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Immigration to and Emigration from Estonia | Northern Europe |

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Immigration to and Emigration from Estonia

Mari-Liis Jakobson

/ 8 Minuten zu lesen

In its history, Estonia has been part of various empires before (re)gaining independence. People have moved across borders – and sometimes borders have moved across them. The legacies of the past still shape the immigrant population as well as the diaspora.

Pedestrian checkpoint on the Estonian-Russian border near Narva. The vast majority amongst foreign-born residents in Estonia are persons born in Russia and in other ex-Soviet states. (© dpa)

Historical phases of immigration to and emigration from Estonia

The history of migration to and from Estonia is notably connected to the political history of the country. Estonia has been a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdoms of Denmark and Poland, the Swedish and Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The migration legacies from the earlier periods include a German nobility that controlled the land from the 13th till the 19th century (most of whom returned to their ancestral homeland when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union), the coastal villages in Estonia where a dialect of Swedish (rannarootsi) was spoken (and whose speakers left for Sweden during the Second World War), and numerous Estonian villages in various parts of the Russian Empire.

In the past 150 years, Estonia has witnessed three major waves of emigration and one major wave of immigration.

Number of Estonians in the diasporas (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The first emigration wave occurred in the second half of the 19th century and reached its peak around the time Estonia became independent in 1918. Back then, every fifth Estonian resided abroad, mostly on the territory of contemporary Russia, but also in neighbouring Latvia and in Crimea and Abkhazia. The largest settlements of Estonian migrants were in St Petersburg (ca. 50,000), Gdov in Pskow Oblast and in Siberia (around 40,000 in both regions). After 1918, the Estonian Eastern diaspora has been in decline.

The second wave of emigration took place during and after the Second World War. The main bulk of emigrants were refugees (some 70,000-75,000 persons) who fled the war or the Soviet occupation and finally settled in the West – the biggest Estonian communities in exile were located in Sweden, the United States, Canada and Australia.

The third wave of emigration occurred after Estonia had regained its independence in 1991. While Estonia’s net migration rate fell into the negative already with regained independence, the rate of emigration rapidly grew in the mid 2000s, after Estonia had joined the EU in 2004 and free movement was gradually granted to Estonian nationals. Most Estonian emigrants therefore opted to migrate to other EU Member States.

Percentage of Estonians in the population 1881-2010 (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The net migration rate had been positive in the Soviet period, when Estonia witnessed the most notable wave of immigration: from 1922 until about two years after Soviet occupation in 1940, more than 91 percent of the Estonian population were ethnic Estonians. Thereafter, the immigrant population rapidly grew, leading to a shrinking percentage of Estonian nationals. By 1990, only 61 percent of the residents were ethnic Estonian. During this period, immigrants came from various parts of the Soviet Union, but their uniting lingua franca was Russian. The mass immigration of the Soviet period made citizenship and migration policies strongly contentious issues once Estonia regained independence in 1991. Estonia considered only those who had been Estonian citizens in 1940 (before Soviet occupation) and their descendants as its citizens. Those immigrants who came during the time Estonia was part of the Soviet Union and decided to remain in the country after independence had the option to either acquire Estonian citizenship through naturalization, opt for the citizenship of another country such as the Russian Federation or stay in the country as "individuals with undetermined citizenship". This status grants its holders virtually all of the civil and social rights of citizens, and even some political rights (e.g. to participate in local elections), but does not permit its holders to vote and run for the national Parliament and the European Parliament.

Characteristics of the current immigrant and ethnic minority population

Foreign-born population in Estonia on 1 January 2019 according to age (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

On 1 January 2019, 1,324,820 persons lived in Estonia, 198,064 of them were foreign-born (of which 197,463 did not hold Estonian citizenship). With 15 percent of its total population, Estonia has one of the largest shares of foreign-born residents in Europe. The vast majority amongst them are persons born in Russia and in other ex-Soviet states (e.g. Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan) – many of them migrated to Estonia during the Soviet period. However, in the past few years, the number of residents born in other EU member states has been growing steadily (the largest national groups are from Latvia, Finland, Germany and Lithuania). Furthermore, while the net migration rate of third country nationals has been negative since 1989, it has become positive in the past few years, in particular with regard to Ukrainian labour migrants. However, most of them engage in short-term migration (on a visa or visa-free entry regime) and thus, are not represented in the population statistics, as only persons with a residence permit are required to register their place of residence in Estonia.

Estonian immigration, integration and naturalization policy

Foreign-born population in Estonia on 1 January 2019 according to country of birth (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Estonian immigration policy has been relatively restrictive, although the past few years have witnessed some liberalisation. In 1990, labour immigration to Estonia was capped by an immigration quota that was equal to 0,1 percent of the total population. Furthermore, third-country citizens who want to immigrate to Estonia for employment reasons have to earn a salary that equals the national average salary (until 2016, the requirement was 1,24 times the national average salary). This is to discourage low-skilled migration that is not considered an asset for Estonia's economy.

While some exemptions to the immigration quota have been made over time, for many years, the quota has not been much of an issue, as before 2016, the annual number of immigrants did not exceed it. However, recent economic growth has prompted new exemptions for highly skilled migrants (introduced inter alia in the 2019 reform of the Aliens Act) – e.g. ICT specialists, start-up founders and staff, researchers, qualified specialists who are paid at least double the national average salary. Migrants who come to Estonia in the framework of family reunification or to pursue their studies, were exempted from the quota already before.

The need for less skilled labour is met with short-term migration schemes – for instance, foreigners can work in Estonia for up to one year if they hold a D-visa, or for the duration of their visa or visa-free stay, provided that they register their short-term work. The salary requirement applies for short-term migrants as well. Additionally, labour migrants can come to Estonia as seasonal workers, to work e.g. in farming or hospitality industries.

The integration policies in Estonia are designed to support two broader groups of people:

  • scarcely integrated permanent residents (mostly immigrants from the Soviet period or their descendants)

  • newly arrived immigrants (i.e. foreigners who have arrived in Estonia in the last five years).

The former group is primarily targeted with services that help them learn the Estonian language – for instance, there are numerous free of charge language courses and practice options (e.g. language cafés) available. Since 2019, persons who have resided in Estonia for more than five years, can enter into a citizenship contract with the state, which allows them to take Estonian language courses for free and also get a paid leave for language learning. In return, they agree to take the tests for naturalisation (see section on Estonian citizenship law below) within three years. In addition, there are also several project-based activities to foster their social and labour market integration.

Newly arrived immigrants have access to a variety of settlement support services, e.g. a devoted website (, a one-stop-shop service centre for arranging all the details concerning settling in Estonia, and a Welcoming Programme, which introduces the essentials of managing in the Estonian society (e.g. basic knowledge on Estonian society and culture, administrative basics, etc.). Recent immigrants can also make use of free language courses and other integration programmes. There are also separate integration measures for specific groups, e.g. beneficiaries of international protection.

Estonian citizenship law follows the ius sanguinis principle, which means that citizenship is inherited from one’s parents. However, in order to avoid the reproduction of the undetermined citizenship status, there are some separate naturalisation clauses in place for children born in Estonia to parents with undetermined citizenship, who automatically get Estonian citizenship by naturalisation. Others who are over 15 years of age can naturalise, if they have resided in Estonia for at least eight years (five of them continuously) and fulfil other requirements. For example, they need to prove a permanent legal income, and need to certify B1 level in Estonian language, take a citizenship test and an oath of loyalty.

Estonians abroad: numbers, destinations, policies

In 2019, 115,105 Estonians had registered their residential address abroad in the Estonian national population registry. Almost half of them reside in Finland – the main contemporary migration destination. While most EU countries are a destination to more recent emigrants from Estonia, the UK, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Australia and Russia have been hosting Estonians from both the most recent as well as the historic emigration waves.

Estonians are notably transnational and mobile people: more than ten percent of the population has worked abroad in the past ten years, the highest share in Europe. Also, return migration rates to Estonia are higher than in other Central and Eastern European countries (e.g. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania).

Number of Estonians residing abroad on 1 January 2019 according to the National Population Registry (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The current Estonian diaspora policy programme primarily focuses on education. An online basic school enables the children of mobile Estonians to continue their studies according to the Estonian curriculum, while abroad. The government also supports Estonian Sunday schools (extracurricular and secular activities for children) abroad, and organises camps for Estonian emigrant youth so they can keep a connection with Estonia and their Estonian identity. In addition, Estonian cultural societies abroad receive support. Examples are professional instructors sent to diaspora choirs, dance and musical collectives, training offers for instructors abroad, and material support for Estonia-related cultural events abroad.

Weitere Inhalte

Dr. Mari-Liis Jakobson currently works at the School of Governance, Law and Society at Tallinn University, Estonia. Her research focuses on migration, citizenship and political communication. From 2016 to2019 she was researcher at the Estonian national contact point of the European Migration Network.