Finland talks about immigrants as if we were not in the room. We have become bystanders in a discussion concerning us.

WE are a nation of more than 200 million people. We are young and old, children and adults. We are held by no borders. We go to the furthest places on earth, taking risks and leaving loved ones behind, to reach for our dreams. We are strong, but amongst the weakest. We are discriminated against and some of us have no rights. Most of us feel unwelcomed, maltreated, abused. When things go wrong, we are among the first to be blamed for it.

IF WE lived in one country, it would be the fifth most populous country on earth and one of the largest economies in the world, with a gross domestic product of 300 billion US dollars. This nation would have the world’s most diverse culture, greatest number of languages and broadest diversity of human characteristics. Without a doubt, this §would be the most interesting country in the world. Alas, we are dispersed all around the world in strange lands. We are the great nation of immigrants.

PEOPLE ask us where we are from; it’s hard to tell! After living most of our lives outside our native countries, we are as foreign there as anywhere else.

THE dangers of a world without borders have been greatly exaggerated. In fact on today’s globe, capital, merchandise, ideas, viruses, terror, crime, fear, hope and knowledge can all spread to the furthest places on Earth almost instantly. Everything can travel freely, except human beings. Deserted border control cabins on European borders are a good reminder of the absurdity of man-made frontiers. After the break down of the Soviet Union, there was a discussion in Finland about what to do if masses of Russians would march towards the border to get to Finland. A similar horror story was told when it was clear that Estonia would join the EU: thousands of Estonians would colonise Finland and international criminals would exploit the open borders. None of these paranoid delusions became reality.

IF you removed all the borders in the world, only a small fraction of people would leave their homes for good to get to a better place to live. Immigration, the textbooks say, needs both a “push” and a “pull” factor. The decision to leave one’s homeland is not an easy one. For the rich countries worried about masses of people coming to share their resources, the key element is to ease the push on the source nations of humanitarian migration. But on the contrary, the countries from which most of the world’s refugees leave, namely Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, have been ransacked by the world’s richest countries, with the US in the lead. At the same time, most of the world’s refugees are received in developing countries.

“IMMIGRATION is about those who leave and those who stay behind,” say sociologists. It is also about those who have arrived before, and those on the receiving end. Never before has there been such a reactionary debate on immigration in Finland as there is today.

MOST of the negative discussion about immigration in Finland follows well-worn trends. Although the main motive behind opposition to newcomers is probably racism and xenophobia, arguments are based on extreme cases of abuse of social services, dishonest asylum or family unification applications, crimes committed by immigrants, or in general immigrants being unfit to the Finnish society because of their culture or religion. Finland being a consensus society, the negativity of the discussion has spread to serious politicians with a vested interest in pandering to the noisiest sectors of the public. The narrow-mindedness and negativity has also spread to the mainstream media.

FINLAND has never been a magnet for immigrants. International migrants are about 4.2 per cent of the total population. By 2005, the share of the world’s immigrant population falling on Finland’s shoulders was 0.08 per cent, one of the lowest in the world. For comparison, the same figures for Finland’s neighbours are: Russia 6.5 per cent, Sweden 0.6 per cent, Estonia 0.11 per cent. Even more distant, and politically closed, Belarus had 0.6 per cent of the world’s immigrants.

FORTUNATELY for Finns, Finland has got the “nicer” type of immigrants. By the end of 2008, there were less than 32,000 international immigrants who had moved to Finland as refugees or asylum seekers. This number is about 20 per cent of the total of 143,000 immigrants residing in Finland. The main reason for people to move to Finland has been romantic. Contrary to common belief, there are more foreign women moving here to live with their Finnish husbands than the other way around. So why all the nagging in the media and internet discussion groups about the African mother with 15 children which, strangely enough, is becoming the prototype of all the immigrants in Finland?

THE negative atmosphere today could become costly tomorrow. Finland has one of the oldest populations in Europe. 22 per cent of Finns were over 60 years old in 2009, and this figure is estimated to rise to 32 per cent by 2050. Increasing the retirement age to 65 is not a cure but a short-term relief measure applicable only to certain professions. The European average of over 60s was 22 per cent in 2009, and the corresponding estimate for 2050 is 34 per cent. The situation in Russia and Eastern European countries is no different. Inevitably, the potential nurse, engineer, cook or taxi driver in the future Finland will be of a different colour and religion. The young of the world are growing up in faraway places.

REMITTANCE flow, or the money immigrants send home, is one of the most important factors in preventing the escalation of immigration itself. Billions of dollars sent home reduce the misery in the poor countries and is in fact the most important and reliable form of development aid today. Officially recorded remittance flows to developing countries reached a staggering 283 billion dollars in 2008. From this 0.70 billion was sent home by immigrants in Finland, which is about 0.33 per cent of Finland’s GDP. For comparison, Finland’s official development aid contribution for 2010 is 0.42 per cent of its GDP.

SO DO we immigrants accept abuse of the welfare system, dishonest asylum applications or fake marriages? Of course not. But what does this have to do with me, you may ask. I have worked, paid my taxes and contributed to this society. Why should my kids be discriminated against at school? Is there any reason I should be considered a second-class citizen in this society just because I look different, don’t speak the language or were born somewhere else?

NO YOU shouldn’t, and you should not settle for less than equal treatment. In a country where every profession has a union which fights for their rights, the only way for immigrants to get their voice heard is to unite. We are from extremely diverse backgrounds, places and cultures, but that should not matter. We may have only one thing in common: being an immigrant in Finland, but that could well be enough.

Alexis Kouros