Polarized Finland? Deportation in the spotlight

Is it possible to write a play about the forcible returning of people? How should deportation be handled in an art museum? Could secondary school teachers be encouraged to discuss the immigration policy in class? In the working group the Deported, as part of Kone Foundation’s Polarized Finland? programme, two journalists, two artists and two researchers produced a pioneering series of events that increased the general awareness of the deportation of people and widened their view on the topic. Author Kaisa Viitanen is a journalist and the producer of the event.

A woman in retirement age wipes her eyes on a crumpled handkerchief as the lights come on in the theatre. The play entitled Karkotetut (the Deported) has just finished, and people in the Rakastajat theatre in Pori are getting ready to meet the producers. They may be selling beetroot soup and red wine in the lobby, but the people in the audience have been moved, and they go straight to the tables, ready to talk.

Theatre director Angelina Meusel played a number of roles in the play and she thanks the audience. She says that social theatre has not been breaking ticket sales records in Pori, but the small theatre was determined to take on the play. Around the tables, many people are raising their hands, eager to share their thoughts.

“I have read about deportations, but I never thought about how it would actually be to have your family split up,” a retired lady says. One audience member is thinking about the way the Finnish Immigration Service operates, another is wondering how the escorting police officers feel. A lively discussion follows.

The play, premiered in Pori in January 2017, is based on true stories of the deported people, on EU statistics and on interviews of the authorities responsible for immigration matters. The play was written and directed by Elina Izarra Ollikainen, who turned documentary fragments into fiction, with the aim of understanding why a girl born in Finland and attending school here has to lose her father and eventually be deported herself.

The play was praised in the local newspaper Satakunnan Kansa, and it was successful enough to be selected for the most important theatre event in Finland, Tampere Theatre Festival 2017. Slowly, the play has started receiving attention, and the performances are far from over. Later in the autumn, the play was included in the Taidetestaajat (Art Testers) programme, meaning that all year 8 pupils in Pori are invited to see the play. If funding is secured, the play will go on tour to Turku and Helsinki, and perhaps in other countries.

 

Many ways of conquering misconceptions

The project was born in 2012, as photographer Katja Tähjä and I began to investigate what happens to people deported by Finland and other countries in the EU. We started by meeting researchers, activists and the authorities, and ended up taking our working group to seven countries to collect stories from people forced to return to their home countries.

The information we gained made us want to break the misconceptions. It seemed that, even in Finland, many people thought that the deported were always criminals. This is not true. There has been an increase in the number of deportations since the war in Yugoslavia. This is a result of a tightening immigration policy. Getting a residence permit is difficult for a person coming from outside the EU, and losing it is easy. Only a tiny portion of those deported is criminals.

But how to approach the misconceptions? Initially, our only aim was the book. In summer 2015, having collected the material, we took part in the Non Fiction book competition organised by publishing house S&S, and we came away with a publishing deal. Our book was published in 2016. Although we were happy about the publishing deal, we were worried that not many people would see the book. Fewer and fewer people are reading books.

Our publisher was planning to print less than 2,000 copies, but we wanted everyone in Finland to talk about deportation. How to make deportation the talk of the nation?

In late 2015, Kone Foundation announced their grant call for the Will Finland Be Divided project. The criteria highlighted the cooperation of journalists, researchers and artists. This inspired us to invite artist Elina Izarra Ollikainen, graphic artist Anne-Mari Ahonen, and immigrant researcher Nina Vuolajärvi, who is currently working on her dissertation on sex workers with immigrant background. Ms Vuolajärvi brought along her colleague Jukka Könönen, and our six-strong working group was complete.

The Kone Foundation grant enabled us to approach the misconceptions on many fronts. But which fronts would they be? Advertising at bus stops? Art in public spaces? Installations at airports? How to make an impact and move people?

We decided to target Finnish people, rather than the people to which the Aliens Act is applied. In order to do this, we had to define our target groups. Schoolchildren, immigrant activists and, say, national-level decision-makers would all require different communication. We received help and inspiration from advertising expert Erkki Izarra, communication experts Heidi Korva and Saila Saarinen, and the communication course organised by Kone Foundation to grant receivers.

Our group decided to tap the special narrative skills of our members: research data at the seminar for experts, dramatic methods on stage in the theatre, and more surprising expressive methods in the art gallery. Everything came together like the pieces of a puzzle.

A play in Pori, an exhibition in an art gallery in Helsinki, teaching materials for teachers online, a seminar in Helsinki and online, and a non-fiction book. All the elements of the Deported project are made of the same fragments. They show the same photographs, reflect the same experiences of deportation, and the same studies. Economic recycling of information for many channels and needs, you could say.

What is the economic and human cost of returning people?

At first, we struggled to find a suitable exhibition venue. Espa Stage did not want anything too political, the Bassoradio venue on Unioninkatu was too small, and the Kalleria venue in Kallio was too far from the city centre. Luckily, Kalle Korhonen from Kone Foundation told us about HAM Corner, the free exhibition venue of the Helsinki Art Museum in Kamppi.

We selected Katja Tähjä’s photographs of deported people and families for the exhibition. As transparent curtains, they also attracted attention on the outside. Graphic artist Anne-Mari Ahonen also wanted to open up the economic impact of the issue for the people, and turned European deportation statistics into an installation. The birch-coloured bark bricks donated by Wienerberg brick factory symbolise the EU funds spent every year on preventing immigration and on deporting people.

Many people on their way to the cinema popped in and looked at the exhibition with their popcorn tubs in hand. Men were particularly interested in the explanations and billion-euro costs displayed in the piece taped to the floor by Ms Ahonen. “People always talk about the cost of immigration, but this is the first time I am shown what fighting it is costing us,” says one father, with his children already eager to get to the cinema.

In addition to the costs, Ms Ahonen also showed the effect of deportation on one family, the Finnish-born daughters of Ghanaian-born parents. The oldest daughter attended the school in Käpylä in Helsinki, when, due to problems with the mother’s residence permit, the family was deported to a country the girls had never even visited.

In the exhibition, visitors could see the empty desk borrowed from the school in Käpylä. When visitors opened the notebook left on the desk, a video was projected onto the notebook, showing Theophania and Eliana, two girls with a Finnish identity, singing a Finnish nursery song on a red sand path in Accra.

On the headphones, visitors could listen to a dramatized Finnish translation of the story of the girls’ mother Christiana Nana Yaa Acheampong. Visitors could sit in a red armchair and listen to audio works produced by Elina Izarra and the Rakastajat theatre in Pori. The chair was on loan from the Metsälä detention centre, where people were locked up, waiting to be deported.

Many people had strong reactions to the exhibition. People often spent long times in the exhibition, and then came back with more people.

From exhibition to discussion and play

In the evenings, I would bring chairs into the HAM corner space and spread them out ready for discussions. We offered the space to various actors interested in the themes of immigration, deportation and human rights. These evening sessions were hosted by a variety of hosts and hostesses.

Refugee Hospitality Club, created on Facebook, is a group of people involved in helping and accommodating asylum seekers. The Deported theme night was the first opportunity for many of them to meet face to face. Lawyers from the Refugee Advice Centre were there to tell those interested about applying for residence permits, and to answer the questions of those under the threat of deportation and their friends. At the church evening, priests and church employees shared their practices for helping those under the threat of deportation. Amnesty International activists met there to plan their refugee campaign.

Events organised alongside the exhibition offered an effective communication umbrella for bringing together various people and actors. It offered visibility for everyone, and discussions spread wide.

In addition to the HAM discussion evenings, we organised a seminar on the European immigration policy. We videoed the speeches of the researchers. Some were streamed online, and some were edited and ended up in Elina Izarra’s play in Pori.

Inserting researcher speeches in the play was an effective method. For example, I will never forget the story of Shahram Khosrav, a researcher at Stockholm University, and a refugee with a long history. The researcher talked, laconically, about how immigrants in Sweden were encouraged to return voluntarily, with the help of Bamse, the world’s strongest bear. As the video clip is played, on stage in the theatre, an Iranian man is declined residence permit, and he is forced to go underground. Encouragement from Bamse the bear feels like a kick in the stomach.

And how to approach those already aware of the immigration policy problems? One of the most popular events in the Deported series was the Activist Club held in the Lava Club of the Finnish National Theatre. Musicians Tommy Lindgren and Jarmo Saari performed a rap of one of the deportation stories in the book. As the evening went on, Nordic immigration activists sitting in the panel shared their best practices and encouraged people in Finland to demand better rights for foreign people. The following day, researcher-activist Aino Korvensyrjä held a closed workshop for activists.

 

Media spreading the message

Six months before the series of events, the working group contacted journalists and editorial offices. The strategy was to present deportations from as many aspects as possible. The working group offered interviews, often exclusively. Journalists took the opportunities and interviewed people under the threat of deportation, those deported, and people who had returned to Finland after being deported. One journalist wanted to interview the escorting police officer that had talked about their experiences in the book without the permission of their superior. We managed this, and the police officer gave the interview anonymously under the protection of sources.

The working group put together an interesting collection of research data in a simple format, and offered researcher interviews. The idea was to make the journalists’ work as easy as possible. Of course, stories also emerged about the events, the book and the persons portrayed in it. By September, the media coverage was excellent.

It is not often that, after years of preparation, an event manages to coincide with critical events in society the way the Deported project did. In 2015, the year preceding the event, an exceptional number of asylum seekers arrived in Finland, and during our event, their asylum decisions were being finalised.

By the end of the year, the Finnish authorities began to issue unprecedented numbers of negative asylum decisions and deportation orders. Finnish activists sprung to action, and the media paid surprising attention to the protests against a flight destined to Afghanistan. Journalists travelled to Iraq to meet deported people, and the media reported actively on immigrants and gave a voice to people supporting them.

It is impossible to say how the Deported project affected all of this, but the fact is that this topic is in the media a whole lot more, and people and journalists are more aware of the issue.

But deportations continue, although experience has shown that returning people brings about human tragedies, is very expensive, and will not stop migration.

Text: Kaisa Viitanen, images: Katja Tähjä

Images:

Cover Image: Lana Rafik and her husband applied for an asylum in Sweden. For nothing. The family of four children was exiled after which they disappeared underground. “Even our relatives don’t know that we are back in Irak. We left from the city of Kirkuk after police men threatened my husband and now we cannot go back”, the family’s mother tells the authors from a one-room apartment in a city in North-Eastern Iraq.

Image below: After being exiled, Hunar Mohammed suffered from depression and says that he contemplated suicide, but persevered for his children. He supports his family with occasional construction work. “We named our children who were born in Sweden Gustav, Annika and Daner. Now we forbid them from speaking Swedish and call them by their new Kurdish names. I don’t want anyone here to know about our past because they can report us to the people who forced us to flee in the first place.