Violence and Residence permit drive Thai women underground in Finland

As many as half of women who have moved from Thailand to Finland are believed to be living “underground”, beyond the reach of social safety nets, according to a fresh report on how Thai women have adapted to Finnish reality.

A large proportion of the 800-1200 Thai women living in Finland are apparently pleased with their lives as housewives in this country. However, hundreds of them are either living at the mercy of violent husbands, or are employed as sex workers in “massage parlours”. According to the report, one in ten of the women do not have a fixed place of residence, and some do not even have a valid residence permit.

Minister of the Interior Anne Holmlund (Nat. Coalition Party) requested a report on what might be done to improve the lot of Thai women in Finland after a furor two years ago over revelations that Thai massage parlours used as fronts for prostitution.

“We still do not know how many are genuinely marginalised”, admits Tiina Pesonen, the writer of the report.

Foreigners who come to Finland through marriage do not have access to official integration services, and sometimes their husbands deliberately try to prevent their foreign wives from adapting to their new environment, the ministry’s report says.

Domestic violence in Thai-Finnish families is commonplace, the report finds. It is also one reason why many Thai women end in the sex trade. The women are afraid to file for divorce because they fear that they will lose their residence permits. Consequently, they often prefer to go underground, especially if they have children. In a divorce, the children usually stay with the husbands. The women are usually unaware that even after a separation; they can get a new residence permit if children are involved, or if there are other important humanitarian reasons.

Police also have differing views on the obligations that officials have in helping those in trouble. Helsingin Sanomat has learned that even many high-ranking police officials believe that once the reason for applying for the permit disappears, the permit itself is nullified.  The report suggests that if police were to act more diligently to help victims of domestic violence to get assistance, and to grant new residence permits, then the women might not feel that they need to go into commercial sex.

Minority Ombudsman Johanna Suurpää proposed to the police already last autumn that there should be more uniform standards for granting residence permits, and that more consideration should be given to the humanitarian aspects of each situation, within the framework of the law.

     The Police Department of the Ministry of the Interior has been urged to instruct local police dealing with permit issues on procedures, but nothing has happened.

Social worker Miira Hartikainen, who works at a women’s shelter, and who has written a study on domestic violence suffered by Thai women, confirms that violence is commonplace in Thai-Finnish marriages.

Finnish spouses do not always understand that their wives are expected to send money to the families back at home in Thailand. Finnish men do not always understand that a marriage with a foreigner is seen as a joint project by the wife and her family. Remittances from abroad are seen as one way to secure a parents’ old age in Thailand. Usually the money is used to build a house with enough space for the whole family. Sometimes women who are married end up as sex workers, either secretly, or sometimes with their Finnish husbands’ knowledge.

Vanitsi Tirkkonen, a Thai project worker for the Monika organization, which helps women of different nationalities in Finland, tries to help her compatriots. She says that none of the women whom she has met actually want to work in massage parlors. They find that sex work pushes them further away from mainstream society.

Minna Huovinen, who has worked with Thai women at the Pro-tukipiste, which promotes the civil and human rights of sex workers, says that women who come to the organization for help often have their lives in a mess. Sometimes they have been pushed outside their own communities and really feel alone.


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