FRC to close more reception centres - need for post-closure reviews has been low considering volumes

Tatu Blomqvist/FRC
Asylum seeker studies the Finnish language at a reception centre run by the Red Cross.
Image: Tatu Blomqvist/FRC

The Finnish Red Cross continues the closure of reception centres. According to the Finnish Immigration Service’s plan, the reception centres at Kitee and Kotka will be closed at the end of June. From the beginning of July 2018, the Finnish Red Cross will run 21 reception centres for adults and families and 3 units for unaccompanied minors. The total number of residents is 3500.

At its peak, during the 2015-2016 period, there were 109 reception centres operated by the Finnish Red Cross all over Finland. The closure of reception centres began in the late winter/early spring of 2016, when the number of asylum seekers decreased significantly. 
The closure of reception centres is performed in a planned and controlled manner and as cost-efficiently as possible. The closure process is difficult for staff members, asylum seekers and volunteers and about a month is allocated to it. The Finnish Immigration Service transfers residents to other reception centres, or into private accommodation, about a month before a centre’s closure. 

The reception centres' premises face considerable wear and tear 

Asylum seekers from the Kitee reception centre have mainly been transferred to the centres in Lieksa and Paihola and asylum seekers from the Kotka reception centre have been transferred to ten different centres. Residents with residence permits have waited for municipal places in reception centres until the last weeks of a centre’s operations. Children’s school places have been agreed upon with schools in their new home municipalities and their moves will be made as smooth as possible. 
When a reception centre is closed, a post-closure review, where the Red Cross agrees on any necessary measures to restore the property to its original state with the owner and the Immigration Service, is usually carried out.  The removal of fixed assets is agreed upon with the Immigration Service. Some are transferred to the closest reception centre, some, such as beds and refrigerators, are put into storage and some of the donated goods are given to residents moving into private accommodation or into municipalities. 
The Red Cross thanks its volunteers for their valuable assistance and aims to offer them other activities. Closures are often trying for staff members: there is a lot of work to do and it is often emotionally taxing. Over the years, asylum seekers have become familiar and closures may lead to ending up unemployed. The centre’s director needs to keep their feelers out and to ensure workplace well-being until the end. 
Taking the large number of reception centres managed by the Red Cross into consideration, the need for post-closure reviews with the Immigration Service and property owners has been low. These reviews have focused on issues like wear and tear to premises or fixtures or water damage. Premises have been under heavy use due to operating at, or even beyond, capacity for months. Properties, kitchens, and shower/lavatory facilities may not originally have been meant for 24-hour use. Life in a Finnish reception centre is quite different to what asylum seekers are used to, which, in part, leads to fairly high levels of need for housing related information and guidance.

Evitskog reception centre given a clean sheet by independent review

Some issues related to Evitskog reception centre, closed in November 2017, have been discussed in public. The Red Cross has, for its part, clarified issues related to the reception centre’s financials and other factors related to the reception centre and has openly answered questions related to them from the general public, as well as from private individuals.  
All of the reception centre’s required financial documents have been delivered to the Immigration Service, which has approved them. No post-closure review with the Immigration Service is on-going.  Restorations to the buildings on the property have also been agreed on with the property’s owner. 
Additionally, Pricewaterhouse Coopers Oy (PWC) has, at the Red Cross’ request, investigated the Evitskog property’s rental process and the bases for rent amounts, as well as the reception centre’s costs and the related contracts and procurement processes. The investigation, completed in June 2018, found that the processes related to the rental of Evitskog and its financial dealings were appropriate. Additionally, the investigation did not unearth such personal or business connections, which may have affected the content of the rental agreement, the choices of suppliers or the invoicing which was carried out. 

Evitskog transferred to Red Cross from the city of Helsinki

The Red Cross took over the management of Evitskog reception centre in November 2015. The organisation assumed responsibility for the centre on the Immigration Service’s request, in a situation where up 600 asylum seekers arrived in Finland each day. The city of Helsinki had managed temporary accommodation for asylum seekers at the property. The rental agreement with the property’s owner had originally been made with the Immigration Service. 
When the Red Cross assumed responsibility for the reception centre, the organisation ordered several changes to be made to the property and it surroundings, so that it would be suitable as a reception centre that housed 300 asylum seekers.  Changes were made both to the buildings and to the location’s and buildings’ security. Costs were incurred in the form of e.g. camera surveillance and guards. The emergency services were consulted regarding these changes. The guideline was to ensure the building’s functionality and the safety of the centre’s clients, staff, and volunteers. 
At the authorities’ request, the Red Cross was prepared for the eventuality where the arrival of asylum seekers had continued. Evitskog was one of the locations prepared for this eventuality, ready to accommodate up to 800 asylum seekers, if needed.  

Mutual understanding on the Evitskog budget with the Finnish Immigration Service

The fact that the Red Cross managed reception centres for six months before getting a contract from the Immigration Service recalls the extraordinary situation during the autumn of 2015. The contract between the Immigration Service and the Finnish Red Cross’ Helsinki and Uusimaa district forecasted the costs of the different reception centres in the Helsinki and Uusimaa region.
Evitskog’s budget was stated at 4,8 million euros. The Red Cross realised that the figure was incorrect, but given the extraordinary circumstances, the organisation did not request that the Immigration Service correct it, given that the priority was to formalise the agreement on accommodation for asylum seekers. Processing the change would have held up the contract even further. 
Evitskog’s yearly budget was 8,3 million euros. The high cost of the property, the high cost of guard services and several necessary changes all affected the cost.  Additionally, Evitskog shouldered the responsibility of more clients than budgeted, including c. 80 asylum seekers in private accommodation. 
There was always a mutual understanding with the Immigration Service on the actual budget. The Immigration Service paid a budget advance according to the 8.3 million euros figure starting from the January of 2016. Evitskog exceeded its budget in 2016 by about 2 percent (166 000 euros). The centre’s actual costs were 8,4 million euros in 2016.

Evitskog switched from catered meals to self-catering

The Red Cross inherited not only the rental agreement on the Evitskog property from the Immigration Service, but also the service providers, who supplied the property’s maintenance, catering, and cleaning services. 
After assuming the management of the reception centre at Evitskog, the Red Cross relinquished the catering service altogether. The reception centre changed to self-catering, which meant that appropriate kitchen facilities were arranged at the property. Most of reception centres managed by the Red Cross are setup in a way to allow the asylum seekers to prepare their own meals. In the long run, this cuts costs and promotes the asylum seekers’ functionality and well-being. 
The Red Cross also terminated the contracts for property maintenance and cleaning services and put them out to tender according to the Red Cross’ financial regulations. Both the property maintenance and cleaning costs fell after new service providers came onboard. According to PWC’s investigation, the decision was a positive and cost-efficient one based on accounting information.

The reception operation provided lots of knowledge on property rentals

During the autumn of 2015 and the winter of 2016, the Red Cross and other actors found themselves in the situation where hundreds of property owners were offering their properties as reception centres. Some of the facilities were very well suited to be reception centres, but in the extraordinary circumstances, properties that needed repairs were also taken into use as reception centres. 
The Red Cross gained valuable knowledge about property rentals during the reception operation. It is vital that consensus on the property’s state, before and after use as a reception centre, is found. This facilitates the property’s handover and limits the need for reviews, at the point when the reception centre is closed down. A liability distribution matrix clarifies the responsibilities of both the property’s owner and the reception centre’s administrator. It is worth consulting the expertise of property experts as much as possible, despite the urgency of the situation. 
Whilst founding reception centres, the Red Cross has been working with the Immigration Service, which is liable for the costs of reception services. The Red Cross districts have signed rental contracts according to the framework agreed upon with the Immigration Service. In some cases, such as Evitskog, the Immigration Service has been the party signing property rental contracts.  

Agreement on the Red Cross emergency preparedness role struck with the Ministry of the interior

The reception operation was a massive effort for the Finnish Red Cross, and experiences gained from it will help the organisation in future operations. Based on its experiences, the Red Cross has developed its preparedness and created new guidelines and operational models. Widescale entry into the country is one of the scenarios that the Red Cross, as a national preparedness organisation, is preparing and making provisions for. 
The Red Cross has a special role in supporting authorities, which has been agreed upon with the Ministry of the Interior. This co-operation was strengthened in April 2018, with the singing of a Memorandum of understanding.  The co-operation between the Ministry of the Interior and the Red Cross covers all situations, extending from disturbances to everyday circumstances to states of emergency.