What is ethnic profiling?


Police ethnic profiling can mean that a police officer uses their police powers on an individual primarily or only due to that person’s skin colour, ethnic origin, religion or language. It can be prevalent within cases of stopping and asking for identity papers or detention.

When can ethnic profiling occur?

  • In Finland, it is suspected ethnic profiling occurs during immigration control procedures. During immigration control, police check that foreigners present in Finland have valid residence permits. This task is set out in Finnish law. Police officers conduct these controls in part by stopping people and asking them to identify themselves. Controls are also carried out during normal police work, when the police interact with foreigners.
  • Ethnic profiling also encompasses situations in which assumed members of a certain ethnic or racialised group are stopped and searched, because a different individual of the assumed same background is being searched in connection to a crime.
  • Other officials such as border guards and customs officials can also be guilty of ethnic profiling if they check people on the basis of their ethnic background, skin colour, religion, nationality or language.
  • Private security guards might practice ethnic profiling if they discriminate against people on the basis of their ethnic background, skin colour, religion, nationality or language.

Ethnic profiling is forbidden

Ethnic profiling is a form of discrimination. Discrimination is forbidden by Finnish law and international conventions. The UN human rights committee has deemed that police controls based on a person’s physical traits or ethnic background violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the most central international human rights treaty.

  • Ethnic profiling is also forbidden during immigration controls in Finland. According to Finnish law, controls “should not be motivated solely or mainly by virtue of a person’s real or assumed ethnic origin”. In practice this means that the police are forbidden to ask for identity papers solely due to a person’s black skin colour or dark hair, for example. The police need to have an alternate primary reason for enacting controls, e.g. police analysis or information that allows them to suspect you are an undocumented foreign citizen. However, it is unclear what in practice counts as police analysis or information within this context.
  • It is possible to file a criminal complaint or an administrative complaint regarding ethnic profiling via one of multiple complaint mechanisms.

Ethnic profiling abroad and in Finland

According to research, ethnic profiling is common in the USA and many European countries. For example in the UK, official statistics confirm that the police stop black people significantly more than white people.   

The Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative, a broad research project that focused on ethnic profiling in several European countries, found that profiling of muslims had increased in recent years in the name of anti-terrorism measures. In 2010, the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU conducted a broad survey on minority profiling in EU member states and subsequently produced a handbook for police officers. The survey found that minorities were stopped by the police more often than the majority groups living in the same neighbourhoods in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France and Hungary.  According to the report, majority respondents tend to feel that the police treat them with respect, whereas more minority respondents said that the police are disrespectful.

In France, in a landmark court ruling in June 2015, the Paris Court of Appeals ordered the French government to pay damages to people subjected to unwarranted identity checks, ruling that discriminatory ID checks are illegal. However, the court found no violations when checks occurred in neighborhoods said to be dangerous, even if the police had no objective grounds for stopping the individuals.

Does ethnic profiling occur in Finland?

It is not simple to recognise and prove cases of ethnic profiling. In Finland there are no court rulings stating that officials have committed discriminatory acts that amount to ethnic profiling.

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman has on repeated occasions commented on immigration controls procedures and suspected that methods currently used incur a significant risk of ethnic profiling. The European Comission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), a Council of Europe body, has expressed concern at Finland’s immigration control procedures. It has also advocated for years for the establishment of an independent body to investigate complaints of police misconduct and racial discrimination, but in nearly a decade one has not been founded.

It is probable that ethnic profiling does occur in Finland. In many research projects that deal with discrimination or the situation of immigrants in Finland, members of both old (Finnish Roma) and newer minorities (especially people of African descent) have reported police misconduct and being stopped based on skin colour or assumed membership of an ethnic group.  

In 2012, The Migrant Health and Wellbeing Study found that 25 per cent of respondents of Kurdish background, 15 per cent of respondents of Somali background and 7 per cent of respondents of Russian background had experienced discrimination when transacting with the police.

According to a recent survey based on interviews of immigrant youth in Helsinki, almost 20 percent of respondents found that the police targets ethnic minority youth more frequently than youth belonging to the majority population.