August 30, 2015 / 5:28 PM / 2 years ago

Finns protest at asylum seeker center in Nokia home town

People stand near the gate of the Nokia factory in Salo, January 17, 2013.Roni Lehti/Lehtikuva

SALO, Finland (Reuters) - About 200 Finns protested on Sunday against opening a refugee reception center in the former home town of Nokia as the recession-hit country struggles to handle an influx of asylum seekers.

The demonstrators in the market square of Salo were waving signs saying "Close the borders" and shouted slogans such as "Islam will destroy us". They said the reception center, planned in a half-vacant hospital, would be a security risk, especially for children and women.

Salo is one of the sites of Nokia's once-dominant phone business. Microsoft, the current owner of the ailing business, has just announced further cuts of 1,100 positions in the town.

"Finns need to be helped first. Everything has been taken from the unemployed, the poor and the sick. But the coffers are empty. If these centers open, our taxes will go up," said a man who gave his name Kari.

Migration has become a hot political topic across the Nordics, driving many voters to far-right and populist parties and playing into fears that immigration will deprive local people of jobs and undermine their cradle-to-grave welfare.

The government forecasts the number of asylum seekers in Finland, mostly from Iraq and Somalia, could rise to 15,000 this year, compared to just 3,600 last year.

The demonstration in Salo is just one of several protests against plans for housing migrants in new centers around the country - echoing disagreements across Europe about policies over an issue that has dominated the headlines over the summer.

A smaller group of people, however, gathered for a counter-demonstration, arguing that the migrants need help and that the center would even bring new jobs.

The rise in immigrants comes at a difficult time for Finland, whose economy is shrinking for a fourth consecutive year in the absence of new export business and jobs to replace losses from the downfall of the mobile phone sector.

The country is not used to mass immigration as only about 6 percent of the Finnish population are immigrants.

The asylum seekers are a particular challenge for the Eurosceptic The Finns party which joined the new coalition government in May after campaigning in election on a nationalist platform including tighter immigration policy.

Earlier this week, tabloid Iltalehti reported vandals raised a Nazi flag at a college where a new reception center had been opened in the northern town of Tornio. In Helsinki, a far-right movement stuck fliers near a similar center in a hospital, warning residents over the migrants.

Meanwhile, local politicians in a small town Forssa voted down a plan to house asylum seekers into a closed hotel after demonstrations outside the town hall.

"The atmosphere is not a good one," Prime Minister Juha Sipila from the Centre party said in an interview with public radio YLE.

"The majority of these people are escaping a war and very difficult circumstances. We must bear our burden but also watch that the situation is not being taken advantage of."

Writing by Jussi Rosendahl; Editing by Alison Williams

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