The Finnish immigration reform proposal and sexual harassment: anger, frustration, and helplessness

27.06.2023 Yulia Dergacheva

Here I reflect on two pieces of news that I came across at the same time. Both concern me personally, politically, and professionally. First is a new Finnish government policy plan on the immigrant reform programme. Second, which at first glance seems not to be connected with the first, is the news of Till Lindemann, the frontman of a prominent German band Rammstein abusing women and girls selected by special people for sexual exploitation. The topic of my ongoing research is ‘Sexual harassment of migrant women in Finland’, and is situated at the intersection of migrant status, race, and gender discrimination.

Immigration reform

I am a migrant with a precarious job and an uncertain immigration status. Not a single time have my child and I been given a residence permit of more than a year long. Every year we go through all the procedures, from time to time being fingerprinted as if our fingerprints might mysteriously change every couple of years. Despite almost seven years in Finland and finishing my master’s degree in human rights law, working as a construction cleaner for five years, and being a doctoral researcher at present, I still do not qualify for permanent residency or citizenship. And ironically, I am likely to miss the International Migration Research Network (IMISCOE) conference in Warsaw, the biggest yearly event on migration studies in Europe, because despite the strong support of the University of Turku, the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri)barely issued me a residence permit in time for my travel document to arrive before the start of the conference. How do I feel about the proposed law reform when the permanent residency or citizenship conditions will be dramatically restricted? Angry, frustrated, and helpless.

And of course, the proposed immigration reform will most severely influence the most precarious people. I, despite all the challenges, am situated in a very privileged position as a white woman in academia with an immigration status. The worst parts of the reform will impact those who are already in a desperate situation. For example, for refugees, the maximum duration of asylum granted will be three years and every three years it will be reassessed. The rejection of granting refugee status will lead to ‘removal’ from the country even if the applicant has other grounds for residency such as work. Further, although Ukrainians under the Temporary Protection mechanism, at first glance, will not be influenced by the restrictions on asylum seekers, this is unfortunately not the case. For example, the reception allowance and the reception services will be cut to a minimum provided by the Constitution and the Reception Directive.  Another group of people who will suffer from the proposed reform most are those migrants without proper documentation (“irregular migrants”). For them, the new government wants to introduce not only a cut in social and health services, but also imprisonment or deportation

Considering the simultaneous social benefits cuts targeting immigrants – seemingly to be contradicting international obligations of Finland under its many international human rights treaties, starting with the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter (Revised) – the proposed reform pushes the situation for most vulnerable groups to a borderline humanitarian catastrophe. 

Sexual harassment

I have been sexually harassed – at my cleaner’s job, for example, where you are not in the position to ask for help because the employer will just stop giving you shifts on your ‘zero hour’ contract, and then how are you paying the rent and the kid’s guitar lessons? Academia is not a safe place either. We all remember the sexual harassment case in Åbo Akademi where the perpetrator, a professor, had no consequences whatsoever and continues working. His name, although never officially announced, is still known in the community as it was made public by the victim.But this knowledge brings only anger, frustration, and the feeling of helplessness.

The Till Lindemann case, apart from being another reminder of inequality, feels bitter not only because I liked the band in my youth, but also because my teenage child does now, and we have recently bought tickets to the Rammstein concert in Poland.

Of course, we will not go to the concert of a sexual predator. Unfortunately, there is little hope that the concerts will be cancelled. In the U.S. it would have been done immediately, but here in Europe, political acknowledgement of sexual abuse is often somewhat still in the 1950s.

Finally, I am not taking my child to this concert because once in 2016 I was ‘selected’ for the afterparty of one quite famous American rock group (although I was not a fan). After some time spent chatting, drinking, and taking pictures with the band, there was a second ‘selection’ to attend a more exclusive party reserved for the ‘conventionally good-looking’ girls. It felt so bad at that time that I left – feeling disgusted, angry, frustrated, and helpless. 

The value of my research and the grave consequences of the new immigration policy to sexual harassment of migrant women

Now I research these two topics, migration and sexual harassment, taken together. And after such news you start questioning your research and its social value. In the Mobile Futures project we research diversity, trust, and two-way integration. Among other research outcomes, we will come up with policy briefs. But what policy brief can we suggest in relation to an immigration reform that is based on hate, racism, and discrimination, and eliminates or limits basic human rights? What trust can immigrants feel in a society that wants them to have fewer rights? And as a researcher of sexual harassment, what is the social value of my work if a professor or a celebrity can get away from any responsibility and the disbalance of power drives more and more of such cases?

Immigration reform which raises the precarity of migrants will definitely be one of the drivers for the increase of sexual abuse of migrant women. The more your immigrant status depends on your work, the less is your protection and room for manoeuvre. For example, a “work-based residence permit would expire if an individual fails to find a new job after more than three months of unemployment”, while the employers will have an obligation to report the termination of the contract to immigration authorities . Meanwhile, in 2021 the average job-seeking period was 23 weeks, which is more than 5 months, and 28% of job seekers were unemployed for more than a year.  At the same time, migrant women in Finland have the lowest employment rates among all population groups: in 2020 it was just 41% in comparison to 72% for Finnish women. Under these conditions, the chances for a woman to report sexual harassment and to try to protect herself from workplace abuse will tend to be zero because the termination of the contract would be for migrant women not only a question of losing income but losing the whole life in our country, which in turn for some migrant women is a matter of life and death.

Overall, the governments in many EU countries tend to lean more and more to the far right. Recently Italy, Sweden, and now Finland joined Hungary and the former-EU UK  in tightening immigration policies. On top of that, the fascist government of my own country leads a genocidal war, making millions of people flee.

So, where can we as researchers and as people find the resources to continue with our work and lives? How can we overcome the feeling of anger, frustration, and helplessness? I have no answers today but hopefully I will find out.

I want to thank my colleague Dionysia Kang for our meaningful talks on immigration reform, and for mutual support.

This blog post reflects solely the views of the author.

The illustration was created by Midjourney via the author’s prompt.

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