Startup Refugees is one of the leading NGOs in Finland that helps asylum seekers and refugees by assisting them with starting a business or finding employment. I met with Maiju Mitrunen, the Head of Business & Employment Programs, in their office in Helsinki and we talked a little bit about the work they do.
What is the purpose of your organisation and who are your services for?
Our organisation was founded in 2015 when a huge number of people arrived in Finland. It happened accidentally, we were not supposed to be an NGO. Two people from the media and television sector, documentary filmmakers Tuomas (Tunna) Milonoff and Riku Rantala, announced on television that they want to help newcomers in the reception centres start their own business and invited Finnish companies and individuals to contribute. Surprisingly, during the first two weeks 250 private individuals, NGOs and Finnish companies started up. Shortly after this there was a need to figure out what to do with this support which led to the emergence of our business network. We call ourselves a voluntary network and we only handle two things: we support newcomers starting their own business and we help in job-seeking, for example, if people need specific training to meet job requirements. Our network partners also support that. The target group has slowly changed a little bit because most of the people who arrived in 2015 were asylum seekers but now they have already received their residence permits and have become refugees. Also, we know that a lot of people who have been in Finland for many years are still facing a hard time finding jobs. We do not exclude any person or criteria amongst asylum seekers and refugees. Our network now consists of 500 companies. We have companies who support employers in their business programs in both private and public sectors. We also organise events where we try to match the skills a person has with the variety of job opportunities offered by our sponsors. So far, we are in 13 cities and 20 reception centres around Finland. We have a map of skills for around 2700 individuals who are provided with a CV which they can use independently for job seeking.
Amongst asylum seekers, there are a lot of people that are highly educated in different fields. Why are they suffering from the system which cannot comprehend them in the labour market?
The most crucial problem is that many Finnish companies do not know that asylum seekers have the right to work three months after declaring asylum if they have a passport and after six months if they do not have one. The second, and much bigger, problem is that the employment of asylum seekers is not handled by any ministry or official department in Finland. The Finnish Immigration Service is only responsible for the processing of cases and the interior ministry is responsible for the basic needs of people issuing residence documents for refugees. We are the only organisation that helps people find a job beforehand. We have noticed that for both skilled and unskilled asylum seekers, getting a job before getting a resident permit makes it easier for them to be integrated into the labour market. We believe that if they get access to both education and job opportunities from the beginning it would be much better. This is because at the moment when you get your residence permit you are automatically registered as unemployed. We want to change this. We want to get people active right from the beginning by helping them learn both the language and how to start your own business in Finland, enabling them to find a job in the future.
It is likely that in Finland company owners do not place as much trust in certificates and qualifications of people who come from outside of the EU zone. How much does the background of a person affect finding employment?
To be honest, there is some truth to this. But now Finnish society has been learning more about people with foreign backgrounds. Things are changing slowly and it is getting better especially in the metropolitan area of Helsinki. More people are able to find work using English in cases when the job does not require much Finnish. One good example that we managed to help people get hired in the construction sector who do not speak Finnish or English, only Arabic or Dari. We did this by providing an acting leader for the group of workers who can speak English to translate and act as a connection between the group of workers and the work environment. Once people do find work they will be highly motivated to learn the language. One thing we have noticed is that asylum seekers in other cities of Finland, for example in Oulu, learned Finnish faster than those in the Helsinki area because Finnish people tend to speak English with foreigners more in the metropolitan area of Helsinki than in other parts of Finland.
Do you believe migration could bring benefits to Finland and why?
Definitely. Finland is a small country with a high ageing population and in order to survive in today’s world we need more people with skills. There is a shortage in the labour market in different sectors.
How do you evaluate recent integration plans regarding the migration issue in Finland?
We have an approach that everyone can do something to resolve this common challenge. We are not competing with any political ideology or with anyone who might have a different point of view when it comes to migration. I think that all parties in Finland agree that it is better for asylum seekers or refugees to do something rather than simply wait for their decisions. It is better that they pay taxes and learn the language. Even in cases of negative decisions, working for three or four months could help a person gain some knowledge or make new connections or friends. For people in the reception centres it is more important to gain their independence and be confident in themselves when they get a job.
In your opinion are people aware of the difference between an immigrant and an asylum seeker?
No, especially in the Finnish public discussion these terms are still mixed up. People associate anyone who has a different background as an immigrant. Even those who have lived here for more than 20 years are still sometimes considered as immigrants.
Why do lots of asylum seekers’ entrepreneurship or businesses disappear within a short period of time and how can it be made more sustainable?
This is an issue that we have been thinking about with Helsinki, because they have a service for people who want to start their business, like NewCo Helsinki. What we found out is that in some countries where people came from the difference between an employee and an entrepreneur is not clear enough. In Finland, the differences are very demanding partly because the market is small so a business idea that can work in Baghdad, for example, does not necessarily work here in Finland. You need to have a very good definition of your product and you need to know your market and your customers. Also, there is a lot of bureaucracy regarding starting a new business here. In Iraq, all you need to do is rent a space and start selling while here you need different kind of contracts and agreements. There isn’t really one place offering these services that can also answer questions. You need to have a very solid business plan, a good idea and you need to have good financing. These are mainly the problems people might face. Many times, a company fails because they didn’t know about the services available. When people run into problems they contact us or NewCo Helsinki, when actually it is better for them to have this information before they start. The solution we offer here is a business program for those who are interesting in establishing their own business. Our first pilot was in 2017 with Helsinki City which lasted six months. We have a very practical approach, we have our own business team managers and coordinators who speak languages mostly spoken by asylum seekers that are interested in our sessions. We try to put people in touch with the customers from early on to do market validation. We test their business ideas, price and product quality to see if the market likes it or not.
Zaid Usta - 6D
Editing Maria Timko - 6D