Seeking asylum in Swedish-dominant Finland: stories of Mohammad and Fatema

Autumn 2015 brought a wake-up call for Europe regarding asylum seekers and refugees from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This paper asks: How do refugees seeking asylum carry on with their lives, dependent as they are on the decisions of the migration office and the courts, and far away from their homes and families? My insights derive from linguistic team ethnography Jag bor i Oravais which took place in and around a reception centre for refugees seeking asylum in Finland (2015–2017), a country that received over ten times more asylum claims in 2015 than the previous year.

The reception centre, established in 1991, is in a small rural municipality in a Swedish-dominant region, far away from the populous Helsinki Metropolitan area. The reception center has chosen to provide language education primarily in Finnish for all its residents – children and adults – despite its location. This is because Finnish is felt to enhance the possibility of social inclusion in the country: many people who leave the center subsequently settle in Finnish-dominant regions in Southern Finland (e.g. the Helsinki Metropolitan area) in hope of a better life for them and their children. Nevertheless, a range of linguistic repertoires are available in the daily lives of the residents.  

In this paper I focus on two persons, Mohammad and Fatema, and how they navigate the labyrinth of Finnish asylum and language policies while awaiting the decision on their asylum claim. Drawing on interview, interactional and online multimodal data, I explore Mohammad’s and Fatema’s language use in the small Swedish-dominant village where the reception center was located, their relationships and social networks and their online life with people in Finland (Finns locally and nationally, as well as others from their home country) and their family back home. In so doing, I interrogate themes of majority/minority language use and linguistic repertoires. I examine these themes through narratives of displacement, theories of multisited policy-making and social networks, and an understanding of migration and ‘integration’ as inherently complex.  

Sari Pöyhönen is professor of applied language studies at the Centre for Applied Language Studies, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research focuses on language education policies, minorities and language rights, adult migrant language education, and notions on language and identity. Her recent publications deal with social networks of refugees seeking asylum, policies and practices in adult migrant language education, and discourses and narratives of linguistic rights, migration, integration and work.