“For me, this is where I want to be,” the 48-year-old Iraqi electrical engineer said outside a reception center for asylum-seekers in a plush, leafy quarter of Helsinki, sighing deeply as he recalled his exhausting journey. “People here are civilized, calm and it’s quiet.”
Finland, a country of 5.5 million people on the edge of the Arctic with vast expanses of forests and reindeer roaming the wilds, has suddenly and unexpectedly emerged as a top destination for Iraqis who are crossing the Mediterranean to Europe along with hundreds of thousands of others fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
Some 11,900 Iraqis have applied for asylum in Finland this year, accounting for 70 percent of all claims. More than 8,600 arrived in September alone. This year only Germany, by far the biggest recipient of asylum-seekers, has seen higher numbers of Iraqis, who make up a small percentage of the migrants arriving in Europe overall.
Last year, just 790 Iraqis applied for asylum in Finland and only 123 were approved. Most of the rest were ordered deported, though a few were given temporary permits to stay on compassionate grounds due to factors like age, illness or pregnancy.
Finnish officials say the sudden increase seems to be partly driven by online rumors about quick handling of asylum applications, generous benefits and an abundance of jobs. People making their way through Europe often share information and tips about their journeys on Facebook and other social media platforms.
In reality, Finland’s reception for asylum-seekers differs little from other EU countries, and its economy has entered its fourth year of recession.
“We don’t know where these ideas came from,” said Hanna Kautto, a spokeswoman for the Finnish Immigration Service.
She noted that the average time for handling asylum applications is more than six months and growing as the number of arrivals increases. In neighboring Sweden, a popular destination, it’s about eight months.
On Wednesday, Kautto said that officials were temporarily suspending decision-making on Iraqi and Somali asylum claims because of “the ongoing assessment of the security situation in Iraq and Somalia.”
Many Iraqis arriving in the Swedish city of Malmo from Denmark earlier this month told AP journalists they were on their way to Finland. Some said they thought they would get residence permits faster there. Others thought the chances of staying there permanently were greater.
“In Sweden, maybe when your country is OK they will take you back to your country and you will lose your money, your everything,” said 23-year-old Ghanem, who declined to give his full name because he was worried about being identified by European authorities. “But Finland is very good. I will love it. In Iraq, all people talk about Finland.”
His enthusiasm is not shared by everyone making the journey, which typically starts with people taking small boats from Turkey to the Greek islands, then traveling northeast through Europe by foot and on trains and buses. Some who have reached the northern edge of Europe have turned back around, seemingly disappointed with the welcome.
“I urge everyone not to come; it’s terrible here,” a man who identified himself as Ali from Baghdad’s southern Abu Dsher area said in a popular video clip posted on Facebook. “Yes, it’s safe here, but toilets are dirty, there are no clothes, food is expensive, they offer only small amount of food at the camp, not enough even for a child.”
Others complain they are not treated well by authorities and the benefits given to newcomers are insufficient to survive in expensive and cold Finland, and some complain about small meals at reception centers.
Last week, four busloads of migrants who had traveled through Sweden jumped back on the buses after learning they had crossed the unmarked border with Finland, said Markku Kohonen, chief of the regional border and coast guard district.
“They simply said they didn’t want asylum in Finland,” Kohonen said in a telephone interview.
Immigration officials said an unusual anti-immigrant protest at the border on Sept. 19 might have been one cause. Hundreds of people, some waving white-and-blue Finnish flags and placards demanding to “Stop Islamic Invasion,” formed a human chain across the road, blocking border traffic between the Swedish city of Haparanda and the Finnish city of Tornio before being moved on by police.
In another protest last week, a bus with asylum-seekers was met by protesters firing fireworks and sounding loud horns. At least one wore a white robe and a pointed hat to resemble those worn by Ku Klux Klan.
Finland’s government strongly condemned what it called “racist protests against asylum seekers.”
Historically, Finland has had lower rates of immigration than other Nordic countries. Only 6 percent of the population is foreign-born, compared to 16 percent in Sweden.
Saif Hussein, a 27-year-old boxer from Baghdad who arrived in Helsinki two months ago, said the relatively low number of immigrants is part of the reason he chose to come.
“Finland is beautiful and nice and small,” he said. He didn’t want to stay in Germany or Sweden because “there are too many people there and too many immigrants. There is more room here.”
An all-time daily high of 645 asylum-seekers arrived on Sept. 22, and Prime Minister Juha Sipila, who recently said he’d open his own spare house to refugees, says the influx is a “serious problem and more challenging” than the ailing economy.
Afandi, who left Dujail a month ago, said he didn’t believe rumors he’d heard from other Iraqis about Finland paying 2,000 euros to each asylum-seeker upon arrival, and realized he was in for a long wait. He is Sunni and said he left the Shia town of Dujail to escape persecution and “troubles,” but did not elaborate further.
“I know that it is difficult for people here — there are so many coming — but I have seen many friendly persons and I have been helped,” he said.