Maria Ohisalo interview: “It’s the job of the opposition to criticise us”

Finland's Interior Minister discusses police reforms, hate speech, rights of minorites and tackling a cumbersome asylum process.

File picture of Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green), Helsinki 5th November 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Since Maria Ohisalo took up her ministerial post five months ago, she’s been a constant target for her political opponents and certain sectors of the Finnish media.

A freshman MP and recently-elected leader of her party, the Green politician has been criticised for her perceived poor relationship with Finland’s police; for her ‘soft’ stance on asylum seeker rights; and her party’s relaxed policies on decriminalising cannabis for personal use.

“Obviously the Minister of Interior is normally, as an institution, it attracts a lot of criticism all the time, all of these people who have been here before me” – she points at a gallery of photographs of her predecessors – “have encountered that” says Ohisalo.

“But obviously there has to be something it’s my first term in parliament, first time as a minister and also as a party leader it probably creates a bit more.”

With a background in social policy and as a poverty researcher, the interior ministry might not have seemed the obvious landing place for Ohisalo, who could have have been more naturally suited in the ministry of health and social affairs.

However, with so many of the underlying issues that police, border guards, immigration or rescue services staff deal with on a daily basis rooted in social problems, the 34-year old’s prior experience certainly helps, and she shrugs off the near-daily criticisms.

“It’s the job of the opposition to criticise us, to try to throw us from power. So I always tend to come back to this thought. Okay, they’re doing their job; I’m doing my job. And the government is doing our job together so I don’t find it too difficult” Ohisalo explains.

File picture showing detail on police uniform / Credit: News Now Finland

Police budget and staffing levels

Policing is one of the most visible high profile areas in the Minister of Interior’s portfolio.

And in any administration there’s likely to be a mis-match between the amount of police officer that unions say they need to do the job, and the budget amount assigned by the government to meet those requirements.

It’s no different with the current government where the Police Federation says the country needs 650 more new officers to bring the total up to 7850 nationwide and meet optimal policing requirements. The government is proposing money for just 300.

That disparity is a work in progress, according to Ohisalo.

“We’re matching the levels we promised in the governmental programme. So, we said we would increase the number of policemen and women by 300, so we would get into 7500. And I always say that’s only a start” she tells News Now Finland.

“This government can change the levels that have been decreasing all the time. We can now change the direction but it’s only the first steps we can take here” Ohisalo explains.

“If we continue educating people as we now do, 400 people each year at the police school, we will be going even above 7500 but it’s still not enough. Of course we need to continue this” she says.

There’s more to policing than just pure numbers of officers of course. And those issues too are on the minister’s to-do list. More police officer means more resources required for vehicles, IT and physical infrastructure that needs upgrading.

Ohisalo stresses that it’s an ongoing process not just for this current administration but future governments to continue to make resources available to increase law enforcement capacity.

Asylum reception Centre in Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland

Making the asylum process “justice-proof” 

Another contentious issue that Maria Ohisalo has to navigate is the asylum process.

The Greens came into government promising a more compassionate asylum process and she says that now they’re putting in place structures to make everything more transparent and fair, according to the law.

“We want to put the emphasis on the beginning of the asylum process, so when a person applies for asylum he or she will know that the process will be justice-proof and respecting human rights, and everybody’s issue will be dealt with” she says.

In 2015 and 2016 when Finland faced an unprecedented level of asylum seekers mostly from the Middle East – there were 32,500 in 2015 alone – Ohisalo says the system was under a lot of pressure, a holdover that continues to today.

“We still have people from those times waiting for their decisions. So actually nowadays we know when a person comes the process is quite smooth, the process is justice-proof, but when we go back to these applications there are still people waiting these quite many years, and this is a problem we are trying to fix all the time.”

One solution, says Ohisalo, could be to simply grant permits to asylum seekers who have been ‘victims’ of an historically inefficient system, but who anyway learned some Finnish, found a job, and contributed to society.

“If these people have already gained their place in society, so to say, […] maybe we should grant these people with work permits or other permits” she says.

“This country also needs people who are working and paying taxes.”

File picture of Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green), Helsinki, 5th November 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Hate speech and values 

A number of Finnish politicians this year have faced police investigations over things they’ve said in parliament, or written online.

One of Maria Ohisalo’s predecessors at the interior ministry Päivi Rässänen (CD) is facing a possible prosecution over her comments about gay people, which she says are a matter of faith.

While Ohisalo cannot comment on specific cases, she says Finland should be a country that “respects human rights in every aspect.”

“We need to ask whether these people are respecting human rights, and everybody’s possibility to believe in whatever they want to, and be whatever they want” she says.

The minister points out that freedom of religion is also a part of the Finnish constitution.

“Related to this question is also the whole issue of hate speech, and hate criminality” says Ohisalo, referencing a new study that shows a drop in hate crimes reported to the police.

“We saw a decrease in the numbers in general but then again we also saw a small increase in the number related to sexual minorities and gender minorities, and this is obviously a signal about that we would have to be able to build a society which is also more just for these people” Ohisalo explains.

“This is the idea of people spreading hate speech, that we would just push parts of society to the margins.”