Emigration and immigration

​The current Estonian population was drastically influenced by the post-World War II intensive immigration, and for Estonian citizens, the opening of borders, which brought about massive migration.

​After World War II, Estonia suffered intensive immigration from other regions of the Soviet Union. Already in 1990, before the restoration of independence, an immigration act was passed, which established an immigration quota of 0.1% of the permanent population, and set considerable limits on immigration into Estonia. The conditions of the quota were later repeatedly eased and in 2010 many citizens of western countries were exempted from the quota.

During the Soviet occupation it was practically forbidden/impossible for Estonian citizens to travel outside the Soviet Union. When the Republic of Estonia was restored, such restrictions on people’s movement disappeared.

​The period between 1945 and 1989 was characterised by extensive immigration into Estonia, and it far exceeded emigration. Still, in 1989 the number of immigrants and emigrants was about the same. In subsequent years, the number of immigrants decreased, whereas the number of emigrants remained high. When the immigration quota was established in 1990, the migration balance became negative. The year 1992 witnessed an especially active emigration. The reason for the abrupt increase was the departure of alien military forces from Estonia, which ended in 1994. In addition to enlisted men, officers who had been in active service and their families, most civil servants connected with the army left as well. Aliens also left because they felt insecure about the new language, citizenship and aliens’ act. People linked with the Soviet army mainly moved eastwards, whereas totally new phenomena in the 1990s were migration links with western countries. The migration balance with the West was negative as well. A number of Estonians who had escaped during the war or their descendants returned to Estonia, but four times as many left for Western countries at the same time. There may have been even more people moving west without the restrictions set by these countries. In the final years of the 20th century, emigration somewhat diminished, but increased again after Estonia joined the European Union in 2004, when movement between countries became simpler. In 2005 Estonians stood out among the inhabitants of other European countries in terms of their readiness to emigrate. It was higher only in Lithuania and Ireland.

​Most emigrants from Estonia are women, because men return more often after some time abroad. The main target countries are Finland, Russia, Germany, the USA, Sweden, Great Britain and Ukraine. The process is often seen as an emigration of university-educated people, for instance the departure of doctors, although, in fact, most emigrants are people with secondary education.

Estonia joined the Geneva Convention on Refugees in 1997. The number of refugees arriving in Estonia has been modest. Between 1997 and 2008, only 148 people applied for asylum, 10 of whom were granted refugee status and 12 of whom were granted additional protection. The main source countries of asylum seekers were Russia (23 applicants), Iraq (22) and Turkey (17). In many cases, their real goal was asylum in another European Union country and often the asylum application was presented after the person was detained in the country, rather than at the border. Since 2009 the number of asylum seekers has been growing, mainly because Estonia joined the Schengen visa-free area and the state borders have practically disappeared. This has resulted in more active Estonia-targeted movement. In most cases the asylum application is presented after being detained.

​The Estonian history of immigration makes people cautious of immigration, and thus the general view of immigration is moderately sceptical, although state plans favour qualified immigration. The data of the European Social Survey in 2006 showed that between 60–90% of Estonian people supported immigration. The most positive attitude was reserved for people of the same nationality, whereas views about arrivals from poorer countries were more cautious. For Estonians, the threats from immigration are seen as both social – alcoholism, drug addiction, AIDS and crime – and economic. However, the first and second generations of immigrants perceive these dangers as being more acute than do native Estonians.

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