Across borders and into Europe

UEF Bulletin 2016

The influx of asylum seekers tests European immigration policy, as states and citizens are showing contrasting reactions to the refugee crisis. If migration spreads worldwide, it also needs a global solution. We are living in historic times, says James W. Scott, Professor of Regional and Border Studies (in the photo above).

Will the world change with hundreds of thousands – even millions – of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa pouring into Europe? The answer is yes, and the change is going to be tremendous, estimates Professor of Regional and Border Studies James W. Scott, from the Karelian Institute at the University of Eastern Finland.

“We may witness mass migration on a global scale, and we need to find ways to manage it. We need to find a global solution, one that transcends national borders. Another thing we need to do is to find ways to work together to improve the political, financial and environmental situation in the source countries,” Scott says.

Scott sees several geopolitical and financial reasons behind the influx of refugees heading for Europe: experiences of violence, insecurity and hopelessness are common among citizens of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. They have suffered for a long time, and now people are getting on the move simply because there is a lack of food.

“We are living in historic times, there is no doubt about that,” Scott says.

European countries have very different reactions to the influx of asylum seekers. Hungary has closed its borders, while Chancellor Angela Merkel has promoted an open and liberal immigration policy in Germany. In official statements, Europe stands united, so why is the refugee crisis tearing countries apart?

“There is no such a thing yet as a common European immigration policy. It is clear that Europe is not acting as a single political entity; instead, it is divided and divided in many different ways. It is difficult to see Europe coming up with a unified solution, but this is nevertheless needed and it should be created,” Scott says.

According to Scott, the differences in the way refugees have been received is related to national identity, which is an important factor in the context of the European Union. Some countries in Central and Eastern Europe are still defining their national roles in Europe and are thus sensitive to external pressure. Germany’s situation is affected both by the country’s history and large size, making it easier for it to take in refugees.

Scott, a former student at Freie Universität Berlin, supports Merkel’s liberal immigration policy.

“Merkel is heading in the right direction. However, the other European countries are less keen to embrace her liberal solutions, and that’s a problem for her.”

The European Union is something Scott sees as an idealistic project. He confesses to being a realistic optimist: although Europe is currently facing many difficulties, the EU still has a chance to succeed in the long term – it isn’t finished yet.

According to Scott, deeper integration could help Europe establish a unified immigration policy.

“I’m not expecting a miracle, especially in the short term, but there really aren’t any alternatives to European integration. It’s going to happen anyway, and the refugee crisis could help to make cooperation closer.”

“We may not need a border-free Europe. I think it’s more about tearing down mental borders between people living in Europe. Eurosceptics see the EU as a threat to their own identity, enabling them to draw on populism. However, they represent reminiscences from the past,” Scott says.

Scott was born in the US, and it seems that his homeland has done a better job at integrating immigrants into society than Europe.

“The institutional structure of the US makes it easier for immigrants to become part of society and to work in the country. Despite the existence of a strong anti-immigration movement, multiculturalism is nevertheless visible in the US. This doesn’t necessarily mean that immigrants are always accepted, but at least they have more of an opportunity to be part of society.”

People’s reactions towards refugees are very different, both in Finland and in other European countries. Some express their feelings of resentment, while others welcome refugees with open arms. Scott is not surprised by the strong division of opinions.

“I’m disappointed, but not totally surprised. People’s fears aren’t rational or logical. Negative attitudes are most common in areas where people haven’t come into contact with Muslims before. This is a sign of a lack of information and indifference.”

Scott’s viewpoint on the matter is clear: the further away one has drifted from reality, the more room there is for imagination and conspiracy theories. And that’s also a phenomenon to be dealt with.

“Finland isn’t alone in this. Germany has also had its share of violent attacks against immigrants by far-right supporters and neo-Nazis.”

So, what’s the cure? According to Scott, the complexity of the refugee crisis should be better highlighted, and it would be wise to take a pragmatical and rational approach. Opinions aside, the future of Europe will increasingly be one of a continent that is culturally and ethnically mixed.

In the long term, European destination countries can benefit from asylum seekers, as they gain a new workforce.  On the other hand, many immigrants may wish to return to their source country, which opens up new opportunities for cooperation within Europe as well as for the rebuilding of the source countries.

After crossing the physical border into Europe, asylum seekers are faced with many other, invisible borders. These can be social, financial, religious or cultural.

“One of the key themes in border studies is to analyse how borders are created in the processes of our everyday life. How well are immigrants accepted as part of society? How are they received in the labour market? How can we create interaction between people with different backgrounds? It is important to embrace differences, as they define who we are.”

In 2015, the University of Eastern Finland completed a four-year research project called EUBORDERREGIONS, which explored the relationships between borders, cooperation and development at the external borders of the EU. Scott was the coordinator of the project involving researchers from 14 different countries.

Work on borders and cross-border cooperation at UEF continues. This work is also an essential element of the new strategic research objectives defined by the university. Researchers involved in the Borders, Mobilities and Cultural Encounters (BoMoCult) research area are at the international forefront of research addressing borders, mobilities and cross-cultural interaction. Today, they form one of the most internationally recognised research communities studying European and Russian borders, the socio-economic and cultural development of border areas, cross-border mobility, and cultural and linguistic encounters.

 “Cross-border cooperation doesn’t necessarily mean visible evidence, physical facts and infrastructure. The greatest advantage comes from social networks and cultural capital. We can achieve everyday dialogue across borders, and this doesn’t require large investments. We have to connect people, and it doesn’t happen by building bridges alone.”

The Karelian Institute, a research unit of the University of Eastern Finland, includes three thematic research priorities and two research centres.


The Karelian Institute is a leading expert unit investigating political and social change in Northwest Russia and the Republic of Karelia. The Institute has a long tradition in the study of the history, culture and society of Karelia, Northwest Russia and Eastern Finland.


Research in this thematic area pertains to the history, migration, ethnic relations and cultural traditions in Eastern Finland, Karelia and Northwest Russia. Utilising humanities and social science methodologies, key research topics currently include traditions of writing, cultural activities, and relations between ethnic groups.


Research focuses on the socio-economic and spatial development of Eastern Finland and comparable peripheral regions experiencing conditions of globalisation and integration, rural change and sustainability, including local development initiatives and gender-related issues as well as employment and labour markets.


The VERA Centre coordinates and promotes research and education programmes on Russian and border studies at the University of Eastern Finland. It strengthens the strategy of the university and meets to the need for increasing multi-disciplinary research on borders and border areas in Russia and Europe.


Spatia is an applied social science unit of the Karelian Institute. Spatia produces multidisciplinary research for its clients on regional economic development, planning and policy-making and participates in regional, national and international research, development and evaluation projects.

Text Risto Löf Photos and graphics Raija Törrönen and Varpu Heiskanen