The focus of IOM Finland’s operational work in the first years was on the Baltic states. At the same time, it was important to build up a strong Nordic presence. The first Regional Representative in Helsinki was Øystein Opdahl. He was followed by José-Angel Oropeza in 1997, who remained in charge until 2002.
“At the same time with the operations in the Baltics, we enlarged our activities in the Nordic countries in the field of voluntary return, integration and resettlement . Consequently, IOM Finland operations and staff were expanded considerably.” Oropeza recounts. Erikas Slavenas, Programme Officer at IOM Finland in 2000-2002, says that being a regional office, IOM Finland’s task was to think strategically about the whole region and support all the countries in project development and funding.
“The Baltic states and Poland joining the EU shaped our work. We were getting considerable EU-funding to work with them on pre-accession capacity building technical assistance.”
One of the biggest programmes in the first years was the Comprehensive Migration Management Programme (COMPRE) for the Baltic states and Belarus. The aim was to build up migration management systems for the East and Central European states. Assisting the Baltic states for their entry to the EU became a major objective.
Heikki Mattila, who was deputy Chief of Mission in 1995 -1997, praises COMPRE.
“For instance, we organized exchanges for half a year from the statistical bureaus in the Baltics to the EU’s statistical office Eurostat. Statistics is a fundamental part of migration management, and in the Baltics, there were still some old school thoughts on openness of statistic and data.”
Mattila says that there were seminars or workshops in the participating countries at least once a month, which necessitated a lot of travel. He recalls the first time he went to Minsk.
“At that time Minsk was a world of its own. The chief of the border control was a bear of a man, who put on quite a show when I came to the office. He bellowed that if the computers they need are not coming, he will cause a stir. I saw the employees smiles and guessed that he was putting on a show. Then we were able to discuss calmly and orderly.”
Oropeza points to the preparation of the Baltic states’ accession to the EU as one of the most important events of his time. Global migration was becoming a reality that also touched the former Soviet states.
“I would say that our cooperation greatly contributed to the alignment of Baltic states' policies, procedures and administration of migration with those of the European Union. This was necessary for accession of the Baltic states to the European Union.”
In 1998, the IOM offices in Vilnius (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia) were opened.
“The main problem at that time in Lithuania was the illegal transit of migrant s due to the porous borders. As Latvia and Estonia had only sea borders with the “West”, ours was the only land passage that remained and the flows of irregular migrants, mainly from East Asia, was drastically increasing”, says Dr. Audra Sipavičienė, the first Head of Office in Vilnius.
Many of those were residing in Russia and trying to get to Germany. The Lithuanian authorities apprehended the irregular migrants but were at a loss with what to do with them after that. IOM Lithuania and IOM Finland together established a programme for Assisted Voluntary Return.
In Latvia the first focus was also on returns. “The largest project was the voluntary return of Russian elderly and handicapped persons”, says Ilmārs Mežs, who started up the office in Riga.
The total number of returns through this initiative was around 1,500.
“Most of them did not want to fly, so we organized the transport by land. It was possible as most returns were to places like Saint Petersburg or Moscow. The amounts of luggage were staggering: many brought furniture with them.”
Those years also saw the first counter-trafficking campaigns in the Baltic states. “I remember the first pan-Baltic campaign where the slogan was 'Do not believe in easy money abroad: you will be sold as a doll'”, recalls Dr. Sipavičienė.
Awareness raising campaigns were done in schools and in the media, but the priority in Latvia was on the police, prosecutors and the rest of the judiciary, and in Lithuania on social workers and NGO’s.
“We needed them to realize that human trafficking is a serious crime and that victims need assistance.”
Jaana Vuorio, now Director General at the Finnish Immigration Service, remembers participating in a conference on voluntary returns in 1997. At the time Finland still thought this concept did not concern the country.
“People left by themselves or were deported by the police. But in the beginning of the year 2000 there was a pilot AVR (Assisted Voluntary Return) programme for Roma people from Eastern Europe. I was impressed by the huge amount of knowledge that IOM had on these issues in Germany and the Netherlands.”
The writer is IOM Finland's Communications and Liaison Specialist.