(WOMENSENEWS)— Nasima Razmyar, 31, was elected to the Finnish parliament last year, where she is fighting to preserve the country's welfare system, which once exemplary, has started to slip. In her opinion, reversing that trend is the best way to ensure Finland's continued commitment to gender equality.
A native of Afghanistan whose family fled to Finland when she was a child in 1992, Razmyar is the first Finnish parliamentarian with a refugee background (and more generally, one of few with any immigrant background). As such, she is looked to as an authority on how the country should handle its current influx of refugees.
Razmyar sat down with Women's eNews to discuss these issues at a recent United Nations event in New York during its annual Commission on the Status of Women.
1) What are your priorities in Parliament?
I was the first MP with a refugee background in Finland, so of course at the moment I'm being constantly being asked to take a stand on immigration issues since, like the rest of Europe, the refugee question is overwhelming Finland. But those are not the only issues I care about. We have to remember that [established] immigrants are also Finnish citizens who share the same concerns as the rest of the Finnish people, so we need to keep focusing on education, healthcare and other issues that are equally important to us all. My main priorities, which are reflected in the committees on which I serve, are education, the environment and housing.
2) How does your personal background shape those priorities?
Coming from Afghanistan, I know how bad the world can be. I know what war means and what it is like to live with instability. That makes me appreciate a lot of things about Finnish society, especially our welfare system, which I wish the rest of the world would copy. It's about more than sharing [wealth and benefits] with people. Society can be very rich when everyone participates fully. Finland is small country of only 5 million inhabitants, so we cannot afford to diminish our capacity by leaving anyone out.
I'm a product of the welfare system and an example of why it works. When my family arrived from Afghanistan, we had nothing. Yet, thanks to the Finnish system, we received housing and other benefits. I enjoyed all the same opportunities as any child born in Finland and it enabled me to achieve the highest level of education and become a member of parliament.
However, this way of thinking is changing now and our welfare system has started to crumble. Society is beginning to think that it's okay to leave some people behind. To me, this is a mistake and I hope I can help change the course. I believe it is important to keep our welfare system strong and not leave anyone behind.
3) What was it like when you and your family first arrived?
We were offered many tangible tools, like language classes, to help us integrate, but what we didn't have was a warm welcome from society. There is no Finnish version of the "American dream" to facilitate integration. Here I believe it is relatively easy to become American, whereas in Finland, the immigrant label sticks with you for a long time, which makes things more difficult.
Finnish immigration policy is generally welcoming to asylum seekers, however, as in many European countries, recently there has been a rise of right-wing opposition to (and even attacks on) the current influx of refugees.
4) How influential are these anti-refugee groups? Do you believe that Finland is responding asylum claims appropriately? Was it right to introduce checkpoints at the border with Sweden in September? In your opinion, what would the ideal response look like?
The whole world should take more responsibility, especially the U.S., Australia, etc., and not leave Europe alone to shoulder the burden. In Europe, the pressure is so huge that I can understand the fears of policymakers who don't know how to deal with this. In 2014, we had 3,000 asylum seekers and last year we had 33,000. That is a huge difference!
Of course we have to help people, but we also have to think through what happens when they come here to stay. Is our system equipped to provide the resources they need? What if it is not? That kind of discussion is understandably taking place all across Europe. The problem is that some countries are accepting responsibility for the refugees and others are not. It is not sustainable for E.U. countries to take different positions. It is problematic, for example, when Sweden fails and Budapest gloats saying "we told you not to do this." Europe needs a common immigration policy; otherwise it will remain in chaos.
5) The World Economic Forum's 2015 Gender Gap report ranked Finland third best country in the world for women. What does your country get right that others miss?
The welfare system is the bedrock of Nordic success. We realize that all of society needs to be involved. We know we can't afford to say women can't do this or that, or that they should not be appreciated. The welfare system has been so important for women because it makes it possible for them to take time off to spend time with their children, and also know that their children are well cared for in daycare when they decide to go back to work. In many countries, balancing work and parenthood is difficult because women have to choose between working and making sure their children receive proper care. In Finland, we don't have to make that choice because our socialized daycare and education systems are excellent. It could be a model for other countries.
That said, women here do still face problems. We have a very high rate of domestic violence, which nobody talks about. The fact that we rank so high on the gender equality index makes it easier for people to turn a blind eye to the uglier truths. You can point to the high level of gender equality and pretend everything is fine. There is also the relatively new problem of cyber violence and online hate speech directed at women, which we are only starting to deal with. Part of the solution to these problems is to engage men in conversations about respect for women and for parents to instill better values in the next generation.