The beginning of the new millennium was a time when the Baltic states were finalizing their accession to the European Union. In Finland, the number of asylum seekers started growing. Also, it was a time when new offices were opened: in 2002 in Norway, in 2004 in Estonia and in 2009 in Denmark.
In 2004 Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became members of the EU. This meant changes in funding and programming as the focus shifted to EU funds and their priorities. For some activities, like counter-trafficking (CT), the work continued as before, with focus on the Baltic states.
“Our projects produced studies, handbooks, trainings, and raised awareness of trafficking in human beings, focusing on youth - a target group that has remained important for IOM Finland ever since.”, recalls Jaana Sipilä, CT Specialist at IOM Finland.
During those years, many of the projects were multi-national projects funded by the European Commission.
“Anti-discrimination was one of the themes we focused on at the time. We participated in an EU- funded project on equality for migrants in the health care system. In another project, we trained lawyers and judges in anti-discrimination legislation, through e-learning”, says Sipilä.
Some projects were more of a one-of-a-kind-nature. Simo Kohonen, present Chief of Mission, talks about the hectic work involved in setting up the out-of-country voting system for the first democratic elections in Iraq. Due to the large number of Iraqi diaspora residing in Sweden and Denmark these countries took part in the voting.
“We got the information in early November 2004 and the elections took place at the end of January 2005. At the time, we had no presence in either country, so we had to hire people through recruitment agencies, send people to be trained in Amman during Christmas and make the ad campaigns first for the registration and then the voting itself.”
Another project of a one-off-nature was the handling of the claims for the German Forced Labour Compensation Programme. The programme was devised to pay out compensation to those who had been forced into slave labour during the Second World War and IOM Finland handled the outreach and the filing of the claims for Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.
In 2005, there was a big change as the Mission in Finland was expanded to cover also six countries in the Eastern European neighbourhood and the Southern Caucasus.
“Suddenly we were presiding over a region spanning five time zones from Azerbaijan in the east to Iceland in the west”, the then Regional Representative, Dr. Thomas Weiss, says.
He says that this was an opportunity to build interesting bridges among the different parts of the region covered from Helsinki.
“We had the opportunity to raise interest and funds in the Nordics for projects we implemented in the Eastern neighbourhood and building solid bridges among the countries covered by the Mission.”
Kohonen says that the expansion meant that Helsinki oversaw four very different sub-regions:
“We had the Nordics, who were developed countries. Then we had the Baltics, who were ramping up capacity and trying to catch up as new EU members. Then there were the countries in the Eastern Neighbourhood who were knocking on the EU’s door and then the Caucasus. All had very different funding opportunities and activities. Ukraine and Moldova each had more staff than the whole old region together. They had large counter-trafficking and migrant health programmes.”
In 2008, IOM Finland developed an EU- funded comprehensive programme for Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration.
“In the beginning there was no framework for AVRR, IOM invented it. Before 2009 the return programme in Finland applied only to certain nationalities or to rejected asylum seekers”, tells Tobias van Treeck, Programme Coordinator for AVRR.
IOM Finland was able to offer a broad range of services to all third country nationals with different legal statuses. Among the services were counselling, info materials, training of different authorities and stakeholders.
Another significant thing was the start of the MIDA FINNSOM project in 2008 that helps to build up the Somali health system of with the help the Somali diaspora.
“The diaspora approached us as they knew of our Return of Qualified Nationals-programme in a number of African countries. We did some hard and targeted resource mobilization and were able to get funds from the Finnish and the Swedish Foreign Ministries to do some exploratory missions. We set up the framework and mechanism for IOM’s very first MIDA Health programme that continues to be implemented today”, Dr. Weiss says.
Ten years later the programme is still active and has helped close to two hundred diaspora experts to spread their expertise in different parts of Somalia.
“It is still highly relevant and responding to the desire of the Somali diaspora to help their country of origin, as much as to the needs of the local people and communities in Somalia. It is a beautiful example of health professionals building solid bridges between their old home and new homes”, Dr. Weiss says.
The writer is IOM Finland's Communications and Liaison Specialist.