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Estonians are returning home

Estonians are returning home

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, photo: Terje Lepp/

The Baltic states are loosing active citizens fast, but in Estonia the authorities have started counting them back in.

We are sat in the auditorium of the splendid Kumu art museum in the Estonian capital Tallinn, listening to a debate about labour and migration around the Baltic Sea. For the third year in a row this event is sold out, an indication of how much interest there is in this subject.

Since the Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained independence in 1991, tens of thousands of their citizens have travelled abroad to make a better life for themselves. Migration was one of the hottest topics in the Estonian general election earlier this year. 

For the Baltic countries the current debate is about a brain drain, people in their prime who leave perhaps never to come back. In a Nordic perspective this is about tackling the challenges immigration brings.

Tallink Superstar

Photo: Wikipedia

I had travelled from Helsinki the night before with the Superstar, a ferry owned by Estonian shipping company Tallink. Men and women returning after a week’s work in the neighbouring country were all around me. It is only a two hour journey, and tens of thousands of Estonians commute weekly or monthly across the Gulf of Finland. Many of them are construction workers, others are cleaners or work in agriculture. These are mainly low-salary jobs, but in a country where the median wage is just over €1,000 a month it is tempting to make three to four times that amount. In addition to these 30,000 or so commuters, nearly 50,000 Estonians have moved permanently to Finland.

An estimated 100,000 Estonians work part or full time in Finland, which represents one in ten person of working age.

The number of people travelling between Helsinki and Tallinn is now so high that the authorities are seriously looking into the possibility of constructing a tunnel which would create a metropolis; ‘Talsinki’.

Also immigration

At the seminar Tiit Tammaru, Professor at the University of Tartu, explained that the differences in living standards in the two countries and access to people with the right education are the two main drivers for labour migration.

“Not everyone is prepared to move to another country, of course.”

He pointed out that Estonia, after many years of emigration, now also experiences an increase in immigration. As the living standard and access to well-paid jobs improves, people move back home. The number of people returning home is the same as the number who have left since the 2008 financial crisis.

“Estonia is an emigration country, but also an immigration country,” said Tammaru.

There are different patterns of emigration in the three Baltic countries. Estonians move almost exclusively to the culturally and geographically similar Finland, while Lithuanians and Latvians mainly go to the UK, with Norway as their top Nordic destination. 

Latvia doing badly

Mihails Hazans


Latvia lost ten percent of its population in the emigration wave after the year 2000. Researchers have reached 14,000 of the 260,000 who left the country, and a survey shows few of them have any plans of moving back. Only 17 percent say they will move back “for sure” or “probably” in the next five years. The same number of people plan to retire in Latvia, according to the research presented by Professor Mihails Hazans from the University of Latvia.

Latvia is the most vulnerable of all the new EU member states when it comes to population size, suffering from an unfortunate demographical development and emigration which puts the welfare system and economic growth at risk. 

Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, a researcher at the Nordic Centre for Spacial Development (Nordregio) in Sweden, said the Baltic migration movements were interesting in an EU perspective. We know from experience that people quite happily can have multiple identities and links to two, three or four different mental worlds. 

Innovation Professor Rainer Kattel from the Tallinn University has found that innovations are closely linked to migration and diversity. He also pointed out that diasporas are important for export companies in many ways. One reason is that their members understand the target groups.

Welfare a problem

EU Citizens move freely across border in search of jobs, but social security is not keeping up. Welfare systems are difficult to maintain in a world where labour becomes more and more mobile.

Annika Forsander, Development Manager at the Ministry of Employment and the Economy in Helsinki, told the seminar that the cross-border labour movement was increasing at a much faster pace than were the attempts for making social security, like pensions, more mobile. This is not a new problem. Right now a Finnish campaign is trying to get Finns who have moved home after working in Sweden in the 1960s to apply for the pension they are entitled to. This applies to around 20,000 people.

“This is a very complex issue which challenges the entire basis for the welfare state,” said Annika Forsander.

The EU Commission is currently discussing how to update regulation covering social benefits to meet the modern world. The so-called mobility package should promote a mobile workforce while also stop misuse. Denmark is one country which has seen a lively debate over whether EU citizens should have the right to claim child and unemployment benefits from day one in their new country. There is still not much evidence that welfare tourism exists to a large degree in the EU.

Many categories

In today’s world there are so many categories of immigrants that one single model will never fit all. In Sweden, for instance, half of new arrivals are welcomed for humanitarian reasons. In Finland, on the other hand, refugees and other groups at risk make up a small fraction of the total immigration figure. The biggest groups are foreigners who have established families with Finnish citizens, or people who come to work and study.

In Sweden people are generally convinced that immigrants will sooner or later become useful, and in 2008 the government decided to scrap the labour market test for non-EU applicants. In other words, employers could decide for themselves which kinds of workers they needed. The idea was to use immigration to bridge the labour shortage and to tempt highly educated experts to move to Sweden; computer specialists, medical doctors, plumbing technicians, engineers. 

An evaluation done by the Malmö University shows that the results are far from meeting expectations. It shows refugees from non-European countries exploited the chance of getting a work permit. Former refugees employed new refugees already living in Sweden, in trades which already had a surplus of labour like restaurants and cleaning. The number of experts arriving to work in sectors suffering from labour shortages, however, was lower than it had been before the reform was introduced. The findings are published in the report ‘ The World’s Most Open Country’. 

The Tallinn seminar was organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers in cooperation with authorities, universities and Nordic embassies.


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