Anti-immigrant ‘Soldiers of Odin’ raise concern in Finland


Wearing black jackets adorned with a symbol of a Viking and the Finnish flag, the “Soldiers of Odin” have surfaced as self-proclaimed patriots patrolling the streets to protect native Finns from immigrants, worrying the government and police.

On the northern fringes of Europe, Finland has little history of welcoming large numbers of refugees, unlike neighbouring Sweden. But as with other European countries, it is now struggling with a huge increase in asylum seekers and the authorities are wary of any anti-immigrant vigilantism.

A group of young men founded Soldiers of Odin, named after a Norse god, late last year in the northern town of Kemi. This lies near the border community of Tornio, which has become an entry point for migrants arriving from Sweden.

Since then the group has expanded to other towns, with members stating they want to serve as eyes and ears for the police who they say are struggling to fulfil their duties. 

Members blame “Islamist intruders” for what they believe is an increase in crime and they have carried placards at demonstrations with slogans such as “Migrants not welcome”. 

While most Finns disapprove of the group, its growth signals disquiet in a country strained by the cost of receiving the asylum seekers while mired in a three-year-old recession that has forced state spending and welfare cuts.

Finnish police have also reported harassment of women by “men with a foreign background” at New Year celebrations in Helsinki, as well as at some public events last autumn. 

This followed complaints of hundreds of sexual assaults on women in Cologne and other German cities – with investigations focused on illegal migrants and asylum seekers – and allegations that Swedish police covered up accusations of similar assaults by mostly migrant youths in Stockholm.

Police files show reported cases of sexual harassment in Finland almost doubled to 147 in the last four months of 2015 from 75 in the same period a year earlier. The figures give no ethnic breakdown of the alleged perpetrators.

NO PLACE FOR VIGILANTES

The government has made clear there can be no place for vigilantes. “As a matter of principle, police are responsible for law and order in the country,” Prime Minister Juha Sipila told public broadcaster YLE on Tuesday, responding to concerns about the group. “Civilian patrols cannot assume the authority of the police.” 

Finland received about 32,000 asylum seekers last year, a leap from 3,600 in 2014. Yet it has a relatively small immigrant community, with only around 6 percent of the population foreign-born in 2014 compared with a European Union average of 10 percent.

In Kemi, the Soldiers of Odin patrol the streets daily despite the temperatures sinking to -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). The group has stated it operates in 23 towns, but police says the network operates in five. Its Facebook page has 7,600 “likes”. 

“In our opinion, Islamist intruders cause insecurity and increase crime,” the group says on its website. One self-proclaimed member, aiming to recruit new members in the eastern town of Joensuu, said on Facebook the group is “a patriotic organisation that fights for a white Finland”.

In the eastern German city of Leipzig, more than 200 masked right-wing supporters, carrying placards with racist overtones, went on a rampage this week.

Last October, a masked swordsman in Sweden killed two people with immigrant backgrounds in a school attack that fuelled fears that the refugee influx is polarising public opinion.

In Finland, no clashes have been reported between the Soldiers of Odin patrols and immigrants but police said they are keeping a close eye on the group. The Security Intelligence Service has said “some patrol groups” seem to have links to extremist movements.

LET THE POLICE DO THEIR JOB

Police acknowledge patrolling alone is not a crime. “As long as the patrols only report possible incidents to police, they have the right to do so,” said Kemi police Chief Inspector Eero Vanska. However, he added: “They should let the police do their job.”

Some Soldiers of Odin members play down the group's motives, saying it aims to help people regardless of their skin colour. The group has closed its website following reports on some members' criminal background. Members contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

But one of the group's founders in Kemi, Mika Ranta, made clear immigration was the focus.

“We woke up to a situation where different cultures met. It caused fear and concern in the community,” he told a local newspaper in October. “The biggest issue was when we learned from Facebook that new asylum seekers were hanging around primary schools, taking pictures of young girls.”

Vanska said some asylum seekers had been seen near schools with phones. But he added that these reports could be simple misunderstandings and there was no concrete evidence to support the accusations.

The coalition government – which includes The Finns, an anti-immigration party – has criticised the patrols.

“These kinds of patrol clearly have anti-immigration and racist attributes and their action does not improve security,” interior minister Petteri Orpo told Reuters. “Now the police must commit its scarce resources to (monitoring) their action.”

But the government faces pressure to clamp down more on asylum seekers. Support for The Finns party, which joined the coalition in May, has plummeted partly because voters are frustrated with the government's handling of migrants.

The government has tightened immigration policies, requiring working-age asylum seekers to do some unpaid jobs and acknowledge a “national curriculum” on Finnish culture and society.

The patrols have also prompted a counter-movement, with Facebook communities hoping to avert confrontations on the streets. One such is the Sisters of Kyllikki, named after a character in the national epic poem Kalevala.

“Our aim is to help people and to build up dialogue with all Finns as well as with immigrants,” said Niina Ruuska, a founder of the group which has about 1,500 Facebook members.

‘Green and clean’ tech Finland looks to Israel for inspiration


Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen is determined to overhaul his economy, and cites Israel's success as a “start-up” nation brimming with high-tech innovation as his model.

With just 5.4 million people, a world-class education system and an international mindset, Finland can be more nimble than many of its competitors at a time when its industrial output is in decline and productivity falling.

“We have to reinvent our country,” Katainen told Reuters, discussing Finland's tendency for 20-year economic cycles, the end of the last marked by Nokia's decline after a decade of global domination.

“The world market has changed. The products we have been producing aren't sold that much any more,” the 42-year-old said in an interview last week.

Katainen is banking on several high-tech sectors, in at least one of which Finland has already made a name for itself – the gaming industry, where companies such as Rovio, the designer of Angry Birds, are reknown.

The others are less colourfully consumer-oriented but no less in demand: next-generation biofuels such as algae and natural waste, technology around water use, and digital development in the healthcare and welfare industries.

In broad terms, Katainen refers to it as green-tech and clean-tech, industries the world will increasingly rely on as populations rise, renewable energy becomes more important and new levels of efficiency are demanded by businesses.

“Clean technology will be one of our main clusters which will bring in lots of jobs and tax money,” he says with the conviction of a leader who knows Finnish growth will suffer if a new direction and increased competitiveness cannot be found.

The country is already a leader in biofuels, and exports some of its next-generation bio-energy products to the United States, but is keen to ensure it stays ahead of the curve.

“A LOT LIKE ISRAEL”

Israel's success over the past two decades has in large part been built on connecting venture capital with sharp young people emerging from specialist military units with skills in telecommunications, surveillance and technology.

The country has broken new ground in Internet security, wireless communications and chip design, attracting investment from global leaders such as Intel. It has more companies listed on Nasdaq – 60 at last count – than any other country outside the United States apart from China.

Asked if Finland is looking to achieve something similar, both Katainen and his chief adviser nod in unison: “Yes, it's a lot like Israel,” says the prime minister.

Finland does not have the same military talent pool for its entrepreneurship. But it has reformed its universities in recent years, moving away from educating for professions such as law and focusing on training in new technology.

“Universities are like magnets for entrepreneurial people and venture capitalists,” said Katainen. “It's the first time in our history where research and entrepreneurship are shaking hands and creating something new.”

Over the past five years, he says, several universities have become more like innovation hubs, and have attracted venture capital from the United States and Russia, while also building close links to small-and-medium-sized businesses.

“This will be a turning point in our economy in the longer term,” he said. “This is something really special.”

While the bedrock may be there, Katainen also knows that Finland cannot afford to waste any time. While it is a triple-A rated economy, its competitiveness and productivity have been in decline since early 2010 after Europe's debt crisis struck.

With big welfare costs – it has one of Europe's most generous systems – and high taxes, cutting-edge technology may be critical for the investment and jobs needed for growth.

Additional reporting by Mike Peacock and Paul Taylor; Editing by Louise Ireland

European Parliament members in Israel discuss U.N. vote


Four members of the European Parliament met with Israeli leaders during a solidarity visit to Israel following its escalated conflict with Hamas.

The members of the European Parliament  returned to Brussels on Monday after touring the areas hit by Hamas rockets during the fighting that erupted on Nov. 14 on the Gaza border with Israel, when the Israeli military launched its Operation Pillar of Defense.

The visit by Marek Siwiec of Poland, Hannu Takkula of Finland, Bastiaan Belder of the Netherlands and Frederique Ries of Belgium was organized by the European Friends of Israel, an international group that aims to act as a framework for pro-Israel lawmakers.

During the visit, the lawmakers met President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, among other officials, and talked about the ramifications of the United Nations General Assembly vote last week to upgrade Palestine to non-member observer state and European voting patterns on Israel, according to an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. They also discussed other issues.

The delegation visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and several towns near Gaza, and did not visit the West Bank. The visit was scheduled approximately two months ago.

“Our plan for next year is not to focus solely on political issues,” said David Saranga, minister counsellor at Israel’s mission to the European Union. “Together with EFI we are looking for ways to make Israel relevant to a big number of members of the European Parliament by bringing Israel's experience in the fields of innovation, agriculture, technology, health care and medicine.”