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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Finland : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date August 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Finland : Overview, August 2011, available at: [accessed 10 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated August 2011


Finland is located in northern Europe and shares land borders with Sweden, Norway and Russia. The Åland Islands (off the south-western coast) have a special autonomy arrangement while remaining under Finnish sovereignty.


Main languages: Finnish, Swedish, Sami

Main religions: Evangelical Lutheran Christianity, Finnish Orthodox

Minority groups include 289,609 Swedish-speakers (5.5%), 42,182 Russian-speakers (data: Statistics Finland, 2006), some 7,500 Sami, 10,000 Roma/Gypsies (0.19%), 1,300 Jews, 800 Tatars and 2,500-5,000 Old Russians.(1)

Swedish-speakers live mostly in the coastal regions of Österbotten, Nyland and Åboland, and on the Åland Islands.

Sami are the country's only indigenous minority. Most of them live in northernmost Lapland, in an area known as the 'Sami Homeland'. There is a far larger population in Norway, and they are also found in Sweden and Russia.

Roma/Gypsies of the eastern Kale group settled in Finland at the end of the sixteenth century and mostly live in urban areas.

Russian-speakers are partly a historical minority and partly new immigrants, some with Finnish citizenship and some non-citizens. The number of Old Russians has been estimated at 2,500 to 5,000.(2) Old Russians fall within the rubric of minority protection Finland has entered into as part of its obligations under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities – the key European treaty on minority groups. Russian immigrants from the former Soviet Union do not. The Union of Finland's Russian-Speaking Societies has criticized the division into the Old Russians and the so-called New Russians, made for the purposes of the implementation of the Framework Convention, as being at best artificial and misleading, and at worse unfounded and useless.

Jews first arrived in Sweden-Finland during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Present-day Finnish Jews, numbering approximately 1,300,(3) descend mainly from later arrivals of Russian origin. In 1918, after Finland gained independence, Jews were granted full rights as citizens. The Jews moving to Finland in the eighteenth century spoke Russian and Yiddish and, upon settling in Finland, chose Swedish as their first language. In 1932 it was decided that the language of instruction at the Jewish school in Helsinki should be Finnish instead of Swedish. Jews are basically bilingual, though the younger ones tend to be increasingly unilingual Finnish-speaking.

According to government documents in 2007, Tatars number about 800, although the total number of Muslims in Finland (many of them recent immigrants from various countries in the Islamic world) is unofficially estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000. Tatars have kept their Turkic language alive, using it mainly in family and private life. Their religious organization arranges the regular teaching of Turkic to children, and there are summer camp courses in Turkic.


What is now Finland belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden from the twelfth century to 1809, when the area, including the Åland Islands, was ceded to Russia. Finland declared independence in 1917, and its 1919 Constitution gave it a parliamentary system with a strong presidency. Finnish and Swedish – but not Sami – were both designated national languages. The Soviet Union was one of the first states to recognize Finland, and the two maintained good relations; the former was the market for 25 per cent of Finland's exports in the 1980s. Finland joined the European Union in 1995.

Russians who settled in Finland from the eighteenth century to the aftermath of the First World War are often referred to as Old Russians. The first group of Russians settled in the eastern province of Karelia. Old Russian communities in and around Helsinki, Turku and Tampere are mostly the descendants of civil servants, officers and merchants who settled during the nineteenth century. They may also be descendants of people who fled from the Russian Revolution. The most recent group of Russians in Finland (so-called New Russians) immigrated from the 1960s onwards and especially since 1991.

Islamic Tatars came to Finland from the Sergatch region on the Volga from the 1880s to the 1920s. They were merchants and settled mainly in the Helsinki area. In 1925 they founded the first Finnish Islamic congregation.


The Swedish language remains protected under the provisions of the Finnish Constitution and the language legislation as an official language alongside Finnish. Swedish schools and institutes of higher education continue to ensure the future of Swedish language and culture. However, emigration to Sweden and the low birth rate among Swedish Finns mean that the proportion of younger age groups is decreasing, leading to a population decline.

Prospects for Finnish Sami, as for all Sami, involve the struggle to maintain their culture as their traditional northern reindeer grazing lands are increasingly exploited by modern industry. Their main priority remains to protect their wildlife resources for sustainable use.

The far-right True Finns party gained 19 per cent of votes in the 2011 election, becoming the third largest party in parliament. Its success has added to concerns over the growing support for right-wing nationalist parties across Scandinavia.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Finland has implemented a number of commendable measures in the area of minority protection. These include the adoption of language laws covering the Swedish and Sami languages, the development of anti-discrimination legislation and the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for Minorities. New government programmes have been established to support minority participation in public life, including a permanent regional advisory board for Roma affairs. However, despite these measures, some problems of discrimination and intolerance remain. Despite steps taken by the central authorities, the Ombudsman for Minorities and various other actors, Roma continue to experience discrimination in their access to housing.

After Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the estimated number of Roma in Finland rose to around 10,000. At the end of 2007, the government introduced measures that meant Roma families who were caught begging could have their children taken into care or sent back to their country of origin. Human rights groups condemned the measure as blatant anti-Roma discrimination. The Minister for Migration and European Union Affairs, Astrid Thors, defended the policy, arguing it was necessary to safeguard children.

In 2009, the government submitted a report on human rights policy to parliament in which it pledged to prepare a comprehensive programme to revive the Sami language. But current government policies do not adequately take account of the needs of the Russian-speaking population, particularly those of recent Russian immigrants.

Disputes over the ownership and use of land in the Sami Homeland still need to be addressed. Sami continue to express concern over the effects of logging on reindeer herding activities due to insufficient legal protection of their land. A report published in January 2011 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights recommended that Finland 'step up its efforts to clarify and legally protect Sami rights to land and resources' particularly with regard to reindeer husbandry.


1. Population figures for Sami, Roma/Gypsies, Jews, Tatars and Old Russians by National Minorities of Finland, Virtual Finland, produced by Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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