The Finnish reform of the Nationality Act from a statelessness perspective: the good, the bad and the ugly

Michel Rouleau-Dick, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute for Human Rights – School of Law – Faculty of Social Sciences, Economics and Law (FSEJ), Åbo Akademi University
/ 5 mins read

Following the election of a new Finnish government in 2023, the coalition in power has been pushing for reform of the current Nationality Act and tightening of the requirements to acquire Finnish nationality. This is anticipated to include an increase in the residency requirements for naturalisation from five now, to eight years, as well as the introduction of a citizenship test. The proposed restrictions are primarily aimed at persons benefitting from international protection.

Finnish flags

The Minister of Interior, Mari Rantanen from the True Finns party, justifies this decision by saying that the current legal framework is ‘too lax’ and allows for ‘too easy access to Finnish nationality’. With this in mind, the government led by Prime Minister Petteri Orpo is currently going through the process of pushing this reform through parliament, thereby enacting significant changes to how Finland regulates who can be naturalised and become a national by application. In this blog, I will primarily address the relevance of these changes to the issue of statelessness, and to stateless persons in Finland.

The good

Looking at Finland’s legal commitments towards ending and addressing statelessness, a lot of good things can be said. Finland has ratified both relevant Conventions and has enacted relevant legislation to ensure a path to nationality for stateless persons in the country. This includes automatically granting Finnish nationality to a child born in Finland who would otherwise be stateless, as enacted in a 2003 reform of the Finnish Nationality Act.

A corollary obligation under the 1954 Statelessness Convention is the need to ensure access to the convention rights for stateless persons on the territory. The most effective way to do this is to establish a dedicated statelessness determination procedure or SDP. While Finland does not have an SDP, it has a related procedure in place to determine the citizenship status of an individual (current and previous citizenship(s), stateless, or unknown citizenship).  This is a good starting point, and it is worth highlighting that Finland has established safeguards in its nationality law to prevent statelessness at a point in time when the issue was not really on the agenda.

Current numbers on statelessness in Finland are not necessarily easy to come by due to the very nature of the phenomenon: stateless persons are often unregistered or not properly included in government numbers due to their lack of a citizenship. In 2021, Finland reported that there were 1273 persons of unknown nationality in the country. We should note here that the accuracy of this number is limited on one hand since “unknown nationality” does not necessarily mean that a person is stateless, and on the other hand, by the fact that these statistics are collected by the government. Statelessness is generally under-reported.

On the positive side of the reform proposed by the Orpo government, and perhaps as a testimony to the increasing awareness on statelessness, stateless persons would be exempted from the increase in residency requirements from five to eight years. The removal of a previous distinction between voluntary and involuntary statelessness is also a welcome step.

The bad

Where things get more complicated is once we start looking more closely at what Finland has in place to address statelessness. Yes, Finland has a procedure to determine nationality, but it does not have a statelessness determination procedure.. The primary purpose of nationality determination is not to identify and determine statelessness, but to assess acquisition or loss of Finnish nationality (as per Section 36 (1) of the current Nationality Act). Under the nationality determination procedure, the burden of proof to assess statelessness or nationality is largely on the applicant. A UNHCR report also highlighted the need to have at least the possibility of an oral hearing, and it also criticised the paperwork-intensive nature of the current procedure. We can thus question to what extent the current framework fulfils Finland’s international commitments on statelessness.

These measures may have been seen as a step in the right direction a decade ago, but Finland’s shortcomings on statelessness have been highlighted repeatedly, both in the context of the Universal Periodic Review (latest in 2016 and 2022) and by UNHCR. It is fair to expect Finland, a country that prides itself on promoting human rights, to do better when presented with the opportunity to address statelessness.

The ugly

Unfortunately, the proposed reform of the Nationality Act in its current form is likely to compound issues faced by stateless persons in Finland. Without a dedicated formal statelessness determination procedure, Finland still lacks the proper tools to identify stateless persons and ensure their access to the rights guaranteed them under the 1954 Convention. Because of the lack of a mechanism to identify and determine who is stateless on the territory, stateless persons who manage to acquire residence status in Finland may not be able to benefit from the reduction in residence requirements for stateless persons to naturalise. This means they would need to experience an additional three years of statelessness before qualifying for Finnish nationality. This is particularly an issue for stateless refugees, given the tightening of the Nationality Act in relation to beneficiaries of international protection, if a refugee’s statelessness hasn’t been recognised, they will have to wait longer to naturalise and access Finnish nationality. Being stateless means severe limitations to one’s rights, limitations that a residence permit can help mitigate but not solve entirely. The experiences of stateless persons show the mental toll taken by existing in this legal limbo, and being stateless severely hampers one’s ability to lead a normal life.

Additionally, the ongoing effort to reform the Nationality Act cannot be isolated from the turn inwards by the right-wing Orpo government, its focus on deterrence and securitisation, as well as the growing calls for “tougher” laws on immigration. The minister of the interior has been vocal in highlighting the nationalist focus of the reform, and we know from other contexts that such tendencies rarely go well for those in more vulnerable circumstances.

Statelessness is avoidable, and the only real, lasting, remedy is access to a nationality. While the aim of the current reform is not to end statelessness, one hopes that the opportunity to bring Finland in compliance with its international commitments will not be lost. Simultaneously, a lack of awareness about statelessness risks heightens further the shortcomings of Finland’s legal framework on the issue. After all, one of the explicit goals of the Nationality Act (Section 1(2)) is to prevent and reduce statelessness.


This blog has also been published by Mobile Futures

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