History Blog 1: Founding of the IOM Mission in Finland
The process of opening a regional IOM Mission in Helsinki started quite soon after Finland had joined IOM in 1991. In October 1992, James N. Purcell, then the Director General of IOM, and Anders Wenström, then the Director of the Bureau for Europe and North America, visited Helsinki for a dialogue on migration affairs.
"It was important for IOM as an institution to create a closer relationship with the Nordic and Baltic states through a Nordic office. Finland was working very proactively for this initiative. At the time, no other Nordic country showed keen interest in hosting a Regional IOM Mission", Anders Wenström recalls.
Ambassador Antti Hynninen at Finland’s permanent mission to the international organizations in Geneva was instrumental in forging an IOM presence in Finland, according to Wenström.
On April 22, 1993, the agreement on establishing IOM Helsinki was signed at the IOM Headquarters in Geneva by Director General Purcell and Ambassador Hynninen. The agreement stipulated that IOM Helsinki was a Regional Office for the Baltic and Nordic states.
Already before the agreement was signed, the preparations had started for the inauguration event: a two-day conference on Migration Trends, Social Change and Cooperation in the Baltic Region. It was organized jointly by the Finnish government and IOM on 11-12 May 1993 at the Marina Congress Center in Helsinki.
"As we touched down in Helsinki, we were informed that for health reasons DG Purcell was unable to attend, so I had to stand in, quite unprepared, as the IOM representative. Consequently, me and my deputy Hans-Petter Bøe (who sixteen years later was to become Regional Representative and Chief of Mission in Helsinki) found ourselves running the conference on our own."
The chairman of the conference was the noted veteran Finnish diplomat Max Jakobsson, who according to Wenström, skilfully navigated the differing opinions to a reasonable result. Heikki Mattila, who then worked at the international department of the Ministry of Labour and coordinated the conference preparations between Finnish Ministries, recalls that the atmosphere was very optimistic, and people were excited about the new situation in Europe.
The office itself was opened in August, in premises provided by the Finnish government, which also funded a locally hired employee, Petteri Vuorimäki.
"On the 15 August 1993, I walked to the Ympyrätalo (Round House) in Hakaniemi to an empty office room and started from scratch. We needed furniture and computers, and I had to make sure that we got our mail delivered. For a couple of months, I was there alone until we got our first Chief of Mission, Norwegian Øystein Opdahl, and one assistant seconded from the Ministry of Interior, Monica Harju."
Vuorimäki says that the beginning was filled with coordination meetings with Finnish and Nordic interlocutors. The Mission also started to draft the Comprehensive Migration Management Programme (or COMPRE) for the Baltic States and Belarus. Starting the programme required a lot of travel to the region’s capitals to map out what needs there were for trainings, skills transfer and for equipment.
"We assisted with the capacity building for the border guards and the migration and refugee administrations. We helped with language trainings, as English was needed both at the borders and in the administration. We also organized seminars, for instance on national legislation."
Vuorimäki remembers that there were also other quite different tasks.
"I was once requested by Headquarters to charter a plane to transport wounded persons from the former Yugoslavian republics to Finland. It took some time before the person I called at Finnair really believed me when I said I wanted to charter a MD-81 with pilots and cabin crew. That was the only time I have flown to Ancona in Italy being the only passenger and having the air hostess ask me whether I would rather sit in the cockpit."
Vuorimäki recalls that IOM Helsinki was very enthusiastically received.
"In Finland, everyone concerned seemed very pleased to have the representation of an international organization. Also, the other Nordics were positive, and the Baltics and Belarus were so excited that we sometimes had to try to lower their expectations a bit – they hoped that we would come bringing hundreds of computers overnight."
According to Anders Wenström, the founding of IOM Helsinki no doubt laid the groundwork for a strong Nordic presence.
"We got a strong footing in Finland from where the Chiefs of Mission could liaise with and offer IOM’s support to the other Nordic capitals; Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo, as well as to the three Baltic States, where local offices were later established. Russia was handled by its own offices in Moscow. There were actually two offices in Moscow, one for political affairs and one for operational issues. This was in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union."
The writer is IOM Finland's Communications and Liaison Specialist.