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"Like a Berlin Wall between Haparanda and Tornio"

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

When the border between Finland and Sweden closed, the entire common market for the whole of Tornedalen disappeared – goods, services, labour and culture. The hospitality and retail sectors are seriously affected. Those who have been furloughed or served notices are starting to fall into unemployment.

Since Finland closed its border with Sweden, Haparanda municipality has actively worked to limit the effects of the sudden disappearance of the natural market area. Haparanda municipality and Finnish Tornio are separated only by the Torne river and there are close links between many sectors. Haparanda has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants and Tornio has 20,000. Together they form a common market. 

“The border is an administrative idea and its closure became an obstacle to the natural flow between our countries. We live across the border through families, houses, outdoor activities, trade and culture. Usually, we travel across the border several times a day,” says Sven Tornberg, chairman of the Haparanda city council (Centre Party).

Like a Berlin Wall 

He quotes one MP from Haparanda who described the closed border like a local Berlin Wall. The closure happened suddenly and meant a dramatic change to people’s everyday lives. What it would mean in real terms was unclear from the start. Who could cross? What was valid? Which certificates were needed? Little by little the rules for travelling to Finland were made clearer and stricter. 

Anyone crossing the border would need a certificate showing where they would stay during their visit. Now, Finnish citizens can go to Sweden, but Swedes have a harder time crossing over into Finland. 

“‘You might as well do that in Sweden’ is a usual argument when a Swede is stopped at the border,” says Sven Tornberg.

Creativity and helpfulness 

Many work on both sides of the border. 10% of the municipality’s employees, especially within the health and care sectors, live in Finland for instance. An exception was made for them, as their work was considered to be critical for society. 

The hospitality sector, as well as retail, have been hit hard. Retail companies along the whole of Tornedalen lost two-thirds of their business, while the hospitality sector lost more or less everything. They started furloughing staff short term fairly early on, and some of these are now facing unemployment. 

To lessen the impact, the municipality has removed or postponed municipal fees. It has also made it easier for young people to find summer jobs, by paying some of the wages for companies that will hire them. Businesses have also been offered training in marketing and free support for those who want to set up an online shop.

“Businesses have shown a lot of creativity and have supported and helped each other. It is also good to see the efforts made by civil society,” says Sven Tornberg.

So far he is grateful that restrictions have been eased. A two-hour drive does not take you far between the Norrbotten cities. He is now hoping the border will be reopened on 14 June, at least regionally. Soon he will be discussing this with his Finnish colleague. 

“We view the border closure differently up here, compared to those in the far south where decisions are made. And in Haparanda we have not had more than five confirmed cases of Covid-19.”

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