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By Sampo Brander, EUDO CITIZENSHIP expert for Finland

The long version of this commentary is available here.

The Finnish Nationality Act was amended on 1 September 2011. The most important changes concern the required period of residence in Finland and its starting point. There is also a new possibility to deviate from the requirement on the basis of language skills. Other changes include exceptions to the language skills requirement, the requirement of clean criminal record and the principle of established identity. The status of former Finnish citizens is likewise clarified.

The foundations of the reform of the Finnish Nationality Act were established in the Government Programme of 2007 where it was proclaimed that the period of residence required for Finnish citizenship would be shortened. The Ministry of the Interior accordingly drafted a bill where it was proposed that other conditions of naturalisation would be amended as well. The bill was essentially founded on the idea that naturalisation is one means to support the integration of immigrants into society, which is an important change compared to the premises of the 2003 Nationality Act. The bill was accepted in the Parliament with a large majority and the amendment of the Nationality Act entered into force on 1 September 2011.

The most important changes brought about by the amendment concern the period of residence and its starting point. Firstly, in accordance with the goal of the Government Programme, the required period of residence in Finland was shortened for one year, to five years of continuous residence or seven accumulated years after the age of fifteen. Secondly, the period of residence now starts on the date when the first continuous residence permit is granted but half the time with a temporary residence permit is also included in the period of residence. This change is a reaction to an unexpected decision of the Supreme Administrative Court in 2007, after which the period of residence had been interpreted to start on the date when the first temporary residence permit had been granted.

In addition to the general shortening of the period of residence, a new exception was also created. Citizenship may be granted one year earlier, i.e. after four years of continuous residence or six years of accumulated residence, if an applicant meets the language skills requirement, meaning that he or she has satisfactory oral and written skills in the Finnish or Swedish language. The objective of this new provision is to encourage active studying of Finnish or Swedish as knowledge of language has been shown to be of vital importance to integration of immigrants.

Even though the language skills requirement itself had been criticised for being too demanding, its general level was not made easier. Instead, new exceptions to the requirement were created in order to correspond better with particular needs of some applicants. An exception to the requirement can now be made if there is an extremely weighty reason for that. This ground of exception covers situations where learning of the language has been de facto impossible due to an acceptable reason, e.g. impaired ability to learn. It has been presumed that in practice this exception may concern especially women who have difficulties in attending language courses due to obligations related to childcare. Another new ground of exception concerns illiterate persons and persons who have reached the age of 65, for whom it is enough to have basic skills of understanding and speaking of Finnish or Swedish or to have regularly attended language courses.

Other changes to naturalisation conditions concern the requirement of a clean criminal record and the principle of established identity. If the applicant has committed a punishable act and does not thereby meet the former requirement, a waiting period during which naturalisation is normally not possible may be imposed. Before the amendment the exact length of this waiting period was based on an internal guideline of the Finnish Immigration Service which was not a constitutionally appropriate solution. The grounds and length of the waiting period are now accordingly defined more closely in the Nationality Act. As regards the requirement of established identity, a new provision was created in order to make it clearer whether an applicant’s identity may be considered established if a new information on his or her identity has been received.

The status of former Finnish citizens was likewise clarified in the amendment by creating one single declaration procedure for reacquisition of Finnish citizenship available to all former citizens regardless of their country of residence. In the original 2003 Nationality Act, there had been one application and three declaration procedures for former Finnish citizens living in Finland, as well as a provisional five-year possibility of declaration available to Finnish expatriates who had lost their Finnish citizenship due to the earlier prohibition of multiple citizenship. The new single declaration procedure of the amendment thereby combined five modes of acquisition previously available to former citizens.