Who are the paperless migrants in Finland?

20 syys 2018

The definition ‘paperless migrant’ is a general definition hiding myriads of diverse and complex real-life situations, which can be hardly summarized in a two-word expression.

Who are the ‘paperless migrants’ in Finland? If this definition might help identify a new societal phenomenon currently going on in Finland, it is also misleading. One might think that these migrants belong all to the same category. For instance, common ideas widespread in society are that they all conduct illegal activities, or that they all are vulnerable and, as such, need protection. This is the risk of using general categories and definitions: one cannot imagine what is behind them, and how reality is like.

In Finland, the phenomenon of paperless migrants is very complex. Depending on the legal definition of ‘paperless’ (or irregular, undocumented), there are different types of migrants who are not allowed to stay in the country. Among them, there is the so-called wave of ‘new paperless migrants,’ ex-asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 and received negative decision(s) from the Immigration Office (Migri), the Administrative Court and/or the Supreme Court. Having the asylum request rejected means that the migrant loses the right to stay in the country and does not have access to reception center’s services anymore, including food, clothes, accommodation, and a low but secure monthly amount of money.

The paperless migrants I have been in touch with belong to this ‘new wave.’ Studying their everyday lives with an ethnographic methodology unveils the richness and complexity of this migratory phenomenon in Finland. First of all, they might – or might not have passport (so, technically some of them do have ‘papers’ and ‘documents:’ therefore, not all of them are ‘paperless!’).
They live in a limbo where they cannot work, but anyway need to make ends meet. In one word, they need to survive. And the majority of them tries to do so without resorting to illegal activities.
This is where the ability of each migrant becomes pivotal: his/her own capacity of inventing new survival strategies every day is what makes everyone’s life unique!

The ones who arrived in Finland after enduring dangerous trips across the Mediterranean, and life-threatening situations in their home countries, not only need to find new ways to survive in a new country, but also to cope with fearful memories and traumas from their past. Some successfully manage to deal with all this. For instance, through their networks they are able to find their own accommodation, as well as temporary jobs. They try to abide by the Finnish rules and regulations, and get the residence permit on the basis of work, and not of asylum, in the hope that one day the permit will be finally granted.
They are less vulnerable than others, who are more isolated and therefore less able to set up their own ‘safety net.’ This inability hampers their possibilities of survival and, in that sense, they might become more vulnerable and in actual need of protection: indeed, they are more exposed than others to dangerous situations such as human exploitation and human trafficking.

All in all, the paperless migrants’ societal phenomenon forces us to ‘think out of the box,’ and overcome clear-cut categories such as being legal or illegal, invulnerable or vulnerable. In fact, there are hundreds of shades of them. Vulnerability might be a critical condition concerning some paperless migrants, but not all of them. Similarly, while some abide by the law while finding new survival strategies, others might be more at risk of being lured into illegal activities.

Miriam Tedeschi is a post-doctoral researcher at URMI project. Her research combines ethnographic research on paperless migrants in Finland with a poststructuralist theoretical framework. She is affiliated at the University of Turku, Department of Geography and Geology.