Record number of new Finns
Last year, a record of 9,518 foreign nationals were granted Finnish citizenship. One of them is Said Songoro who — after a smooth application process — officially became a Finn in April 2012.
In 2012, the number of citizenship applications rose by more than 39% in comparison with the previous year. A total of 7,865 people submitted a citizenship application in 2012, while in 2011 the figure was 5,632.
This increase is mainly attributable to the amendments made to the Nationality Act which took effect in September 2011. With the amendments, the period of residence required for acquiring Finnish citizenship was shortened from six to five years.
The number of accepted applications — 9,518 — was also record high. It more than doubled from the previous year's figure of 4,794.
Said Songoro, 29, who moved to Finland from Tanzania in 2006, applied for Finnish citizenship at the start of 2012. In April 2012, just a few months after submitting his application, he received an acceptance letter.
"It was quite a big decision for me to apply for Finnish citizenship. Of course, I was very happy to learn that my application had been accepted, but the next day I started thinking, 'what have I done', since becoming a Finn meant that I had to give up my Tanzanian citizenship. Last autumn when I visited Tanzania for the first time since I had left the country, I had to apply for a visa, just like any other foreigner", Said says, but adds that he is very happy to hold a Finnish passport.
The main reason why Said decided to apply for Finnish citizenship was his work as a lorry driver. He studied logistics at vocational school and graduated as a driver of articulated vehicles a couple of years ago. So far he has mainly worked in southern Finland, but in the future he hopes to work abroad, too. That's when a Finnish passport will be particularly useful.
"As a Finn, it's easier to travel within Europe, and in other countries, too", he says.
Work was, however, not the only reason why Said applied for Finnish citizenship: he has a wife and two-year-old son in Finland, both Finnish citizens. Now the whole family is officially Finnish.
"Finland feels like home now."
Said's new citizenship status has had little impact on the Songoros' everyday life. The biggest change would be if Said got called up to serve in the army. If this happened, Said says it's self-evident that he would carry out his military service. Soon, however, he won't have to wait anymore, since only those under the age of 30 are called up. According to Said, a lot of young male immigrants postpone applying for Finnish citizenship in the fear of having to go to the army.
Proactive attitude sped up the process
When Said came to Finland around seven years ago, he was told that the last time a Tanzanian was granted Finnish citizenship was ten years ago. So he did not have very high expectations as far as acquiring Finnish citizenship was concerned ‒ especially since getting a residence permit had also been a bit of an effort.
To his surprise he soon found out that the application process was actually quite smooth. He wasn't even required to present a language proficiency certificate as the language requirements that must be fulfilled to get Finnish citizenship were covered by his vocational school studies.
"But I think that the most important thing that sped up the processing of my application was that during the entire time I have lived in Finland, I have studied or worked. First I took Finnish courses at Helsinki Diakonia College. After that I got a job as a cleaner. I completed vocational school as an evening course, alongside work", Said says. But he knows many people who have not been that lucky.
"A lot of people have problems, particularly with the language test. As submitting a citizenship application costs 440 euros, you have to be pretty sure that your application gets accepted."
Said says that his experiences in working with the authorities in the citizenship application matters, for example, have been mainly positive. It seems that his proactive and positive attitude has also contributed to the smooth flow of things.
"Of course I've also met people who are not that willing to help. But then I go to another person and manage to get things going again", Said says.
Queues have not grown
According to Heikki Taskinen, Director of the Nationality Unit at the Finnish Immigration Service, the increased number of citizenship applications has not had a negative impact on the processing times or on the length of the application queues: the average processing time is now 381 days, while in 2011 it was around 373 days.
"We make constant efforts to shorten the application queue, and we do this by processing applications from both ends of the queue. We process older applications, but at the same time we also handle more recent, relatively clear cases on a speedier timetable", Taskinen says.
Taskinen also explains that a couple of new fixed-term employees have been hired to the Nationality Unit, and efforts are made to boost the work flow through technological improvements, for example. Today, citizenship applications may be lodged online, and the processing of applications is facilitated by the UMA information system. The new Nationality Decree that came into force in May gives hope for even faster processing times.
"In the future, we will be able to make more efficient use of register data. In addition, some of the tasks of the Police will be transferred to the Immigration Service, which we also expect to improve efficiency", Taskinen says.
Text: Maria Markus / Media Road Service
Photo: Jyrki Vesa / Media Road Service