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.