The Reality of Ethnic and Racial Profiling in Finland

Uyi Osazee

I remember clearly the first time I was profiled by the police in Helsinki. It was the evening rush hour in the city and I had just made my way down the crowded escalator that leads to the underground metro platform in Hakaniemi, just two stops from the city center. As I got off the escalators, a metro was blaring out alarms, signaling it was about to depart. I quickened my steps, half running, half walking, determined to get on it. I rushed forward, hoping to beat the soon closing metro doors. A few paces off the doors, I was stopped by two individuals. They literally jumped in front of me, forcing me to stop abruptly to avoid colliding into them.

The metro doors slowly slid closed and rolled away. I was fuming with disbelief at what just happened. I walked away from the yellow line. As I did, the two individuals followed me. The first, a female, rushed in front of me forcing me to stop again, and the other, a male, stayed behind me. As I looked up to face her, she began to talk, flashing what seemed like an ID card inches away from my eyes and withdrawing it almost immediately. She had been talking for a while until I realized what was going on. I turned around to face the man behind me and he had both his arms raised slightly to his sides, as if waiting to pounce. He did not shove an ID card to my eyes.

‘Show me your identification. We want to see your identification’, the lady was saying as I tuned back to face her. I asked her in Finnish why she wanted to see my identification and she replied in English that they were after someone who had just committed a theft in Hakaniemi. I looked up at the platform, the place was beaming with waiting passengers, but now, stern eyes were fixated on me, from all around the platform. I did not feel right.

I asked the lady who had identified herself as a plainclothes detective, why I was singled out of the possible hundreds at the rush hour metro platform. She replied that I fit the description of their suspect, whom she described as an African man. She was loud and intense and I was feeling very embarrassed and publicly outed. ‘I am not an African man, and I am not your suspect’, I said, detailing my activities up until that moment.

The man behind me, who had been quiet all along, stepped in, looked me dead in the eyes and said in Finnish ‘you fit the description of the person we are looking for, an African man, and I want to see your identification and one more word from you I will take you to the police station!’ At this point, I felt powerless and forcefully drenched of my capacity to protest. I had been stripped of my only resource for self-defense – my words and there was no coming back from that. ‘Not a word…’, I heard him warn again, looking ready to make real his threat.

I did not want to waste the rest for my day at the police station. I did not want to be lead forcefully away. I did not want to recount this story to family and friends, explaining why I was arrested. I did not want an arrest record. I did not want to be there anymore. I submitted to his threat and handed him my ID. A crowd had gathered, but I did not feel empathy from them. The female detective took steps away with my ID, and she was on her phone for a while. The male stayed, giving me a tense stair down. I did not know where else to look, definitely not to the gathering onlookers. Making eye contacts would be too embarrassing, I felt. I longed to hide. Yet, there I was; seen, visible, singled out. I felt profiled, and deeply humiliated.

There is nothing more disempowering than to feel personally violated through being ethnically or racially profiled. Ethnic profiling is especially notorious in a number of ways and I will briefly mention two. First, it begins from the premise that the ethnicity and/or race of the person profiled is provable, knowable, and ascertainable. The assumption by law enforcement is that they already know who the person is by virtue of socially ascribed determinable appearance.

For the Finnish context, where social categories such as race and ethnicity are fluid and subjective, law enforcement rely on the use of lose terms like ‘foreign’, ‘non-Finnish looking’ – are overtly used by law enforcement to differentiate individuals for on the spot stop and check.

For example, my apparent physical features, what I appeared to look like to Finnish law enforcement – as an African, non-white, immigrant – were enough hints to be singled out by plain clothes detectives as a person of interest in an investigation of possible criminal activity. This deductive nature of racial/ethnic profiling offers a lead to the second problematic, which is the constant association of race/ethnicity to certain crimes or suspected illegal presence in the country. As I will demonstrate below, the starting point for law enforcement in Finland is to first assume the position that a clear distinction can be made, instinctively, between who is ‘Finnish looking’ and who is ‘non-Finnish looking’ – hence liable to stop and check.

In light of the above problematics, ethnic profiling thus refers to the inappropriate use by law enforcement of a person’s ascribed racial/ethnic appearances or stereotypes, as a basis for identifying or making investigative decisions about who has been, or looks like may be involved in illegal activity. An individual’s experiences of ethnic/racial profiling draw a deep scar into their sense of self-worth and personal dignity. Ethnic profiling humiliates, calls out, and shames racialized subjectivities. The experience of ethnic profiling is rampant but under-researched and mostly ignored in Finland as virtually non-existent.

Police in Finland deny that they profile ethnic minorities. This position is neither supported by the mounting evidence of random stopping and checking of minorities nor by their own admission that they willingly target people who they consider as non-Finnish looking. In various media interviews, the police have openly admitted, without much trepidation, that they have approached people for identification, who ‘look foreign’, or people who ‘appear non-Finnish’.

In one interview, a police representative Jere Roimu,  of the Helsinki Police unit is quoted as saying that ‘when the police meet or notices a foreign-looking individual, we try to find out if the foreign-looking individual is really a foreigner or a Finn. In such a case we have approached the individual speaking Finnish, and when the person speaks English it confirms for us that they are foreigners. It is on that ground that we have asked them for their legal identifications’. Such open comments by the Finnish police are classic definitions of ethnic profiling. Yet, there seems to be no legal responsibility or a concerted public condemnation of such comments by the mainstream media in Finland. Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Kirsi Pimiä says her office has received complaints about police stop and checks targeting foreign nationals, ‘many of whom say they feel they have been wrongly profiled based on their appearance’. Robin Harms, a senior adviser at the office of the ombudsman has publically noted that they are looking into such reports, even as they condemn the practices of ethnic profiling, saying, ‘It is completely unenlightened to make assumptions based on skin colour in modern Finland’.

The phenomenon of ethnic/racial profiling, in the Finnish context is far more complex and will predictably prove to be resistant to much needed reform. The official line by law enforcement is that ethnic/racial profiling does not exist in Finland. This is the status quo that law enforcement officials have maintained, in all media interviews reviewed by this author. Undoubtedly with such a stance, we are already confronted with a problem of recognition of a well-documented systemic discriminatory practice of ethnic profiling. This complicates what legal amends can be sought for victims. In a country were ethnicity or race are not officially legal categories, how can one seek amends for an injustice for a social category that is not expressly protected by the law? The Finnish police continue to use with impunity ‘othering terms and phrases like ‘foreign-looking person’, ‘non-Finnish looking people’, ‘non-Finnish speaking individuals or a gathering’, to justifiably defend their working guidelines for randomly stopping and searching IDs of hundreds of innocent people. This begs answers to a set of question like; how do law enforcement in Finland determine who is a Finn and who is a foreigner? Is there legal basis for making the distinction between ‘Finnish looking’ and ‘non-Finnish looking’ determination by the police? If not, is the distinction purely based on racism and bigotry?

 Who’s a Finn?

As I suggested earlier, Finland does not have legal categories for determining race or ethnicity as part of official statistics. At the same time, and even more interesting from a point of view of law enforcement, there is also not a category called ‘Finns’ in official statistics. This being the case, a lot is left to the imagination when wondering about who do the police refer to when they effortlessly use terms like ‘non-Finnish looking’, to justify random profiling.

So, who is a Finn? How has the distinction of a Finn and non-Finn been made to law enforcement as an operational guideline to stop and search? What are the criteria used by the police in determining who is not Finnish looking, hence suspected of illegally living in the country or for other criminal activities?

In an Yle TV interview in 2013, Deputy National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen denied that the police operations of stop and search was solely aimed at foreign-looking people. This was in response to the criticism made by The Council of Europe’s anti-racism body (ECRI), which expressed concerns that police in Finland demand for identity papers based solely on individuals’ appearance. Citing the particular issue of people trafficking, Kolehmainen was quoted as saying, ‘In such cases, monitoring is broader. We don’t just check all the dark[-skinned] people, for instance’. A comment like that exposes the underlying culture of injustice of racial profiling seated in the operational modus operandi of policing in Finland.

When a culture of ethnic/racial profiling is encouraged, it is bound to become standard practice.

In April 2016, the Finnish police, in collaboration with Finnish border guards and other law enforcement agencies, carried out an intense stop and check operation in Helsinki, Vantaa, and Espoo. Media reports on the operation described it as occurring in locations where the law enforcement agencies were convinced to be prone to encountering ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’, locations like: the city center area, shopping malls, the harbors, public parks, and so on. Over 300 so-called foreign-looking individuals are thought to have been randomly subjected to on the spot stopping and checking. According to one media report, the operations fetched out some 6 individuals with existing arrest warrants, though their identities and the nature of their warrants were never revealed. The experiences of the over 2000 individuals subjected to random on the spot stop and check profiling, remain silenced.

Referencing a police inspector from the Helsinki Police unit on the police operation, one print news outlet wrote in Finnish, ‘Tarkastukseen otettiin etnisesti kantaväestöstä poikkeavan näköisiä henkilöitä sekä suomalaistenkin näköisiä ihmisiä.’ The term poikkeavan näköisiä, roughly translated in English can mean anything from abnormal-looking, to exceptional-looking, and looking out of the-ordinary. Poikkeavan näköisiä, when placed within the context of the statement is used to distinguish ‘Finnish-looking’ individuals from ‘non-Finnish looking’ individuals. Hence, the targets of the on the spot stopping and checking were individuals who looked ethnically/racially different from majority Finns, with the caviar that people looking like Finns were also stopped and checked. Indeed, as inspector Johanna Sinivuori was quoted as saying, ‘We also seized Finns’.

The mainstream media in Finland does not deem it their responsibility to follow-up those whose lives are continuously willfully interrupted by profiling – to ask their side of the story and to probingly shed light on the non-deniability of the phenomenon. In the absence of the voices of victims, the conversation echoes the point of view of law enforcement. The police tell us why they had to do it, why it is the law and why such blatantly discriminatory operations are not based on ethnic/racial profiling. In this environment, the onus is on the victim of profiling to prove they were profiled and to report this to the same law enforcement that profiled them.

It is easy to blame the problem of ethnic profiling as a defect in the mindset of individual officers. It is also easy to suggest that each police officer can use discretion in determining whether or not to continue the culture of ethnic/racial profiling in carrying out routine checking. It is however far more difficult to dispel the deeply seated racializing constructs that underlies the category non-Finnish looking.

The challenge is to possess the sociological and humanitarian imagination needed to understand ethnic profiling as a structural problem that is produced by broader social and political ethno-nationalism, which compromises the fundamental principles of belonging in Finland.

In my many interactions with victims of police ethnic/racial profiling in Finland, the recurring accounts maintain that too many police officers presume that people with particular appearances such as dark-skinned, ‘foreign looking’, or with visible religious display, are likely to be suspects of illegalities, or at least, in my own experiences, worth checking out and harassed into submission. Finding oneself the object of a selective police stop and search is sometimes described as only an embarrassing inconvenience, backed by law. But for the victims, ethnic profiling is often a humiliating and upsetting experience, with sometimes perilous tendencies. It destabilizes one’s sense of personal security and shatters self-worth. It creates uncertainties; it steals the innocence and the effortlessness of using and moving in public places and spaces; it instills in actual or potential victims the constant fear and suspicion of law enforcement.

Now, imagine, if you can, living this way, every day.

So here is what is certain, when it comes to the determination of who’s a Finn, law enforcement in Finland routinely rely on racialized notions of Finnishness – the doctrine of not looking like a white Finn – as a normative operational practice for on the spot stopping and checking.

 Countering Ethnic Profiling Head-on

The concept of ethnic profiling remains little studied, addressed, or corrected as a societal issue in Finland. In 2015, a new project funded by the Kone Foundation, called The Stopped – Spaces, Meanings and Practices of Ethnic Profiling was launched. The project brings together academic researchers, journalists, and artists, in a collaborative relationship, to undertake the laborious task of unmasking the phenomenon. The focus is on people experiencing profiling, and the responses of the police. As the first of its kind in Finland, the project will document experiences of and perceptions about police profiling among minority communities, law enforcement, anti-discrimination bodies, and others. At the heart of the project’s task – and this speaks to the challenges surrounding the state of the phenomenon in Finland – is to generate empirical data on a topic that many allege routine, i.e. profiling practices against but not limited to visible minorities in Finland. The project also explores ways of disseminating existing legal information to victims of police profiling whilst developing highly informed operational recommendations for promoting effective policing and reducing ethnic profiling.

Ethnic profiling by law enforcement is a widespread problem across the whole of Europe and the United States. The particularity of ethnic profiling to the Finnish context, like in many other European societies, is one laden with denial of its existence by law enforcement. The targeting of religiously visible minority communities by law enforcement have taken upon a new meaning since 2001, following the twin tower attacks in the US, the London underground bombings and similar other acts of violent terrorism across Europe. In the last couple of years, the Syrian refugee crisis within European borders have encouraged many European governments to publicly adopt draconian measures aimed at identifying and deporting refugees from their territories. Ethnic profiling, the random stopping of people based on their physical appearances, has become one of many routine methods of policing the lives and presence of minorities not just along territorial borders, but within European cities and towns. This is a crisis of conscience and law, still unrecognized, still denied, but one simmering to boil into public protests.

Countering ethnic profiling in European societies, and in the Finnish context in particular, must be the battlefront for the conscientious struggle against racism, xenophobia and bigotry in the 21st century.

Uyi Osazee is a researcher in the project The Stopped – Spaces, Meanings and Practices of Ethnic Profiling at the University of Helsinki.

Online bibliography:

The Stopped – Spaces, Meanings and Practices of Ethnic Profiling Research Project

European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) 2013:  ECRI Report on Finland (Fourth monitoring cycle). ECRI Secretariat. Council of Europe

Iltasanomat 2.4.2016: ”Helsingissä järjestettiin yöllä iso ulkomaalaisratsia – 6 etsintäkuulutettua paljastui” available from

Vihrea Lanka 30.9.2015: ”Poliisi: tämän takia afrikkalaisopiskelijat tarkastettiin” available from

Yle News 9.7.2013: ”Council of Europe: Finnish police guilty of ethnic profiling?” available from