Text: Kari Martiala Photos: Prime Minister’s Office
The article was published in Finland Bridge magazine 2/2020

“I’m sending greetings to all Finns and their families living overseas.”

Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo-

“It is extremely important that all views are welcome and that we can build an understanding of how we function in this global, interdependent world. All thoughts and ideas for development from overseas are highly appreciated,” says Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo.

 The Finnish government’s nearly year-long journey has been marked by various upheavals. First there was Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, then a cabinet crisis in late 2019 and now the coronavirus pandemic. 

 “Considering the Interior Ministry’s field of work more broadly, I can conclude that we’re in charge of a huge range of issues and there’s been a lot to learn about during the first year. I hope that soon, after my first year as interior minister, I’ll have a chance to focus on it all a little more calmly,” Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo says.

 “Finnish expatriatism is an enormously vast issue and concerns several ministries. A cross-governmental approach can often be a challenge on the municipal level and in many other ways – and it is indeed much-discussed in the government. Although the phenomena themselves may easily cross administrative borders, we get easily siloed into certain places,” she observes.

 According to Ohisalo, coordinating the Government Policy Program for Expatriate Finns fits in well with the interior minister’s job description.

 “I’m certainly happy to hear what kind of thoughts the Finland Society has, what sort of discussion there’s been previously and whether things are working the best possible way in the present state. Would it perhaps be more sensible to start new kinds of forums to allow issues move more smoothly between different ministries?” she asks.

 “A year ago, when we started to negotiate the government program, for the first time we used a ‘phenomenon-based’ working method, which enables you to see things more broadly. It’s not always a very easy way to work, but we started working with one phenomenon at a time and not according to a particular ministry,” explains Ohisalo.

 “For instance a safe country based on rule of law is strongly linked with the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Defense Ministry. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health also plays a role in the overall concept of building a safe constitutional state.”

Toss all ideas onto the table

 The Government Policy Program for Expatriate Finns is valid through 2021. Before it ends, the cabinet will begin to plan the next steps. At this point, it is not yet known what those steps will be. 

 “They could involve a policy program, a strategy or even a cross-governmental virtual roundtable, which could work more actively and cooperate with all parties involved in the issue. In my opinion, all ideas should now be tossed onto the table. After that we can discuss what the next steps could be.”

 Ohisalo worked as a researcher for many years before becoming a fulltime politician.

 “I’ve been thinking how to include researchers in the planning of the program. It might be interesting to cooperate with migration researchers at the Migration Institute of Finland, for instance. I’d be happy to receive these kinds of ideas. This is an enormous issue globally, since migration gravitates in different directions during different eras. Especially now, in the days of climate change, when we may be facing pandemics even worse than the coronavirus, we must be prepared for a new world with new types of migration.” 

People should not be forced to leave countries they like 

 During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Finnish Foreign Ministry recommended that Finns traveling overseas should return home. At the same time, many expatriates who had lived overseas for a long time thought that this could be the right moment to move back to Finland. People have been wondering what the world will look like after coronavirus since it will likely remain in circulation for a long time.

 “Many people have certainly believed that the Finnish welfare state has traditionally been able to manage all kinds of crises. We are doing preparation and readiness planning and have been able to secure our healthcare system quickly during the coronavirus epidemic. The situation isn’t necessarily the same in the rest of the world.”

According to Ohisalo, a global crisis requires global solutions.

“The Finnish government supports the World Health Organization’s work and we participate in vaccine research. The goal is to find a global solution so that people wouldn’t have to leave places where they enjoy living because of coronavirus,” Ohisalo points out.

Exporting a positive image of Finland 

Interior Minister Ohisalo knows well what it is like to live overseas.

“I lived for a couple of years in Sweden, studying and interning. In addition, I studied one fall term in Paris and later spent a couple of months in Oxford, England, working on my doctoral thesis. However, I never officially moved to those countries but just lived there temporarily. Nevertheless, all those stays were tremendously important experiences for me,” she says.

 According to Ohisalo, expatriate Finns are a significant resource for all of Finland.

 “It is extremely important that all views are welcome. Through them we can build an understanding from a bit further afield as to how we function in this global, interdependent world,” she says.

 “Let’s not just sell Finnish goods and expertise but also – through spoken words and social media – a good image of Finland which can bring investments here and make people want to move here and work here. The labor shortage will hit Finland hard because our population is aging, just like many other Western countries. All thoughts and ideas for development from overseas are highly appreciated,” Ohisalo says.

 For precisely these reasons, building a policy program, strategy or other alternative for expatriate Finns would be a good opportunity for inclusion.  

 “I’m not quite sure if it was possible to hear people’s views extensively during the previous policy program processes, but we’re interested in all ideas and views during the preparation work.”

Finns are always allowed to return to Finland

The Finnish government is continuously discussing the tools of the exit strategy for the coronavirus situation. As part of this process, the government is considering which restrictions can be gradually loosened.

“The goal is that people can start living as normally as possible. We just need to learn to live with this disease, because the coronavirus may be around for a long time before vaccines are developed.”

According to Ohisalo, the government aims to get the situation under control so that Finland can start opening its borders again.

“Tourist traffic will be one of the last things to open. However, Finnish citizens and their family members always have a right to return to Finland and also leave the country, since these rights are written into the constitution,” she says.

In other words, you can always come back to Finland. The system works and people receive support here. The only problem is that traveling is difficult because connections in Europe are very limited right now.

“We must live one week at the time because the disease is so new and new information is continuously coming up about it. We may have to restrict travel between different areas of Finland even more if the disease starts spreading in some new way.”

Ohisalo has received feedback from overseas. Clearly, people are actively monitoring how the coronavirus situation is being managed in Finland. 

“We’ve succeeded in many areas. This is, naturally, mostly thanks to all Finns – both here in Finland and overseas.”

“We’re known as a rather rule-oriented people. It’s easy for us to listen to and trust experts and officials, which isn’t always the case in the rest of the world. It’s great to see that people follow instructions, because it’s the only way to control this disease. We can set restrictions politically but ultimately we can ban relatively few things. I would not want to live in a country where people’s basic rights are violated without justification.”

Maria Ohisalo, 35, has served as Finland’s Interior Minister and chair of the Green League since 2019. She has a doctoral degree in social science (sociology) and a master’s degree in political science (social policy). She served as co-chair of the Green Youth and Students in 2013-14, as the Greens’ deputy chair in 2015-19 and as a member of the Helsinki City Council since 2017. 

The Ministry of the Interior is in charge of migration policy and preparation of legislation on migration. Moreover, it represents Finland on migration issues in the European Union and international cooperation and coordinates work on migration issues between different administrative sectors. The ministry coordinates the preparation of the Government Policy Program for Expatriate Finns. 

Finland Bridge 2/2020