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Kimmo Nikulainen - Former Foreign Law Student Intern

Kimmo is a recent graduate of University of Lapland Faculty of Law. He was working in our Portland, OR office from September through December 1999, learning basics of U.S. immigration law and experiencing the American way of life.

Kouvola, Finland in June 2001

Having completed my 12-month court training in Iisalmi District Court, I have been working as a lawyer at the Refugee Advice Centre since March this year. I’m posted in RAC´s Kouvola office with senior lawyer Anna-Maija Toukkari who has been tutoring me during my first months as a refugee lawyer.

The Refugee Advice Centre is a non-governmental organization offering cost-free legal assistance to asylum seekers in Finland. Funded mainly by the Ministry of Labour, the Centre has offices in four towns in Finland (Helsinki, Kouvola, Vaasa and Oulu) and a total of nine full time lawyers.

In Finland The Directorate of Immigration is in charge of processing asylum applications. The initial questioning of an asylum seeker is always conducted by the police or the border patrol. After the initial phase there are two alternative routes for a case to be investigated. The Directorate of Immigration has power to take over any single asylum applicant it is interested in. In such cases, an Immigration inspector handles the conclusion of an asylum interview. However, in most cases, the entire asylum interview is conducted by a police officer with limited knowledge of refugee issues. After the interview protocol is completed, it is delivered to the Directorate of Immigration.

The latter route is arguably less favourable from the applicant’s point of view. The decision maker will never actually see the applicant, thus the decision is based solely on a protocol written by an often inadequately trained police officer. This problem was recognized by the Directorate of Immigration and a solution was introduced to reslolve the inequality. Since April 2001 the Directorate of Immigration has conducted a limited number of asylum interviews itself. It strives to eventually interview all the applicants and remove the aspect of unfairness that  remains in Finnish asylum investigation procedure.

In my first month at the Centre I mostly sat in with our senior lawyer’s client meetings, visited the three asylum seekers’ reception centres our office serves and read tons of literature regarding Finnish and international refugee statutes.

Soon enough it was time to start independent work with my own clients. My main duty is to provide the newly arrived asylum seeker with information on the asylum investigation procedure and our organization’s services. I also accompany some asylum seekers to their interviews. At the Centre we offer three ways of consulting a lawyer. The most common way is to have the client visit our office, but sometimes it can be more convenient for the lawyer to travel to the reception centre where the asylum seekers live while their applications are being processed. The third alternative is to talk to the client on the phone. This method is especially used in initial information consultations when the asylum seeker does not have any documentary evidence to share with the lawyer.

One unique aspect to refugee law is the frequent use of interpreters. During my three months on the job I have only had one client who managed himself in English. While most people can exchange common courtesies in English, it is in the asylum seekers’ interest to have a native speaker interpreter present when explaining those sometimes very complicated events that initiated the flight to Finland.

The vast majority of my clients come from the ex-Soviet states. Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are the three most common sources of ill-fortuned people making their way to Finland. Russia in the year 2001 seems to me like Al Capone-era Chicago. Organized crime groups control alarmingly large pieces of the Russian business pie and the level of police corruption must be close to that of Mexico. The people of Ukraine and Belarus are being suffocated by authoritarian leaders Kuchma and Lukashenko. In Minsk people disappear for speaking their mind, in St. Petersburg police officers rape detained women… And the closest western democracy is, you guessed it, Finland!  Add to that the huge economical gap between Finland and Russia and hey! What we’ve got here is a situation similar to that at the US-Mexican border (minus cactuses).

Kimmo Nikulainen

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