinen, the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki (Lutheranism is Finland’s official religion), noted that the state had “been very careful, sometimes too much so,” about immigration. But he added, “For human, moral and practical reasons, I think we have to take more people, people who are willing to work here.”

Finland is the only major European country that has generated no far-right, anti-immigrant political party. Some Finns suggest that may be because their egalitarian Lutheran values simply won’t tolerate an open appeal to racist sentiments, though they admit that such feelings exist.

Yet Finnish laws and regulations discourage immigration — as do the difficulties of the Finnish language and the long, dark winters here. Nokia, often referred to as a “miracle” by Finns because it has become one of the world’s high-tech success stories and a rich global company, has attracted an international workforce to fill some key positions, but in this and many other respects, it is a unique Finnish institution.

Finns don’t really want to think about the fact that more immigration is going to be needed, said Jalsoon Ally, 28, an ethnic Pakistani who grew up in southern Africa and graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Ally is engaged to a Finn and is completing a graduate degree in international relations at Helsinki University. “I get the feeling that quite a lot of dallying is going on,” she said. “And not much frank conversation. It’s a kind of conscious blindness.”

Ally has lived here for years, and speaks perfect Finnish, according to her Finnish friends. Because she has been living with her boyfriend for more than two years, she’s “legally a spouse,” she said. This has given her unusual access to Finnish life, and she is an attentive observer.

Finns will “most likely switch to English” when they meet her, Ally said, and are “always surprised” to learn she speaks Finnish well. Some of her Finnish friends were born here to immigrant parents, she said, and they share her frustration at that kind of response. “There’s this very clear idea that if you look different, you can’t be Finnish,” she said, adding that these Finnish natives were often asked, “Where are you really from?”

Another immigrant with an interesting perspective on diversity in Finland is Ajay Meswani, a schoolteacher. The son of an American mother and an Indian father, he grew up in Philadelphia. He met his Finnish wife at a Danish teachers college where both were students, and they now have a son and a daughter born in Finland. Meswani has many kind things to say about the country, particularly its education system and social services. But he also makes clear that life can be hard here for someone who looks like him.

“There are so few immigrants in Finland, people aren’t used to having foreigners around,” he said in an interview. The consequences can be complicated. He regularly suffers what Americans would consider snubs, but he knows enough about the reticent, chilly Finnish personality to realize that at least some of these incidents can be entirely innocent.

When he started teaching art at a Helsinki primary school, he said, “I was completely put off by people’s total lack of interest in me.” On the first day, he walked into the teachers’ room, where his new colleagues were carrying on a conversation. “No one stopped, my presence wasn’t even acknowledged,” he said. “It really made me angry. It was hard not to think it was deliberate — but it really wasn’t.” This, he said, is the way Finns treat each other.

Whatever the motivation, the effect on Meswani is wearing. The only real friends he has here, he said, are friends of his wife, Riita. “The hardest thing for me is when I make an effort to greet someone and I get either a blank stare or a scowl. It has happened many times. It’s very strange.”

Finland is not monocultural. It was part of Sweden for centuries, and from 1809 to 1917, it was part of Russia. Both cultures left populations in Finland that have helped shaped the country’s national identity. The Swedish minority, about 6 percent of the population, enjoys special protections, and Swedish remains the official second language. There is a long-standing Roma, or Gypsy, population, as well as an indigenous people in Lapland, in the far north, who call themselves Sami.

But in its 88-year history as an independent country, Finland has become remarkably homogenous. Many Finns believe this has helped the country repeatedly undertake substantial reforms that have altered life here in ways many other societies would have resisted. The Finns have done it, moreover, on the basis of a broad political consensus that still largely holds.

Guided by a widely accepted elite, Finland transformed itself from a backward rural nation into an industrial force in the 30 years after World War II, then remade itself again into a rich, high-tech powerhouse in the last 30 years. Finland is rated the least corrupt nation in the world by Transparency International, a Berlin-based international research group.

Castells, the sociologist, calls Finland’s government “the most legitimate government in Europe,” meaning it enjoys the highest degree of acceptance and deference from its people. That is one of the reasons, Finns say, that immigration is such a delicate issue. Opposition to it is widespread, by many accounts, but also muted.

“There are a lot of prejudices, unfortunately,” against foreigners, said Risto Siilasmaa, 39, a software entrepreneur who runs an Internet security company. “We still live in a very isolated environment. That’s going to take decades to change.”

A Web site sponsored by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs ( ) features an article on foreigners in Finland that includes the comment: “Negative attitudes and xenophobia among the main population towards foreigners are still present.”

Ordinary people don’t understand assertions by intellectuals and members of Finland’s elite that immigration is necessary, “when we have 10 percent unemployment,” said Miapetra Kumpula, a 33-year-old Social Democratic member of the Finnish Parliament. Officials say the unemployed tend to be aging workers who lack the skills for the new information-based jobs the country is creating.

Ten percent is the overall unemployment figure. But a government report this spring noted that unemployment among ethnic Finns was 9 percent, compared with 29 percent among immigrants. “A lot of highly trained immigrants have had to take menial jobs,” if they could gets jobs at all.