Big welfare differences between immigrant groups

11.3.2013 12.40
News item N5-62131

The numbers of immigrants in Finland have grown rapidly in the last couple of decades. In 1990 there were just 26 000 foreign nationals living in Finland, but by 2011 this had risen to 183 000.

Despite this, the authorities have had scant information on the health and welfare of immigrants. The Finnish service system has not been able to meet all the particular needs faced by immigrants, explains MSAH Ministerial Counsellor Viveca Arrhenius.

"In the past we have tended rely on gut instinct. It was thought that everyone was able to openly use our services. But this is not so."

An effort is now being made to change the situation. At the end of last year, the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) published an analysis of immigrant health and welfare, known as the Maamu Study. The study is exceptionally broad in scope, and gave the first comprehensive information on the welfare of the three main immigrant groups in Finland.

"It involved Russian, Kurdish and Somali immigrants. The study was done using many hours of interviews as well as health checks," says Arrhenius. "The THL report is highly important because it points out areas that need to be developed."

Kurds and Somalis in vulnerable situation

Arrhenius points out that one of the study's most important findings was that when it comes to health and welfare immigrants cannot be dealt with as a homogenous group.

"The country and conditions that people have come from are an extremely important factor. Immigrant groups are also not even internally consistent."

Kurdish and Somali women are especially vulnerable, and in many respects their lives are more difficult compared to other population groups.

"Existing services do not reach everyone who needs them," says Arrhenius.  "The various immigrant groups should also receive family planning and health education services, which are specifically designed for them, in their own languages."

According to the study, despite everything the majority of immigrants feel that the have a good quality of life, and many trust the Finnish service system. Somali men, in particular, also have a strong sense of community.

Municipalities' responsible for services for immigrants

In Finland, municipalities are in charge of arranging health and welfare services for their residents, and it is at this level that the greatest scope for improving access to services by immigrants. "All inhabitants of a municipality shall have equal access to services," Arrhenius stresses.

She also points out that the extensive reform of the service structure, which in turn is a part of the overall reform of local government, will have important implications how services for immigrants will be produced.

Improving the use of services by immigrants and their understanding of how they work also involves coordination between different authorities and sectors.

The Ministry of Employment and Economy funds projects to facilitate its integration programme for immigrants, which include assisting immigrants in using services.

In addition, the Ministry of Interior has an Advisory Board on Ethnic Relations - on which Arrhenius represents the MSAH - which helps maintain links between government ministries, NGOs and immigrant groups.

Closer ties with immigrants' NGOs

The welfare of immigrants in Finland will continue to be monitored by THL as part of its regional health and welfare study. But getting hold of the right information may prove a challenge that municipalities can do much to solve.

"In Finland one cannot enter people's ethnic backgrounds on patient records. To do so requires special arrangements," says Arrhenius.

Solutions to assessing the situation of immigrant communities within the population lie in part in developing dialogue and cooperation between municipalities and NGOs representing immigrants.

"Though we now have data on the welfare of immigrants, it doesn't provide solutions to how we should improve the situation. When municipalities design their services it's important that they ask organisations how matters should be dealt with," says Viveca Arrhenius.

Maija Luotonen and Mark Waller