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Tur-retur tries to halt the brain drain from Finland to Sweden

Tur-retur tries to halt the brain drain from Finland to Sweden

| Text and photo: Bengt Östling

It is a full table at the pub near Sweden’s parliament building. Around ten immigrants have gathered for the monthly meeting of the Swedish association of Ostrobothnians in Stockholm. It is an active association. In addition to the monthly pub meeting, there is a choir and other activities.

Finns represent the oldest and largest group of immigrants in Sweden. But now, Finnish authorities are getting worried about the scale of migration. Far too many have moved west. The Finland House Stockholm is home to the Tur-retur (return trip) project, which aims to tempt Finns to move back home – especially the Swedish-speaking ones. 

Some 20,000 Swedish-speaking Finns have moved to Sweden over the past 20 years, and only a small minority of them return. The fear is that there will soon be a lack if skilled, Swedish-speaking workers in Finland.

Easy to emigrate

There is a lot of laughter at the pub this Friday night. The people meeting here have created a new life for themselves in Sweden, but it still feels good to be able to speak the old language – in this case some of the Swedish dialects from Ostrobothnia.

Swedish-speaking Finns 

“We love Sweden and have no plans to move back home.” Right to left: Christian and Kerstin Andersson, Yvonne and Peter Ahlstedt, Gunilla Mahlstedt and Jenny Maria Ahlstedt, leader of Swedish Ostrobothnians in Stockholm.

You need both courage and a desire for adventure if you want to emigrate. Those who dare not leave or are happiest at home will stay. Still, tonight’s conversation keeps returning to the fact that everything sorted itself out so easily. Sweden’s open society welcomed these immigrants with open arms. 

“Moving to Sweden from Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia must be the smallest cultural crash in the world,” says one of those sitting around the table. Everything is recognisable, they have been watching Swedish TV since they were children and there are no real language barriers. 

All those gathered here tonight say they enjoy living in Stockholm, things have been easy for them. Most came to try it out, but fairly quickly decided to stay. There were no problems finding work, unlike in Finland. 

  • Christian Andersson from Jakobstad came to Stockholm as soon as he had finished conscription. There were no jobs in Finland, and Sweden welcomed him with open arms. 
  • Gunilla Malmstedt from Kronoby arrived as early as 1979, after finishing a few years of vocational training in Finland. She got a job as a shop assistant in Stockholm before studying abroad and returning again to Sweden.
  • Peter Ahlstedt from Lepplax says he is now living his dream in Sweden. He arrived as an adult in 2012. Today he is a self-employed consultant. His wife Yvonne also thought it was obvious that he should go. She joined him a few years later and works as a therapist. A few years after that, their daughter Jenny Maria Ahlstedt came to study, and she now works like the others in a Swedish workplace as an accountant. 

The others around the table have similar stories. Many immigrants arrive as a family. Because their children join Swedish schools, their integration works well and they join society quickly. If you arrive as a young person you might not find a partner until later – a Swede or another immigrant. 

An election issue

Finns have been a welcome addition to the Swedish labour force.

“Sweden would not have managed without immigration, we built Sweden,” says Christian Andersson. In the 1960s and 70s, Greeks and Finns arrived, before being joined by people from Yugoslavia. Later, immigrants have arrived from around the world.

Christian and Kerstin Andersson

Christian and Kerstin Andersson

Not all immigrants have had it as easy as most Finns. Many in Sweden now point to immigration and a lack of integration as important factors behind crime and turbulence. At the same time, labour immigration is very much needed. This became an important issue in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in September last year, and will most probably be an issue in Finland in April 2023. 

New roles for Finland House

Finlandsinstitutet has performed many roles since it opened in the 1970s. It was a point of contact and a tango hall for the early immigrants – a meeting and cultural space to strengthen cooperation between Sweden and Finland and the only Finnish library in Sweden, helping to carry the language on to the next generations.

The house is an important meeting place for the 100,000 or so people with Finnish ancestry who live in the Stockholm region, and their organisations. The institute also tries to modernise the image of Finland in Sweden, which sometimes is seen as shallow and somewhat old-fashioned. 

The Tur-retur project wants to turn the tide

This is also home to the Tur-retur project which works to facilitate the return to the Finnish labour market for those who are moving back home from Sweden.

Tur-retur was set up to counter the growing migration from Finland to Sweden, especially among highly educated Swedish-speaking Finns. 

The Swedish language population in Finland have traditionally moved a lot. The threshold for moving to Sweden has always been low – the country is considered home turf. Finland’s Swedish-speaking coastal regions could be said to be close to Sweden both physically and mentally.

Over the past 20 years, some 20,000 Swedish-speaking Finns have moved to Sweden (according to figures from the think-tank Magma) and only a small number return. The fear is a resulting lack of skilled, Swedish-speaking labour in Finland.

Returning to Finland – even part-time

Anders Eriksson, director for Finlandsinstitutet in Stockholm, was responsible for securing funding from the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland.

In the autumn of 2021, the aim was to turn the tide, using various methods to ease people’s return to Finland. This included Finnish language courses at different levels for those who wanted to improve their language skills in order to manage in the Finnish labour market. 

The project also highlights the possibilities of remote working and living in both countries. The pandemic has shown that it is absolutely possible, for people in many jobs, to live in one country and work remotely in the other.  

Cannot afford to lose talent

“Finland cannot afford to lose too much talent, we have seen how this leads to labour shortages,” says Anders Eriksson. But in order to get along back in Finland, people must have followed developments in their home country and know the Finnish language. 

That is why language courses and various events focusing on Finland are organised both for Swedes and Finns. The project has been running for two years and Anders Eriksson hopes funding will continue.  

Linda Granback

Linda Granback

Linda Granback is project leader for Tur-retur, and a relative newcomer to Sweden herself. Now she is administering the language courses and the attempts to balance out the number of people moving.

“The initial idea was to make it easier for Swedish-speaking Finns to move back when more and more clearly came here to stay. But we have expanded it since. All immigration is a benefit to Finland, so we also inform Swedes about the opportunities for living, working and studying in Swedish in Finland,” points out Granback. One of the project’s sidelines which has already proven successful is increasing the number of Swedish nationals studying at Swedish-language Finnish universities.

Children and roots could determine future demographics

Linda Granback has seen quite a few people moving back. The pandemic made some people accelerate their plans. More Swedes are also discovering opportunities in Finland, although it is a bigger commitment for them to move there.  

The Finns have different motives for moving back. Retirement is often a tipping point when people have to consider where their children and grandchildren live, whether they have a summer house or relatives still living in Finland, explains Linda Granback.

Another tipping point is when people graduate or when they have children. The Finnish schooling system can be tempting, with its excellent reputation. Recent violence in Swedish cities can also have an effect on what people choose, believes Linda Granback.

It pays to speak Finnish – also in Sweden

Many Swedish-speaking Finns move to Sweden simply because they do not want to speak Finnish – their language skills are not good enough to get jobs in Finland. The threshold for learning Finnish in Sweden can therefore be quite high, admits Linda Granback and Anders Eriksson. 

Swedish businesses can also benefit from Finnish-speaking employees as many companies in the east of Finland are looking for new export markets in Sweden now that the border to Russia has closed. 

But the use of English has also become increasingly common in contacts between Finland and Sweden. Recent Nato cooperation might very well have boosted political cooperation specifically in English, says Anders Eriksson.

Identity and solidarity

The chat around the pub table has moved on to deeper issues of identity and Swedes’ views of immigrants from the East. Finns are considered good and sought-after workers – hard-working and always present. This has not always been the case. Earlier, Finns were considered to be too keen on both drinking and fighting.

Finnish immigrants who have arrived in the latest decades have often been highly educated, which has given them a different social status and they are hardly considered to be immigrants at all.

The classic and delicate question immigrants often get is where lies their solidarity. What is “home” to them? Do they return home to Finland for Christmas or do they return home to Sweden after the holidays? And which country do they support when it comes to ice hockey, football or the annual Finland-Sweden Athletics International?

This issue seems to engage the men around the pub table in particular. They give different answers but promise to have forgotten everything by the next day.

Politics can be a touchy subject too. The Social Democrats have traditionally been seen as strong among Finnish workers in Sweden. Many parties come over from Finland to campaign among Swedish-speaking Finns, who are allowed to vote in their country of birth. Ahead of April’s elections, the Swedish People’s Party of Finland has set up its own local chapter in Stockholm. There are tens of thousands of votes to be won.

A short trip across the Baltic Sea
  • Low-skilled workers emigrated from Finland for large periods of time after independence in 1918.
  • The USA used to be the top destination, but since WWII, half a million Finns have moved to Sweden.
  • Most of today’s emigrants have higher education, many have Swedish as their mother tongue and integrate easily in Sweden.
  • Some 20,000 Swedish-speaking Finns have moved to Sweden in the past 20 years. Only a small minority return.
  • The Finland House at Snickarbacken in Stockholm has been a culture house, language school and meeting place for migrants and Swedes since 1970.
  • Tur-retur aims to stop the brain drain and turn the tide of Finns moving to Sweden, by informing Swedes about the opportunities for, among other things, studying and working in Swedish in Finland. 
  • Finnish migrants have established a large number of associations in Sweden, covering culture, sports and social activities. The associations were particularly important for Finnish-speaking immigrants who never learned Swedish. In the past, they also used to send aid packages to Finland.
  • Finnish has been a national minority language in Sweden since 2000. People have a right to Finnish language preschool and elderly care.

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