Markus Himanen
The Finnish Government: People Fleeing Persecution Don’t Need Legal Protection

All asylum seekers have a right to legal assistance and a lawyer within their asylum process. However, there are not enough lawyers specialising in asylum law to meet the current demand. For many asylum seekers, this means that their legal protection and rights are compromised. At the moment, the Finnish parliament is reviewing a governmental bill which proposes reducing the right to legal aid and diminishing the right to appeal after a negative decision. If the governmental bill is passed it will considerably weaken asylum seekers’ legal protection.

NGOs who have a central role in the human rights field—Amnesty International, the Refugee Advice Centre, and the Finnish Red Cross—have critiqued the bill. In addition, the Parliamentary Ombudsman in Finland and the Non-discrimination Ombudsman have expressed concerns over reducing legal aid and shortening the time for appeals.

No more legal aid at the asylum interview

The government suggests that legal aid within the asylum investigation would be guaranteed only for particularly compelling reasons. Asylum seekers would lose the right to free of charge legal advice from a lawyer before their interview with the Finnish Migration Services. State-provided legal counsel would not be permitted at the asylum interview either. The grounds for the right to asylum are determined at this asylum interview, making this procedure the most critical part of the asylum process. The asylum decision is based on the written asylum protocol from the asylum interview.
For the asylum seekers, the asylum process can be difficult: people seeking asylum do not know Finnish; they are not familiar with the Finnish officials’ practices; and they do not necessarily know their rights as asylum seekers. Many are not aware of the grounds by which asylum can be granted.

Limiting the time for appeal in half

The law proposal suggests shortening the appeal period. According to current practices, if applicants wish to appeal to the Administrative Court after a negative decision by the Finnish Migration Services, they need to do so within 30 days. This also applies to appeals lodged to the Supreme Administrative Court. If the government’s new proposal is passed, Administrative Court appeals would need to occur within 21 days while the period for lodging appeals to the Supreme Administrative Court would be slashed to 14 days.

The international treaties ratified by Finland guarantee asylum seekers have the right to effective legal protection. This means that they need to be guaranteed a possibility to appeal against a negative decision, and enough time to undergo this procedure.

If asylums seekers are denied the right to have legal aid before their first asylum interview with Finnish Migration Services, then legal practitioners would meet their clients for the first time when appealing against a negative decision. Legal practitioners would have at most three weeks to familiarise themselves with the individual applicant’s situation. This encompasses appraising the up-to-date home country context relevant to the case, meeting the applicant with an interpreter, and writing an appeal. If the government’s proposal is accepted, it will make the job of overworked lawyers who specialise in asylum law considerably more difficult.

Few improvements, too

According to the proposed law, only authorised legal practitioners, lawyers and legal counsels can supervise these cases. This is an improvement to the current situation in which bogus practitioners could present themselves as approved legal counsels to asylum seekers.

Another positive change is that asylum cases could be processed as urgent matters in courts of law. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that for asylum seekers who have received negative decisions, the appeal process serves as a crucial time period in which to establish other grounds for other types of permits to secure their status (for instance, through a work or study permit). Limiting the time for appeal makes this a far more challenging alternative.

Parliamentary committees are currently viewing the government’s proposal to weaken asylum seekers’ legal protection. You can find information about the process on the Parliament of Finland’s website. The Freedom of Movement network follows this process on their Facebook page.