There can be few potentially prouder moments in one’s life than being adopted by a country, but also few journeys fraught with more overwhelming bureaucracy and prospective frustration than the road to citizenship

NATURALLY, it is in a country’s best interests not to make it too easy to obtain citizenship, while any system for evaluating prospective citizens will of course have its supporters and detractors. Recent vague suggestions hinting at the possible introduction of a citizenship test in Finland has raised the profile of this issue in the media, and has made many ponder at what point Finnish nationality should be granted to a foreigner.

According to Statistics Finland, 3,400 foreign citizens permanently resident in this country received Finnish citizenship in 2009. This figure was 3,250 less than in 2008, although the numbers in 2008 were themselves particularly high. By far the largest group of foreign nationals receiving said nationality were Russians followed by Somalis, Iraqis and Afghanis. From within Europe between 100 and 200 Estonians, Serbs and Swedes received a Finnish citizenship.

“Every year nearly 90% of applicants acquire Finnish citizenship by application, with around 10% receiving negative decisions,” explains Kati Korsman, Head of Section at the Nationality Unit of the Finnish Immigration Service (FIS). Part of the reason for the high figures in 2008 was the resolution to focus on making decisions on old applications; that is, those made before 2006. “Another reason for the dramatic fall was that we were making preparations for introducing a new electronic case management system,” Korsman states, “and many of the civil servants who usually make decisions on applications were testing the system.”

Times change

Back at the end of the 1980s things were somewhat different. There were a mere 20,000 foreign citizens living in Finland and naturalisations stood at around 1,000 per annum. At that time Turkish Mustafa Gürler, who was in his thirties, had been living in Finland for eight years, and decided to apply for Finnish citizenship. “The possibility of travelling was the most important reason. It wasn't easy to travel around Europe with a Turkish passport,” he explains.

At that time the old blue Finnish passport did in fact help Gürler's border crossings but didn't bring the freedom he expected. “I naively thought that citizenship would have the magic to put me on an equal footing in Finnish society and that I could find a job like a Finn. But although I can tick the box saying 'Finnish citizen' my name is still an obstacle. Maybe instead of the citizenship I should have changed it to Matti,” he laughs.

The process itself involved a Finnish test that was not as difficult as the present-day version, but on the other hand, involved some close scrutiny from the state. As an active student at Helsinki University and an advocate of human rights, Gürler found himself under the watchful eye of the Finnish secret police. “The process took two-and-a-half years in total. The secret police interrogated me four or five times during this time and their message was basically 'keep quiet and you get the citizenship',” he explains, referring to his active role in student organisations.

Now, as well as the travel benefits, his Finnish nationality still holds both symbolic and practical importance. “The possibility to be active in society is important, and since becoming a Finnish citizen I have voted in every election,” says Gürler, who himself has also been an electoral candidate.

Citizenship by application

People who have not been born in a country or to a parent who is already a citizen of that country may be naturalised “by application”. Naturalisation criteria vary significantly between different countries. Most nations require would-be citizens to hold residency in the country for a certain number of years before applying. In Canada, for example, one must have been a resident for at least the last three years continuously, while Denmark requires an individual to have lived there for nine years (although citizens of other Nordic countries are subject to looser regulations). For prospective Finns, Finland must have been their country of residence for a total of six years if over 22 years of age at the time of application, or ten years for 18-22 year olds. Again, Nordic citizens have slightly different rules applying to them.

The length of time one has lived in Finland, however, is just one of a number of criteria that must be fulfilled. Requirements concerning language must also be met, for example. An individual must have satisfactory oral and written skills in Finnish or Swedish. Proficiency may be demonstrated by either a certificate indicating that you have passed a national language examination, evidence of ability from a comprehensive or secondary school, or studies included in a university degree. Since Swedish is an official language of Finland, studies taken in Sweden (in Swedish) are also accepted.

Language stumbling blocks

The language requirement is possibly the most difficult to meet. “It isn’t possible to get statistics regarding on which grounds negative decisions on applications have been made,” explains Korsman, “but in my experience the language skills requirement is the main factor. Negative decisions are also made due to the residence and integrity requirements.” As well as living here for some years one must not have been convicted of certain criminal offences.

Although there does not seem to be any specific data on the subject, as applicants are not asked why they want to be awarded citizenship, Korsman believes that most people who apply for Finnish citizenship do so because it is easier for the applicant to study, travel or work abroad with a Finnish passport. As noted earlier most applicants are from Russia or other non-EU countries. EU citizens of course have rather less reason to try to attain Finnish nationality.

David Cord, American by birth and banker by profession, has been living in Finland for six years. Whilst he would like to apply for Finnish citizenship, he doesn’t find it crucial, enjoying the relative ease of traveling freely to and from his homeland. “I could imagine that people who came to Finland because of necessity would be more eager to get Finnish citizenship. Those that chose to come here might consider it less of a priority,” he suggests.

With competent Finnish language skills also integral in the preparation of an application for citizenship, David’s linguistic capabilities are perhaps in keeping with many living here that are originally from Western countries. “For myself, I haven’t tried to get citizenship because I’m not fluent in Finnish or Swedish.”

When you are a citizen of Finland...

...you will be entitled to a Finnish passport.

...you are also a citizen of the EU and can travel and work freely in all EU countries.

...you can vote in Parliamentary and Presidential elections.

...you can hold government posts.

...you will be liable to defend the country, and men over 18 years of age will be liable for military service.

For more details go to: www.migri.fi, www.infopankki.fi

Fairness disputed

On the other hand, acquiring a new citizenship is an essential part of some people’s lives, without which they are not able to live to the fullest. The country where you are from, your background and current status duly affects your need to attain citizenship. Mahmoud* is a refugee who has lived in Finland since 1997, and still has not been able to acquire a Finnish passport. “I need a Finnish passport simply because I am living in this country and am a resident of Finland, and it would make travelling much easier,” he says. “I have Iranian nationality but because of my journey here via Iraq by UNHCR, I do not have an Iranian passport, merely a travel document showing my nationality.” Ironically, for many obtaining a Finnish passport would be the only way they would be able to return to visit their homeland.

Mahmoud’s problems with citizenship go back many years. When he first came to Finland via the UNHCR he was not allowed to bring his wife here. Eventually she was given leave to travel to Finland, but only after Mahmoud held a hunger strike in protest. He believes this is one obstacle in the way of any nationality application he may make, along with the matter of a speeding fine and a loan to hire an interpreter, which he has not been able to pay back.

The high cost of applications also makes it a financially difficult process. “There is a fee to apply for citizenship which must be paid even if the application is turned down. For a three-person family it would cost over 1000 euros, which I simply could not afford. The language requirements also cost money, so I have not been able to afford to take the tests even though my Finnish is quite good,” Mahmoud explains.

He believes the current citizenship application process is unfair. “Finns do not find their citizenship threatened because of a criminal record or debt. I would never have thought that the process could take so long. Also, unemployment is a big problem, as it is considered a minus point, but in reality it is very hard for foreigners to get work.”

An easier journey

Some stats:

In 2009 the number of foreign citizens residing in Finland was 155,705.

In 2009 Finnish citizenship was granted to 3,413 people, the majority of whom were former citizens of Russia, Somalia or Iraq.

In 2009 the average time for a citizenship application process was 12,7 months.

Approximately 90% of applicants are granted Finnish citizenship.

In November 2010, the Finnish Immigration service had 4,196 applications for citizenship waiting for processing.

Discussion of incorporating a citizenship test as part of the application process for Finnish citizenship is currently under way.

Source: www.mirgi.fi, www.stat.fi

The process is not so fraught with difficulty for some applicants. John Sigona is a Californian who moved to Finland 23 years ago and finally took citizenship in 2007. “I took Finnish citizenship mainly because it bothered me that although I was living and working here, I was unable to fully participate in the political process. While I strongly praise the Finns for allowing resident foreigners to vote in local elections I wanted to able to become more involved in national politics,” he explains.

European travel was also made much easier. “It is great to be able to take the shorter and usually quicker EU line when clearing passport control,” smiles Sigona, “and the same holds true when going back to the US on an American passport.” In his opinion the naturalisation process is even-handed. “I found the criteria much fairer than the requirements for US citizenship. I'm not sure the process needs to be changed. The language requirement as it stands also fulfils the goal of assessing in-depth knowledge of the country. For example, during my exam we were asked to write about talkoot [an occasion where members of a housing association perform basic cleaning and repair work together], which is a simple task so long as you understand the cultural context of the word – but there are few city boys from LA who would!”

While current criteria have been in place for years now, the Administration Committee of the Finnish parliament recently asked the government to examine the feasibility of introducing citizenship tests to be taken by immigrants wishing to gain Finnish nationality. “We have not proposed any particular tests related to gaining Finnish citizenship,” Sonja Hämäläinen, a senior advisor at the Interior Ministry, told SixDegrees, “but have suggested that the experiences of other countries which do have such tests be evaluated, to see if a similar test may be suitable for Finland.”

The director-general of the FIS, Jorma Vuorio, has come out in favour of such tests being held in conjunction with the language requirements. The basic idea behind such a test would be to ascertain knowledge of Finnish society, history and customs. The main problem, of course, would be to decide what exactly the test questions should be. Although such tests have perhaps more than their fair share of faults, the system as it stands is seen by many as in need of revision if not least by some applicants themselves.

A potential minefield

So is a citizenship test the way forward? Such tests in other countries have been heavily criticised for being too difficult, irrelevant – or even factually incorrect. Before Australia’s citizenship test was introduced in 2007, opposition politicians claimed it would bring “a fundamental political and social regression that will erect unreasonable barriers to citizenship.” The test itself was initially criticised for being too hard. The UK’s citizenship test originally contained several factual inconsistencies. The Danish test was revealed last year to include one question that could not be answered correctly given the choices available leading to calls for all applicants who failed because of that question to be given citizenship.

Back in 2007, when a test was not on the table in this country, Helsingin Sanomat released an online (fake) citizenship test with questions of a similar style to the other countries’ tests. The test has recently been updated and can be found on their web pages, but the point, presumably, they were trying to make is that ethnic Finns themselves would find many of the questions tricky, and may not fulfil the criteria themselves. Eleven Members of Parliament were tested, for example, and only seven of them passed.

Citizenship at random

As far as this writer is concerned, citizenship tests fail almost entirely to assess the suitability of an individual to hold a nation’s passport. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as the HS test shows, if Finns who have lived in Finland their whole lives cannot pass the test, why should we demand that immigrants do so? In the course of writing this article I myself (half-British and half-Finnish) took several online sample tests from various countries. It turns out that I flunked the British and Finnish tests (should I surrender my official documents?), would pass the German test with flying colours, have a good chance of becoming a Canadian citizen, and totally aced the Australian exam with 100 per cent correct answers

These tests are invariably multiple-choice, since they are easily marked by computer. Therefore, entrants have a pretty good chance of simply

To apply for Finnish citizenship you must…

…be over 18 years of age.

…live in Finland and have lived in Finland continuously for six years.

…not have committed a crime.

…prove your knowledge of Finnish, Swedish or Finnish sign language.

…be able to prove a plan of how you intend to support yourself in Finland.

…pay the fee of €440 for the application for Finnish citizenship.

guessing the right answer. And how many questions need be answered, and with what success rate? For anyone wanting to be an Aussie you answer 20 questions and need to get 75 per cent right. Budding Danes need answer 40. There is also the question of how important is it to know, for example, that the Finnish National Anthem was first performed in 1848. Potentially useful if you’re playing Trivial Pursuit, and totally irrelevant otherwise.

There is surely a good argument to be made for ensuring that everyone who partakes in a democracy has the same base knowledge of how that society works. Perhaps the most important aspect of citizenship is that one can vote. In this case, there would presumably be a more effective argument for giving a test to all first time voters (or indeed all voters), rather than simply those wishing to get a passport. Increasing integration in Finnish society is not simply a matter of testing prospective citizens. Seeing everyone as equally responsible for the democratic process would surely be more effective.

Check your knowledge of Finland with a fictional citizenship test at: www.6d.fi/citizenshiptest

The writer got 100% in this test.

*the interviewee does not wish to give his full name due to the delicate nature of his circumstance.

Nick Barlow