The refugee reception centre in Ruskeasuo opened its doors today, for it had two special visitors: Mr Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Ms Lenita Toivakka, Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade and Development. A small media pack shadowed the pair as the Red Cross staff gave a tour of their facility, which included a recreation room and a play area, until the tour went to the higher levels of the building that were off-limits to the media. For a fraction of a second, the press were able to catch a snippet of the daily life of people who have been transported from unimaginable conditions, to place of relative comfort and immense security. To have this intimacy juxtaposed with an official visit and press conference held in the children’s’ play area was confronting, but perhaps representative of the ongoing debate surrounding refugees and the two extremities of the spectrum: people’s livelihood and jostling for position in the EU political landscape.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, arriving in Ruskeasuo reception centre in Helsinki, Finland on April 12 2016. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, arriving in Ruskeasuo reception centre in Helsinki, Finland on April 12 2016. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

To see these children playing, laughing, and relaxing was a welcome sight, when one of the staff quipped, “People ate more here than we anticipated for the first two weeks after their arrival, due to the uncertainty of food and their environment. These people are often on the road for at a minimum, two weeks, if not several months, and have even reported walking for 26 weeks.” Instantly, we were all reminded of the harsh realities of war-torn regions and people’s endurance. The sudden transition from watching carefree children to imaging the brutal path that had landed them in Ruskeasuo on a peaceful Spring morning was certainly tragic and surreal.

Amin, 6, playing in the centre. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Amin, 6, playing in the centre. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Mr Maurer was clear about the difficulties of people on this path, stating, “I remind you that half of the Syrian population is displaced. Out of the half, only 4 million have been refugees in neighbouring countries. 8 million are displaced within Syria. Trying to cope with those enormous numbers in Syria is a huge problem because we don’t have the access, we don’t have the security, we don’t have the license to operate from all the armed groups, so it’s a very challenging environment.”

The situation in Europe was also touched upon,and the new set of challenges that it brings. “We are in a completely new situation in Europe. I wouldn’t have thought when I started four years ago (as President of ICRC) that one of our main operations would be in Europe. Because of the displacements and the necessity to look at migration trails and to see how as a Red Cross movement, we can find the best possible response at each and every stage. In Syria and Afghanistan, our challenge is access to the people, trying to stabilise where they are, and try to scale up our operations so they don’t feel the immense necessity to leave,” stated Maurer. Praising the work that Finland has contributed, he continued, “I think that we have achieved quite a lot in this, but then also we see that those conflicts continue and we have to work with our partners together. It’s great to have Finland as an important supporter of the ICRC on the frontline, but also as a supporter of the Red Cross movement.”

The reception centre saw its first arrivals on the 16th of November, 2015. Predominately, the refugees are from Iraq and Syria, with a small number of Afghanis. Sixty percent of the families in the building were moved to another centre this year, which was better equipped for family life, namely cooking facilities, which no doubt brings comfort to people who have lacked agency in their struggle to find safety. In this building, the inhabitants are fed by the nearby hospital, attend school in the area, and have a busy programme full of activities that aim to ease their arrival. The centre acts as a reception centre, from where people are moved to a more permanent location, and thus the introductory necessities are prioritised. Transitions are important, and time is of the essence in the successful stabilisation of their lives.

Peter Maurer meets the Finnish premier Juha Sipilä at the prime minister's official residence Kesäranta on Tuesday afternoon. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Peter Maurer meets the Finnish premier Juha Sipilä at the prime minister’s official residence Kesäranta on Tuesday afternoon. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

For Finland, the ICRC is an important partner: last year, Finland’s humanitarian aid to the ICRC totalled 11.8 million euros, used to help those in distress in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Ethiopia. On the 17th of March this year, Finland granted 61.9 million euros in humanitarian aid to the most severe crisis areas in the world. The majority of this support will be sent to Syria and its neighbouring countries, where 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and nearly 5 million Syrians have fled. 2.5 million of this will be sent to the Finnish Red Cross for Syria. However, last year the government signalled that there would be cuts from development aid totalling 4.3 million euros, which will affect NGOs in Finland and foreign nations in need of aid.

Earlier this month, the first plane carrying 11 Syrian refugees arrived in Finland as part of the deal between the EU and Turkey, whereby Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who enter Greece illegally, including Syrians, in return for the EU taking thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, adding monetary incentives, visa-free travel, and progress with its EU membership negotiations. Naturally, Maurer had comments regarding this recent deal, ““I think that we have, as other humanitarian organisations, we have concerns with regard to the practices, but we are here in particular as a movement to engage in a dialogue with European countries some that the implementation of legislation of those decisions that have been made, in the EU-Turkey agreement, that they are handled in a way that are as close as possible to the important protection ambitions that international law provides.”  Continuing, one of the tangible fears of the recent deal was acknowledged, “I think that it’s too early to be judgmental about the issue… we need the political statement to transform into concrete procedures, concrete protection measures, and we see some concerns that we have with sending back some of the people now to Turkey, not because necessarily of what happens immediately in Turkey, but what happens eventually when Turkey sends them back to their country of origin.”

Yara, 5, a refugee girl from Iraq. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Yara, 5, a refugee girl from Iraq. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

One of the more difficult complications of the current crisis is the contrast between border closure and responsibility, on which Maurer gave clear opinions.

“A huge challenge can be seen working with these people who flee for a reason, and those who flee for a good reason need protection, and closure is not a recipe to offer protection. On the other hand, we have to be pragmatic . . . everybody knows that you cannot expect the countries to have uncontrolled movements, so it’s legitimate to have security concerns with regard to how to manage migrations flows, and I think the big challenge today is that we have a discrepancy between the numbers of people who need protection, and the numbers of people, that European countries think that they are able to reasonably integrate and cater for. This discrepancy needs to be proactively managed . . . we need to ensure that the basic provision of international law, in particular, refugee law, is applied and that the individual scrutiny is still an important element of the decision of whether someone needs protection, or whether other solutions can be found . . . either in resettlement in a host country or other solutions. I cannot imagine that you can just leave it to the decision of the refugees to go where they like. Sooner or later we need some burden sharing and equitable distribution of burdens, and you can’t really opt out of a solidarity situation, where everybody has to take a share.”

After the children and their parents had been left to continue without the watchful eyes of the media pack, Maurer gave some closing remarks that many politicians and the nations which they represent could adopt some of his optimism: “Lets not forget now that even though we have all those numbers, that these are people, who for Europe, also represent opportunities . . . we should not only see migrants and refugees as a burden, and therefore we should not only talk about distribution of burden. It is a burden, but it is also an opportunity for the societies, and I think it is important to highlight this.”

Peter Maurer embraces Lenita Toivakka, the Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade and Development. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Peter Maurer embraces Lenita Toivakka, the Finnish Minister for Foreign Trade and Development. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today