Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Cash or Sodexo vouchers?

There has been a lot of discussion in the Finnish media lately about asylum-seekers' income support. At the moment, Finland seems to pay most generously for asylum-seekers in the whole EU. The fact that Finland continues to pay in cash, whereas some bigger EU countries only donate goods, vouchers or a social services credit card (called Azure card), causes a lot of bitterness and jealousy amonst the so-called "migration critics". In reality, the income support schemes in all countries are complex and not directly comparable. One should also remember that Finland has the highest food prices in the whole EU, and it is not possible in the winter months to pick anything edible from the nature. Warm clothes, too, are an expensive necessity. Food banks operate somewhere, but one cannot count on them.

Cash is the humane alternative that brings people (at least at a marginal level of everyday exchange=shopping) to the same level of respect with the locals. Giving people vouchers or charity store freebies sets them dramatically apart. It is a very robust way of interpellating people as denizens, second-class citizens or even non-entities.

Britain has unsuccessfully introduced the Sodexo voucher scheme already twice in the 2000s. In the second modification of the scheme, vouchers are given to "failed" applicants who are waiting to be deported. The general public is disgusted and outraged; there are many humanitarian campaigns all over the country to outlaw this section 4 paragraph for "failed" asylum-seekers. Many ordinary Britons are trading the vouchers with cash, some out of charity, others to reap benefits to themselves. They don't mind becoming stigmatized at Tesco checkout; they voluntarily use the vouchers on behalf of the asylum-seekers.

One could think of the voucher scheme as an innocent example of everyday mathematics. But to give coupons to some people is a form of Othering. At a more philosophical level, how can we think of living in a country where some people are at the government level diagnosed as "failed"?

In Finland, the benefits are not generous for anyone, not for migrants nor natives, considering the high expenses of living. Migration minister Astrid Thors is pressurized soon make a suggestion for the future. It is highly likely that the benefits will be dramatically cut, because of the degree of the public outrage. The Sodexo voucher/Azure card option may also become a reality next year.

This citation from the magazine Egypt Today, in an article "Welcome to Finland",

written by journalist Dina Basiony, hit the migration-critical nerve big time:

"Like most immigrants, Ahmed and her husband took advantage of the free Finnish language lessons offered by the government, which pays immigrants 8 (euros) per day to attend. The government also provides immigrants with a free home, health care for their family and education for their children. In addition, they get a monthly stipend of 367 (euros) per adult to cover expenses until they start earning their own living. The government is able to pay for these services due to a progressive tax rate that can exceed fifty percent of a person’s income. Even so, officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed that Finland needs immigrants and that, in the long run, they are not a burden on society."

The notion of monthly "stipend" is quite funny. No-one in their right mind would conceptualize income support as "stipend" in this country. Dina Basiony's story is a classical honeymoon article, describing a polished version of the official Foreign ministry rhetorics of both countries. Finnish "migration critics" read it as a piece of propaganda written for the Arab world to invite more asylum-seekers into the country. Others may read differently. I read the citation as black humour.

I want to ask from everyone supporting a possible voucher scheme, how they position themselves as possible future welfare recipients. Because once the food coupons have been introduced to one group of people, it won't take long until they become a powerful mechanism of differentiation cross-cutting whole society. Who will come next? Pensioneers, those in a wheelchair, caretakers of the terminally ill?

Asylum seekers are human beings just like anyone else. If we fail them by giving them freebies, coupons and vouchers, we fail all of us.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Glory of the 80s

is a Tori Amos Song, which I borrow here to refer to last night's movie watching. We watched ET on an old VHS tape. The last viewing dates from some years back, when we watched it with my daughter, perhaps then around the same age when I saw it first (10). And now with a ten-year old son. The movie is now 27 years old, and seeing in on that "original" crackling tape with hideously bad Finnish subtitles is a total nostalgic treat!

I remember when ET hit the movie charts in Finland, and we were still quite modestly equipped with movie paraphernalia, but my British penfriend sent me some stickers and other things that made the locals green with envy. It must have been the first "commodified" movie in Finland, at least as far as I can remember. Those were the days when some families already had video recorders, but my family only acquired one in 1985. I have bought my original ET VHS in the 2000s from a flea market.

ET is more a depiction of ordinary American family life than of extraterrestrial life, the most revealing detail is that the mother doesn't notice the goblin's existence in her house for days. It is a story of a family crisis, and the kind of blindness a crisis can cause to all external events in the closest surroundings. Of course, it is also essentially a parable of becoming familiar with otherness, any kind of otherness that might cross our paths these days. From the perspective of the challenges today's children face in their everyday life, ET might not anymore seem so alien as it did in the 1980s.

What really endears me in the movie is how fresh the actors look without plastic surgery and recent techonologies of image manipulation. Drew Barrymore in the role of the youngest child, daughter Gerd, is a total darling. I love the "messiness" of the film: especially the home decor aspect, the layers and layers of tacky things - the kind of ordinariness of American living, which one hardly sees anymore on the screen. Or am I just watching the wrong movies?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Modestly Christian

Today I thought of writing something about "the modesty movement" in different Christian churches. Most of the evidence was found on US sites; I was curious to find European modesty sites, but so far haven't found any. I must have visited hundreds of websites, and I am too confused. Some modesty sites are "interfaith", as the point is to cover up as much skin as possible, doesn't matter if a Christian, Muslim or Jew has stitched them.

The most ladylike items were found at Lydia of Purple's site:


The so-called "cape dresses" are specially meant for homeschooling moms and daughters. There were also father-and-son pyjama sets.

Here a sample of "dress without a cape". Go and check the rest yourselves!