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Musician’s identity to be respected as a human right says Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology

PUBLIC STATEMENT 11 January 2017

In October 2016, The Finnish Migration Office (Migri) denied asylum from an Iraqi viola player. In the decision, it was accepted as a fact that in Iraq, the person in question had been threatened and assaulted because of his musicianship. Yet according to Migri, it would be safe for him to return to Iraq, if he changed his occupation. The underlying argument here was that ”a musician’s occupation is not a distinctive characteristic that is inherent, immutable or in some other way essential for a person’s conscience or realisation of human rights.”

The Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology together with the undersigned organisations and institutions object the decision. The justifications presented by Migri are not only simplified but also indifferent to both general human rights and the requirement to assess the case as individual and unique, as stipulated by the legislation of Finland. According to the Aliens Act 52 §, foreigners are issued with a residence permit on individual compassionate grounds, ”particularly in consideration of the circumstances they would face in their home country”. In the present case, the situation of an individual person is instead evaluated with respect to musicianship by relying on general factors that lack de facto foundation. As a consequence, the decision emerges as arbitrary and groundless on several levels.

Regarding human rights, Migri’s justifications conflict both with the Constitution of Finland and the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. According to the Constitution 18 §, ”everyone has the right to earn his or her livelihood by the employment of his or her choice” and ”the public authorities shall take responsibility for the protection of the labour force.” The Constitution does not exclude foreigners.

The UN covenant on cultural rights was ratified in Finland in 1975 and according to its Article 6, the parties ”recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.” By granting the musician asylum, Migri would fulfill its legal humanitarian obligations.

The reports issued for instance by Freemuse, an organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians, demonstrate that ISIS and other representatives of extremist groups have executed death sentences on the grounds of minimal connections to music. It is also unreasonable to assume that such groups would forget about a person’s past, even if he or she changed occupation. It is worth remembering in addition that according to the Aliens Act 87 b §, when assessing if the asylum applicant has a well-founded fear, the actual persecuted characteristics of the applicant are immaterial, “provided that such a characteristic is attributed to the applicant by the actor of persecution.” In its decision, Migri in fact presents similar demands as the actor of persecution.

The understanding of musicianship as a characteristic irrelevant for a person’s identity is a further indication of prejudice and purpose-oriented investigation that aims for deportation. It also signals irreverence and indifference towards social and psychological aspects of musical identity. Numerous studies have demonstrated how music is strongly tied to identity both on a personal and a social level.
For its part, the Iraqi musician’s case is precisely about this. On one hand, his musicianship and knowledge of western art music in particular represents a threat to the fundamentalist groupings in Iraq and contradicts their values. They are of course as wrong as Migri, but this does not remove the fact that his and other musicians’ lives are in danger.

On the other hand, at issue are the conditions and forms of musicianship. The decision by Migri rests on an indiscriminate, simplified and ill-founded assumption about musicianship as something that can, if necessary, be exchanged for some other quality.

Musicians are exceptional people in that often their skills are based on a lengthy and thorough education, begun typically at a very early age. This is prevalent for instance in western art music.
Not all students of music become professionals of course, but for those who do, at issue is in practice a life-long process and thus an irrevocable and profound aspect of identity. By banning musical performances not only publicly but also privately, the psyche of a person dedicated to music is hurt in a way not dissimilar from torture. This is comparable to banning the use of one’s native language. It is true that no-one is born as a musician – but neither is anyone born as a native speaker.

Migri’s decision is a symptom of the tightened migration policy that follows the guidelines of the current Finnish government. It is undoubtedly also a symptom of the Migration Office’s limited resources; because of hurry and political pressure, the decisions become grounded on unfounded assumptions instead of relevant research – in this case, music research. What is of utmost importance and concern is that the decision is above all a symptom of an indifferent attitude towards human rights; as such it should not be allowed to be approved as a precedent violating the human rights of musicians.

Antti-Ville Kärjä
Chair of the Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology

Undersigned also by

The Finnish Musicological Society
Music Archive JAPA
Global Music Centre
Finnish Folk Music Association
The Finnish Society for Music Education – FiSME
The Promotion Centre of Folk Music and Folk Dance
The University of Eastern Finland, Ethnomusicology
The University of Tampere, Music Research
Tampere Academic Symphony Orchestra TASO

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