Asylum seekers protest in Helsinki against Finland's tightened policy

September 8, 2016 10:20 AM EDT

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HELSINKI (Reuters) - About 300 asylum seekers and pro-immigration citizens gathered in Helsinki on Thursday to protest against Finland's new asylum policy, which considers Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia largely safe countries to return to.

More than 1 million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe last year, many fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and beyond. About 32,000 came to Finland and the government responded by tightening immigration policies, along with other Nordic countries.

Finnish Immigration Service in May said security had improved to such an extent in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia that refugees would generally not be at risk in the countries.

Asylum seekers would only be allowed to stay if they could prove that they were individually at risk.

After launching the new guidelines, the office has turned down more than 75 percent of applications from Iraqi asylum seekers, compared to a previous rate of 30 percent.

Almost two thirds of Finland's asylum seekers are from Iraq.

Signs said "Stop the deportation" and "Afghanistan is safe for terrorists" as asylum seekers had come to protest the new policy in front of the immigration office.

"One should look at the news...I don't know why they are saying that Afghanistan has a good situation nowadays," said Afghan Mustafa Mohebi, one of the demonstrators.

"I would never think about going back home," added Sabah Rstem from Baghdad.

Earlier this week, attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul killed at least 24 people and wounded 91 others while a car bomb claimed by Islamic State killed at least 9 in Baghdad.

Anti-immigrant sentiment among Finns has been on the rise. On Wednesday, a small group of people rallied in a counter protest, with signs saying "Finland first."

(Reporting by Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl)



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