The End Of The Migrant Road

Migration and mistrust in a small Finnish town.

This is Kemi
Like many towns in northern Finland, Kemi never fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2008.
But despite 20% unemployment and a shrinking population, the town has always been a peaceful and very... Finnish kind of a place.
Each winter, travelers come from around the world to visit Kemi's famous snow castle, and maybe hike into the forests for a glimpse of the northern lights.
No one much talked about Kemi
...until last year
In 2015, little Kemi found itself on the front lines of a crisis that's threatening to fragment Europe.
The refugee crisis.
RFE/RL file photo
Why Kemi?
RFE/RL file photo
Finland has one of Europe's most generous benefits schemes for refugees. In September 2015, millionaire Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila offered his vacation home (pictured) for use by a migrant family.
The announcement flashed through social media in the Middle East. The message was clear: In Finland, refugees are welcome. By the end of 2015, 32,000 migrants had entered Finland, compared to just 3,600 in 2014.
Situated just a few kilometers from the Swedish border, Kemi has become a first stop for arriving migrants. Some move on, but for many, Kemi is the end of a long, dangerous journey.
On Kemi's frozen streets, signs of the influx are plain to see.
Somalian refugees Mohammed Ali Elmi (left) and Saadiq mus Muhammed. Both say they love Finland despite the harsh winters. "Weather is nothing," says Saadiq, 23, "I saw people die on the way here. I don't care how cold life is, I'm just happy I still have my life."
The two friends, who met in Kemi, were on the way to their Finnish language class. "Language is the lock: Once we can open that, the whole door to Finland opens for us."
In the center of Kemi, the Red Cross offers language and cultural lessons for migrants. One of them spoke to RFE/RL about living for the first time in a predominantly Christian country.
"I used to believe that Christian people hate Islam, that they want to kill us and interfere in our internal politics. That they want to stop our countries developing. Then I came to Finland and I saw that Christian people are just like me. They care for me, they give me everything. My friend was in the hospital here, and when I saw the way the nurses were treating him I was on the brink of crying.... Everything I thought I knew about Christian countries, I erased it, I deleted it from my mind."
But one group of local men has made it clear that not everyone is happy with the changes to their town.
In autumn 2015, at the height of the refugee influx, five Kemi men sat down over a beer to form a vigilante group that has since attracted more than 500 members throughout Finland. One of those five men, we'll call him Kim, described to RFE/RL what led to the creation of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group notorious for its street "patrols." "There were 500 people arriving in Kemi every day. When the Red Cross gave them blankets and water, they were just tossing the trash out on the street. They were so ******* ungrateful." The group now has chapters all over Finland, adding to an increasingly anguished national debate around immigration.
Supplied Photo
Kemi itself feels split. Many express quiet support for the group and fear what will become of Finnish culture, but there is also plenty of opposition.
Afghan-born Alborz Alif has lived in Finland for 17 years and now works at a pizzeria in Kemi. He says the Soldiers of Odin occasionally eat at the restaurant. "They've always been friendly with me, but my [Afghan] colleague doesn't have such good Finnish and they were making fun of him.... I've seen them coming in here drunk.... If these are the guys protecting our city, then maybe we don't need protecting."
Sanna Kreivi and boyfriend Sami Tiirikainen as a nightclub shuts its doors. Says Sanna: "It makes me sad that these guys [The Soldiers of Odin] started here – we're this village pretending to be a city. No one cared about Kemi, now suddenly everyone is talking about us for having Nazis on the streets."
But like almost all locals who spoke to RFE/RL, Sanna sees no reason to allow mass immigration. "The borders have to be closed. If people really need help, then we should help them. But half of these people aren't from the countries they say they are.... Kemi is just a village, a village pretending to be a city. We can't help everyone."
Outside the nightclub, "Ahmed" from Afghanistan is one of several migrants who spend Saturday nights collecting bottles and cans discarded by partying Finns. Migrants are a rare sight in the center after dark. Most stay home, reportedly to avoid Odin's night patrols.
A young Afghan migrant with a collection of cans. Bottles earn 10 euro cents, cans 15, when they are redeemed at a collection center in town. The men say they can earn around 5-6 euros a night and they do it to supplement the "very small" benefits they get as refugee applicants.
Kim accepts that there are neo-Nazis within the organization. But he claims they are outliers and that concern for the safety of Finnish people is what binds the group.
"We're just here to be the eyes and ears of the police. If we can stop one rape, one crime, from happening, then all this will have been worth it."
Supplied Photo
The issue of sexual assault by migrants is a highly charged topic in Finland. In 2015, 25 asylum seekers were suspected of rape. The same report claims sex crimes involving foreign nationals have increased "significantly" since 2014.
Supplied Photo
A temporary mosque in an office block in Kemi. When shown this picture, two Soldiers of Odin members expressed shock. "I don't care if you're black, brown, or blue, but if you're in Finland and you try to change the way Finnish people live, then we're going to stop that."
In the temporary mosque, our photographer was questioned about his faith. As a non-Muslim in the "house of Allah," one man insisted that he leave. It's these kinds of tensions that some Finns fear will lead to a clash of cultures. (The photographer was later allowed back into the mosque by younger worshipers.)
The Lutheran church in the center of Kemi. At the height of the autumnal influx, the church was housing migrants who had nowhere else to sleep.
Pastor Tapio Karjula, here giving a sermon inside Kemi's snow castle, says the position of the church will always be to welcome refugees. It's a policy that has caused a wave of departures from the Lutheran ranks. One former member wrote online, "The Church no longer defends Christian values, they support Islam's entry into Finland. Shame on you fools."
Although the harsh winter has reduced migrant arrivals to a trickle, when spring arrives here the Red Cross expects migrants to "get moving" once more. But there are signs that Finland's response to the new arrivals is hardening. In February 2016, the prime minister withdrew his offer to house migrants at his vacation home, citing "security concerns" for his change of heart.

Share this story

Follow RFE/RL


  • Amos Chapple, photos
  • Wojtek Grojec, design