Asylum seekers arrive at a refugee reception centre in the northern town of Tornio, Finland September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Panu Pohjola/Lehtikuva(reuters_tickers)
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland tightened restrictions on giving residence permits to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia on Tuesday, saying it was now largely safe for them to return to their war-torn homes.
Authorities in Helsinki, where anti-immigration political groups have been on the rise, said security had improved to such an extent that refugees would generally not be at risk in any parts of the three countries, despite the running conflicts.
There was no immediate reaction from refugee agencies. But the statement by the Finnish Immigration Service came in the face of a string of international assessments of the scale of the ongoing bloodshed and refugee crisis.
"It will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit," the immigration service said in a statement.
"It is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts as such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country."
Asylum seekers would now only be allowed to stay if they could prove that they were individually at risk.
Somalia has been slowly recovering from more than two decades of war. But the government is still fighting an Islamist insurgency by the militant group al Shabaab, which regularly launches gun and bomb attacks in the capital Mogadishu and other cities.
Islamic State still holds key cities and vast swathes of territory in northern and western Iraq which it seized in 2014.
Despite battlefield setbacks over the past year, the militants have continued to attack civilians in areas under government control including a string of attacks last week in and around the capital that killed more than 100 people.
The Taliban launched a spring offensive in Afghanistan last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.
Finland's centre-right coalition government – which includes nationalist Finns party – has tightened its immigration policies since the influx of asylum seekers last year.
Groups of self-proclaimed patriots have launched regular patrols and marches, saying they want to protect locals from immigrants.
Around 32,500 people applied for asylum in 2015 from 3,600 in 2014, with most of them coming from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Numbers have come down significantly this year.
(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl; Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Stephen Kalin in Baghdad; Editing by Andrew Heavens)