Finland’s Prosperity brings New Migrants

Posted by: Anthony Claret - Posted on:

In the last 50 years, Finland has transformed itself from an agriculturally oriented culture into a competitive, technologically advanced information society. This small, Nordic country of five million people has the least corruption and the best competitiveness rate of any country in the world, according to international indices. Over 85 per cent of Finnish households have access to a broadband Internet connection and over 90 per cent of the active population has a mobile phone.

Such favourable economic, technical, and social developments help explain why Finland again has become an attractive destination for both economic and forced migrants. The first wave of immigrants – Swedes, Russians, Central Europeans, Tatars, and Jews – came to the capital Helsinki and other major towns from the end of the 19th century through the 1930s for economic opportunities.

Three statistics indicate the relatively strong impact of today’s immigration. First, the number of foreigners legally living in Finland without citizenship increased four-fold between 1990 and 2003, from 26,300 to 107,100. Second, the number of foreign-born Finnish citizens and residents doubled between 1991 and 2003, from 77,000 to 159,000, which is three per cent of the total Finnish population. Third, the number of residents whose first language is not Finnish has tripled between 1992 and 2004, from 43,000 to 128,000.

Today, Finland receives around 2,000 to 3,000 asylum applications annually, in addition to well over 10,000 applications for work and residence permits. Each year, between 2,000 and 3,000 people receive Finnish citizenship.

One reason for the recent immigration increase is the fall of the Soviet Union, which has opened Russia’s borders and has allowed for freer movement in the region. Also, Finland’s entry into the EU in 1995 appears to have made it a better-known and more accessible country for potential migrants.

Nevertheless, such a rapid increase is a phenomenon of only the past 15 years. Prior to 1990, the volume of forced and voluntary immigration to Finland was much lower. Finland was a country of voluntary emigration, with a small – although well-integrated – immigrant population.

Immigration questions have not gained a major foothold in political debates, nor have opposition parties chosen immigration as an issue for challenging ruling parties, including the current centre-left coalition government. Finland has no openly xenophobic party, unlike many other European countries, and thus, the major parties have been able to take a fact-oriented approach to immigration-related policy.

Partly due to this, parliamentary and ministerial work today is calmly proceeding without heated public debate on such matters as the future of the Finnish labour market, asylum processes, the integration of immigrants and asylum seekers, and whether large-scale labour immigration could help compensate for an ageing population.

Historical Patterns of Migration

Finland was under Swedish control for over 600 years until 1809, when it became a Russian Grand Duchy. In 1917, Finland achieved its independence. Despite several wars and conflicts, Finland has experienced mainly voluntary and economic emigration. Significant immigration occurred only between 1890 and World War II, and again after 1990. During both periods, the country has received both labour and asylum immigrants.

The first historical wave of voluntary emigration occurred in the 17th century, when hundreds of Finns, along with Swedes, established colonies in what later became the US state of Delaware. Later, the majority of Finnish emigrants settled in the US, Canada, Australia, and in Finland’s neighbours: Russia, Sweden, and Norway.

Of the total of one million Finns who emigrated before World War II, about 500,000 went to North America. Finnish immigration to the US – particularly to the Great Lakes area, California, and the Northeast – peaked between 1899 and 1913. Between 1920 and World War II, most Finnish emigrants headed for Canada, mainly because the US tightened its immigration rules.

While many Finns were leaving, people from across Europe settled in Helsinki and other major southern towns from the late 19th century onwards. During Russian rule, between 1809 and 1917, there were at least 20,000 immigrants to Finland, according to most estimates. Between 1917 and 1944, there were also several thousand immigrants.

These first waves of modern immigration included Swiss cheesemakers, Bavarian brewers, Norwegian sawmill proprietors, British textile industrialists, Italian ice cream makers, Jewish merchants and Tatar fur and carpet traders. They made a comprehensive and considerable contribution to the Finnish economy.

Today, these groups are considered a successful part of contemporary Finnish life. During the period of very little immigration between World War II and 1990, they had ample space and time to integrate into Finnish (and particularly Swedish-speaking Finnish) society and daily life. In addition, many visibly different ethnic groups have been able to keep some of their core cultural traits. For example, the Roma women, whose ancestors came to Finland in the 16th century, still wear their traditional clothing. The Tatar people, now in the fifth generation, have kept their characteristic names, Muslim faith, and language traditions.

By the beginning of World War II in 1939, Finland was home to more foreigners than Sweden, its larger neighbour. However, this trend changed in the 1950s, when the Finnish economy started to industrialize and people began to migrate from rural areas to cities in southern Finland.

Despite the increase in factory jobs in the bigger towns, there was not enough work or housing for all the newcomers. Sweden and its factories lured hundreds of thousands of Finns with higher salaries, better living standards, and more housing. The freedom of movement permitted between Nordic countries, the devaluation of the Finnish currency, and Sweden’s already-established Finnish community also contributed to this emigration flow.

In addition, well-educated young Finnish women, such as nurses, migrated to Western-Central Europe, particularly to Germany and Switzerland, for marriage or work after World War II. There may have been as many as 50,000 such cases altogether, including many who eventually returned with foreign husbands.

By the 1980s, emigration to Sweden slowed down as living standards and wages in Finland began to approach Swedish levels. Many Finns who had emigrated to Sweden began returning.

Today’s emigrants from Finland are mainly highly educated people, particularly in IT, medicine, chemistry, physics, biotechnology, and the arts. Most spend a year or two working in countries like the UK, where they gain experience and professional networks that can be useful back in Finland.

Salaries, though low in many fields, have seldom caused people to leave in the past 20 years. However, in a search for higher wages, a small number of Finnish nurses have migrated to Norway and diverse range of experts have gone to the Persian Gulf area.

The Difficult Return of Ethnic Finns

In April 1990, then-president Dr. Mauno Koivisto declared that all Finns living within the former Soviet Union could be considered return migrants to Finland. Many of these people, known as Ingrians, were 17th-century vanguards of Swedish Lutheranism in Ingria, around Neva River, near Saint Petersburg. Because the Ingrians were poorly treated by the Soviet Union, many Finns felt that Estonian or Russian citizens from the Ingria region who were sufficiently Finnish in terms of ethnicity had a morally legitimate right of return.

As of 2003, 25,000 Ingrians who fulfilled the heredity criteria had “returned” to Finland. As of September 2004, some 22,000 Ingrians were still lining up in Russia and Estonia for entry interviews. It is anticipated that at the pace at which applications are now approved, it will take several years and perhaps even decades to process them all.

While some repatriated Ingrians have a strong Finnish identity and good language skills upon arrival, many have had to struggle in everyday Finnish life. Because full four-grandparent ancestry is not required, and because of the partly completed Soviet assimilation of the past, most of the young people of Ingrian descent speak only Russian or Estonian. Like the Aussiedler from Russia and Kazakhstan in Germany, many Ingrians lack a sufficient Finnish identity. Also, the media has frequently covered the drug problems of some young Ingrians – this attention, some say, is disproportionate to the problem.

Nevertheless, no public anti-Ingrian sentiment has emerged, but as a preemptive response, the government has tightened the prerequisites for entry to include at least a reasonable knowledge of the Finnish language.

The Policymaking Process Today

As the EU’s immigration agenda is still being formed and currently has a limited scope, the most important regulations concerning immigration and citizenship are made on the national level.

Regarding the parties and the processes in Finland, the parliament is responsible for making the legislative decisions, while the preparation of draft laws is under the Immigration Department of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Labor, and, to a lesser extent, the other ministries such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Labor Immigration Today

In recent years, Finland has admitted tens of thousands of labour immigrants who have first secured job contracts with Finnish employers. Generally, there is no system or recruitment plan regarding future labour immigration.

The newest Aliens law of 2004 maintains the authority of the offices of the Ministry of Labor over case-by-case evaluations of candidates’ credentials, and the Ministry’s recommendations depend on the labour market’s needs. The Directorate of Immigration (under another ministry, the Ministry of the Interior) then makes the ultimate decision.

Registered students are now subject to a lighter process and basically need only a temporary residence permit. Seasonal agricultural workers are entitled to work without a residence permit if the work period is less than three months.

Asylum Policies and Issues

The EU has had some influence on the Finnish immigration system, particularly through the Dublin structure, whereby an asylum seeker coming from an extra-EU country of origin but through an EU country may be, under certain conditions, returned to this EU country.

The EU asylum policy, however, is only in its very initial stage. Therefore, the Finnish legislation, administration, and practices still have many national characteristics. For example, in other EU countries, asylum matters are typically under one ministry, be it Justice, Foreign Affairs or Interior, whereas the central parts of the Finnish asylum system are handled by two ministries.

Asylum-seeker reception and post-asylum integration policy, as well as enforcement, mainly fall under the mandate of the Ministry of Labor, which also has a significant say in refugee quotas. Other asylum-related policy decisions generally fall under the Foreigners’ Department of the Ministry of the Interior, while asylum interviews and application decisions are the responsibility of that ministry’s Directorate of Immigration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the local police have a smaller role in executive operations.

In contrast to other EU countries, asylum applications to Finland are still on the rise. Finland currently receives 1,000 to 3,000 asylum seekers annually. In 2004, Finland has received more asylum applications than Denmark, which has a much longer and more significant history of receiving immigrants. There are three main causes for this trend: the increased knowledge about Finland as a stable and socially developed country with few incidents of racial violence, a lack of a well-established and hostile far right, and further asylum entry restrictions in other Western countries.

Since 1990, Finland has received 3,000 Somalis fleeing civil war, thousands of Kurds from the Middle East, and thousands of refugees fleeing the Balkan conflicts. Because of the large living-standard gap across the Fenno-Russian border and the ongoing human rights situation in the Caucasus, Finland received over 3,400 asylum applications from the former Soviet Union and Russia between 1990 and September 2004.

More recently, Kosovar Albanians and Roma from Eastern Europe (from the Ashkalis of Albania to the Polska Roma of Poland) have been the largest groups to apply. Altogether, Roma applicants to Finland between 1990 and September 2004 totalled 4,000 to 5,000. In 2004, most applications have come from people in the Caucasus area, the Russian Federation, Belarus, the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Somalia, and Nigeria.

Traditionally, the Directorate of Immigration has approved few asylum applications. After verifying source country information and carefully examining individual case claims from non-“safe” countries, the directorate has found that most applications are not based on persecution or the threat of it.

However, residence permits have been considered and frequently granted in cases where detailed, updated, country-of-origin information and careful, an individual judicial inspection of the case has revealed an obvious and immediate need of protection. Therefore, while 20 to 30 per cent of the people who submit applications are allowed to stay, few receive a residence permit because they are refugees as defined by the Geneva Convention. The residence permits that asylum applicants receive often allow the person to permanently settle in Finland.

The more recent debate focuses on the “fast-track” system. Due to long delays in processing and deciding on applications, the government passed an amendment to the Aliens law in 2001, which remained in the 2004 Aliens law. This law means that asylum seekers from countries of origin currently considered “safe” are evaluated using a seven-day, accelerated procedure. A negative decision may be executed within eight days of the decision, without waiting for a possible appeal or court of appeals decision.

According to critics, a faster process cannot guarantee an adequately thorough inspection of individual claims, and negative decisions could put the applicant in danger. Supporters argue that the Directorate of Immigration can now keep up with the increased number of applications, and concentrate on asylum seekers coming from more dangerous societies and circumstances. In addition, the Directorate’s researchers continuously update country information and provide analysis, ensuring well-informed decisions.

It seems the law has helped shorten processing time: as of September 2004, delays in asylum decisions had been reduced to an internationally satisfactory standard of four months.

As concerns, the proportion of positive to negative asylum decisions on first-time applications, the ratio (including decisions in favour of asylum and other asylum-related residence permits) was roughly one to three in the 1990s. Since 2000, the ratio has been around one to four, except in 2001, when the positive/negative ratio peaked at three to four. These figures mean that on average between 1990 and 2004, more than 25 per cent of all asylum seekers have been entitled to remain in Finland with some type of residence permit.

Refugee Quotas

In addition to approving asylum applications, the government sets annual refugee quotas that determine the ultimate number of forced migration-related entries to Finland per year. The quota, which varies between 500 and 750 refugees, is typically to protect people from the Middle East’s most conflict-torn areas. The government typically fulfils the quota through selecting vulnerable refugees from the region’s refugee camps.

Other groups who have benefited from the refugee quota include the Chilean refugees of the early 1970s and Vietnamese “boat refugees” from Asian refugee camps in the 1980s. Also, special governmental measures have facilitated the entries of Bosnian refugees during the Bosnian war and Albanians during the Kosovo war.

Citizenship Through Application and Multiple Citizenship

Citizenship matters per se have not excited negative political passions in Finland. Rather, the application process delays that have been the subject of sometimes well-founded criticism. Currently, the Directorate of Immigration has a target for reducing the time for a citizenship decision to less than 1.5 years.

Generally, the citizenship legislation has been modernized, and the conditions for achieving citizenship are in line with other European countries. A foreigner may apply for Finnish citizenship if he or she is 18 years old, has no criminal record, is in satisfactory economic standing, and has a satisfactory command of either Finnish or Swedish, the official languages.

A sufficient residence in Finland is also required. A former Finnish citizen or a Nordic citizen has to live in Finland uninterrupted for two years, whereas others must live in Finland for eight consecutive years, or a total of eight years in several periods after age 15 with the last two years being consecutive. For refugees with a residence permit, stateless persons, and persons with Finnish spouses, the periods are shorter: four consecutive years of residence in Finland, or six years after the age of 15, the last two years uninterrupted. Spouses need to prove they live together and have done so for the past three years.

On June 1, 2003, Finland passed a new law that allows dual citizenship. The law makes it easier for both foreigners and people of Finnish descent to work in Finland. Consequently, a Finnish citizen no longer has to give up his or her Finnish citizenship if he or she acquires foreign citizenship. The new law also allows a foreigner to acquire Finnish citizenship without relinquishing his or her foreign citizenship. However, the Directorate of Immigration has the final authority in deciding whether the applicant is granted citizenship.

Integration Challenges

One of the most important challenges the government faces is integrating the foreign-born and their children. As in other European countries, proficiency in the national language is a major concern, and this is particularly true with the difficult Finnish language. The language courses provided by the government have not always met the needs of different immigrant groups who have varying levels of Finnish language skills. Considering the exponential rise in non-native Finnish speakers in the past 10 years, language instruction will become a crucial issue in the future.

Another challenge is to make sure immigrants will continue to be evenly distributed across Finland’s towns and cities. Effective measures have yet to be taken to make immigrants feel at home in areas other than the largest southern towns. Deteriorating neighbourhoods with high concentrations of immigrants have been avoided so far, though immigrants consistently located in the Helsinki metropolitan area, the country’s most densely populated region with one million people.

Immigration and the Aging Population

Like many countries, Finland’s population is growing older, with the bulk of the post-World War II baby-boomers retiring in the coming five to seven years. Over 500,000 people will retire, which is every fifth or sixth person presently in the active workforce. Unless compensating measures are systematically deployed, population decline will inevitably occur after 2025. The speed of the decline may be slowed by more immigration.

With the government granting several thousand long-term residence permits and naturalizing 2,000 to 3,000 people each year, many well-integrated, skilled immigrants could compensate for possible future labour shortages. But statisticians and economists debate over whether there will be a consistent need for skilled or unskilled foreign labour in the first place. Some argue that immigration would not solve the problem because even many current immigrants still lack Finnish language skills and occupational expertise. As a result, they have not become full participants in the labour market and everyday life.

It is not known how to further occupational education and training, the current Finnish unemployment rate of nine per cent, changes in the nature of work, and the consequent changes in total workforce needs will ultimately affect the actual need for labour immigration in the future. Nor does the government know the impact of the recent dual citizenship change, which at best could catalyze the return of many expatriate Finns.

If the government decides to pursue a new labour immigration policy to help solve the ageing population problem, a dynamic system of assessing domestic needs could be applied. A system that that favours skilled, educated labour immigrants, such as those used in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, could prioritize the entry of people whose skills are in demand and who would have an easier time integrating into everyday life.


Until – or unless – Finland decides to systematically recruit and integrate foreign manpower, Finland will remain a country of reactive, case-by-case permit application processing. In any case, due to the country’s stability, egalitarian values, and wealth, the number of both asylum seekers and labour immigrants will keep increasing.

In fact, many would argue that Finland has room for larger immigration flows. Given the still rather low proportion of the foreign-born in Finland today (three per cent), the ageing population, and the relatively low Finnish population density – 17 persons per square kilometre, compared to Singapore’s 6,751 persons or the Netherlands’ 386 persons per square kilometre – a larger foreign-born population could be absorbed into Finnish society with careful government-NGO cooperation.

The increase in immigration could come from a larger number of quota refugees and from labour migrants who gain entry based on a point system similar to that of Canada. In this context, it is important to continue to keep asylum separate from demographic considerations: asylum claims ought to be processed individually based on the Geneva Convention, and residence permits granted accordingly, depending on the actual need of protection rather than the skills applicants could bring to the Finnish labour market. Of course, after such people receive asylum or residence, the government could help ensure that their vocational skills are used.

In addition, all kinds of immigration will have more favourable consequences if the government is sufficiently able to provide effective and encouraging tools for integration, including high-quality language education.

To achieve these goals, Finland will likely need a more pro-immigration mentality. Best practices for successfully changing the public’s attitude will probably come from the more experienced and established immigration countries.

Arno Tanner is a visiting MPI Fulbright scholar from 2004 to 2005 from the Finnish Directorate of Immigration. In addition to Nordic affairs, he is an expert on the political, ethnic minority, and human rights conditions in the Balkans, Belarus, and Ukraine. His current interests include the national and international management of forced and labor migration as well as their developmental effects. Email:


Aliens Law. Helsinki, 2004. Available online.

Directorate of Immigration. Newest statistics. Helsinki, 2004. Available online.

Heikkilä, Elli and Selene Peltonen. Immigrants and integration in Finland. Institute of Migration. Turku, 2002. Available online. .

Korkiasaari, Jouni. Suomalaiset maailmalla (Finns abroad). Institute of Migration. Turku, 2003. Available online. .

Laakkonen, Risto. Muistio innovatiivisuuden ja tasa-arvoisen tietoyhteiskunnan avainhaasteista; maahanmuutto- ja maastamuuttopolitiikka välineenä – Eduskunnan Tulevaisuusvaliokunnalle 31.3.2004 (A memorandum about the key challenges of innovation and an equal information society; emigration and immigration policies as tools, for the Finnish Parliament, March 31, 2004). Ministry of Labour. Helsinki, 2004.

Ministry of Labour. Migration statistics and diagrams. Helsinki, 2003. Available online.

OECD SOPEMI. Trends in International Migration – Finland. OECD. Paris, 2003. Available online.

Reporters without Borders. Worldwide press freedom index. 2002. Available online.

Söderling, Ismo, Integration of migrants in Europe: the case of Finland. Studi Emigrazione. Vol.152. Roma, 2004. Pp. 905-927.

Tanner, Arno. Siirtolaisuus, valtio ja politiikka – Kanadan, Sveitsin ja Uuden-Seelannin työvoiman maahanmuutto ja politiikka 1975-2001(Migration, Policy and the State – Labour immigration and policy in Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand 1975-2001). Academic dissertation for the University of Tampere. Directorate of Immigration and Ministry of Labour. Helsinki, 2003.

Transparency International. Corruption Perceptions Index 2003. London, 2003. Available online.

World Economic Forum. Available online.