Forced displacement and migration are part of Finland’s recent history

It is only a few decades since many Finns became war refugees; there are still people among us whose past is marked by forced displacement and migration. What are their stories like? How did these people integrate into a new community and the society, and how long did it take?


“With the help of the historical point of view, we can examine the entire process of forced migration, and apply this knowledge on the modern society”, explains Seija Jalagin, Adjunct Professor at the University of Oulu Department of History. “Finnish refugees’ stories help us understand the contemporary immigrants whose backgrounds involve traumatic war and refugee experiences.”

Seija Jalagin leads the Academy of Finland-funded project Recognition and belonging: forced migrations, troubled histories and memory cultures. The project involves multidisciplinary research on forced migration in connection with Finland and caused by the Second World War.

Residents of the Hyrsylä area of the municipality of Suojärvi returning from captivity in the summer of 1940. At first, the Hyrsylä residents were placed in a quarantine camp in the Helsinki district of Viikki. Photo: Pietinen (National Board of Antiquities – Musketti)

Evacuee literature and archive data

“Two literary scholars, one sociologist and one history researcher participate in the project. It is motivating to have a team of experts from different branches of science. Everyone brings something new to solving our common problematics through their own materials”, Jalagin says.

Sociologist Outi Autti has interviewed people who were evacuees during the Lapland War. Autti has recorded harrowing memories of leaving home, the treatment of evacuees and the return back to the burned home village.

Seija Jalagin has studied Valtion Pakolaisavustuskeskus’ (the state’s special organ that aided refugees from 1922 to 1958) documents, records and reports that discuss the events on refugee camps and the aid provided for the refugees. “I have also interviewed people who are descendants of refugees who escaped to Sweden from East Karelia. Photographs are important material to all of us.”

The literary scholars Hanna-Leena Nissilä and Ilmari Leppihalme contribute to the project by studying evacuee literary or literature written by Karelian evacuees.  These writers include famous names, such as Anu Kaipainen, Eeva Kilpi and Eeva-Liisa Manner.

“As a history researcher, I have become accustomed to thinking that fictive literature can be used for exploring different worlds, but it is still fiction rather than fact. Now my view has changed: sometimes fiction is a method of telling about things that cannot be told about as facts. This does not make it any less true. The writer Sirpa Kähkönen once said eloquently that writers of historic novels write possible worlds”, Jalagin states.

“Fictive literature can provide access to the difficult experiences that people cannot express by speech.” These experiences carry over generations; they reflect in the following generations as a heavy silence. In psychology, this is called transition of burden.

“We have to develop sensitive and ethically sustainable research methods that do not, for example, bring the interviewee too close to the hard memories. People also have the right not to speak”, Jalagin ponders.

Some have been silenced and they cannot be given voice or forced to speak later, but their histories and stories can be told.

Refugees two times over

In Sweden, Seija Jalagin has interviewed people from East Karelia who secretly escaped from Finland to Sweden across the Tornio River after the Second World War. The decision to run was made for the fear of being returned to the Soviet Union, even though some of them already had Finnish citizenship. In the late 1940’s, Valpo, the predecessor of the Finnish Security Intelligence Service Supo, was controlled by communists. 55,000 Ingrian Finns and a few hundred Finno-Ugrian soldiers, who fought on the side of Finland, were deported beyond the eastern border.

“East Karelian people who had run to Finland had fought the Bolsheviks, and in the eyes of the ‘Red Valpo’, they were politically on the wrong side. The western border was closely guarded, so people from East Karelia crossed the border secretly. As soon as they had crossed the border, they turned themselves in to the police and sought political asylum.

Jalagin has studied person and nationality records in the Swedish National Archives and interviewed people who ran from Finland. “It was one of the last chances to do this, as these people are very old.”

Finnish evacuees are identified in Haaparanta during the early stages of the Lapland War in the autumn of 1944. Photo: Rollfoto (National Board of Antiquities – Musketti)

The number of East Karelian people who escaped to Sweden has been estimated to be around one thousand. However, it is difficult to estimate their number, as there is no register of them. “Many East Karelians worked at the Veitsiluoto sawmill. From Kemi’s census list, I found approximately 300 East Karelians who had left for Sweden by 1949. If so many people left for Sweden only from Kemi, my guess is that a thousand people is an underestimate.”

Some of the East Karelian people came to Finland already in the 1920’s and some came at the late stages of the Continuation War from the areas occupied by Finland. After the war, they had to leave for another new country, Sweden. “How does this effect a person’s identity? Some of these people, who were refugees two times over, had been displaced in Sweden also during the Lapland War, and some of the children had come to Sweden as war children.”

Common mission of art and science

At the moment, forced migration and questions related to immigration are acute in Finland and throughout Europe. In 2015, many asylum seekers entered Finland, and they have faced hostility and even actual racism.

“Can’t we understand how it feels to come to a new country and society, where one has to find their own place? Is the Finnish perception of history so self-victimising that Finns always consider themselves the victims of Russia, the Soviet Union or globalisation? Has the nation-state been constructed so well that we think that Finland is only for Finns and that there is no room for others? Has it created a lack of empathy?”

“These thoughts led to collaboration with artists. Researchers and artists deal with the same societal questions but separately. Now we offer scientific inquiry and materials for artists, and then we process them together. However, the point is not to have artists ‘illustrate’ science, but to see how the two-way process works and how the collaboration affects the researchers’ way of thinking”, Jalagin explains.

“We want to document this process and assess how we could find a common tongue. How should this collaboration be approached, how intensive and long should the sessions be? This is something completely new to us, and we want to try how it turns out. This is a way of trying to find new ways to convey information and experiences to various audiences.”

The Artistic Director of the collaboration project is Mika Karhu, Doctor of Arts and artist, who invited the artists Antero Kahila, Heli Ryhänen, Anssi Taulu and Kari Vehosalo to join the project. Two art exhibitions have already been agreed for the collaboration project, one in Vantaa Art Museum Artsi in the autumn of 2019 and one in Oulu Museum of Art in the spring of 2020. Performances, presentations and discussions will be organised in connection with the exhibitions.

“We also have a pilot project that brings together students of history, culture and arts. This spring, six Oulu students will travel to Aalto University in Espoo to attend to a cinematic art course. The students will create video works that will be presented at an art gallery in Berlin next autumn.


Recognition and belonging: forced migrations, troubled histories and memory cultures

  • A project funded by the Academy of Finland (2017–2021)
  • Led by Adjunct Professor Seija Jalagin from the University of Oulu Department of History; Jalagin studies East Karelian refugees through archive data and interviews
  • Sociologist, Doctor of Philosophy Outi Autti interviews people who were evacuees during the Lapland War
  • Literary scholars Doctor of Philosophy Hanna-Leena Nissilä and Licenciate of Philosophy Ilmari Leppihalme study the experiences related to forced migration through texts written by evacuees


Author Satu Räsänen


Main photo: Evacuees around a campfire at Midsummer in 1941. Photo: E. Viitasalo (Military Museum)



Last updated: 9.3.2018