E.g., 10/03/2023
E.g., 10/03/2023
Finland's Balancing Act: The Labor Market, Humanitarian Relief, and Immigrant Integration

Finland's Balancing Act: The Labor Market, Humanitarian Relief, and Immigrant Integration

Much like its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland today boasts progressive social welfare policies, well-maintained public and technological infrastructure, world-class education opportunities, practically free medical care, and a high gross domestic product (GDP).

However, despite this standard of living — bolstered by high income and other taxes — Finland does not claim an optimally integrated foreign population, nor is it considered among the top destination countries for migrants.

To the contrary: Many regard Finland as a remote, cold, taciturn country displaying passive reluctance toward immigrants. This is the case despite the recent effort on the part of the Finnish Foreign Ministry to reinvent Finland's image as a thriving, advanced, and superior nation worthy of tourism and investment.

All the same, Finland’s immigrant population has increased in recent decades. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of foreign citizens legally residing in Finland increased six-fold, from 26,300 to 155,700. Out of the total population of 5.3 million, approximately 300,000 people in Finland, or 5 percent, claim a foreign background (having been foreign born, speaking a foreign language, or having foreign citizenship).

While the proportion of foreigners to native Finns has increased steadily since 1990, it is still considerably less than in Germany, Sweden, or Switzerland, where the percentages of the foreign born are above 10 or even 20 percent.

Finland receives between 2,000 and 6,000 applications for asylum annually. Other types of applications for legal residence have tended to relate more closely to current economic conditions and have fluctuated from 15,000 applications received annually in downturns to 25,000 in boon times.

One particularly contentious type of immigrant category is that of family-related immigration, and specifically when legal residence is granted for families of immigrants due to humanitarian reasons. This can occur when refugees who are granted asylum, residence, or citizenship in Finland proceed to foster children (who may or may not really need fostering) or bring numerous actual relatives from their home country to Finland. Applications for humanitarian-related family reunifications number in the thousands, and are usually submitted by the African born and particularly by asylees from Somalia.

The recent debate surrounding family reunification has jettisoned immigration policy dialogue from specialty blogs and forums to the mainstream, compelling most political parties to establish a public stance on what has historically been a rather minor issue. In fact, immigration is likely to be one of the top five themes of the 2011 parliamentary elections with three major issues of key relevance: labor/economic migration, humanitarian relief, and immigrant integration.

Figure 1. Foreign Citizens in Finland, 1990-2009
Source: Population Information System 2010.

Historical Patterns of Migration

Finland has experienced large-scale, primarily voluntary emigration and immigration trends. The first historical wave of voluntary emigration occurred in the 17th century while Finland was still under Swedish rule, when hundreds of Finns and Swedes established colonies in what later became the U.S. state of Delaware.

Forced (or involuntary) migration is a general term that includes a number of legal or political categories, all referring to people who are coerced or compelled to migrate due to conflict, violence, persecution, natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects. Included in this category are refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons, smuggled people, and victims of trafficking.

Voluntary migration (sometimes also called economic migration) refers to all other migrants who are motivated to migrate for personal reasons or financial gain.


Later, between 1890 and World War II, the majority of Finnish emigrants settled in the United States, Canada, Australia, and in Finland’s neighboring countries of Russia, Sweden, and Norway. Of the total 1 million Finns who emigrated before World War II, about 500,000 went to North America.

While many Finns were migrating abroad, people from across Europe began immigrating to Helsinki and other major southern Finnish towns beginning in the late 19th century. Swiss cheese makers, Bavarian brewers, Norwegian sawmill proprietors, British textile industrialists, Italian ice cream makers, Jewish merchants, and Tatar fur and carpet traders were among the first waves of voluntary immigrants to come to Finland in modern times and made a comprehensive and considerable contribution to the Finnish economy. By the beginning of 1939, Finland was home to more foreigners than Sweden, its larger neighbor.

In the 1950s the Finnish economy started to industrialize, prompting people to move from more rural areas to urban centers in the southern part of the country. Despite the increase in factory jobs in larger towns, however, there was not enough work or housing for all of the newly arriving internal migrants.

Sweden and its own industrial sector thus lured hundreds of thousands of Finns to emigrate with the promise of higher salaries, better living standards, and more available housing. The freedom of movement between Nordic countries, the devaluation of the Finnish currency, and Sweden's already-established Finnish community also contributed to this flow of emigration.

By the 1980s, emigration to Sweden slowed as living standards and wages in Finland approached Swedish levels; many Finns who had previously migrated to Sweden began to return.

Between World War II and 1990, when Finland experienced very little immigration, immigrant groups who had arrived prior to 1939 had sufficient space and time to integrate into Finnish (and particularly into Swedish-speaking Finnish) society and daily life. In addition, many visibly different ethnic groups were able — even to this day &mdash to maintain some of their core cultural traits. For example the Tatar people, now in the fifth generation, have kept their characteristic names, Muslim faith, language traditions, and time-honored trades within the textile and carpet industries. Today, these groups are considered an integral part of contemporary Finnish life.

In the 21st century, the movement of skilled migrants both into and out of Finland has been positive for the economy. Today’s emigrants from Finland are mainly highly educated people in IT, medicine, chemistry, physics, biotechnology, and the arts. Most spend a year or two working in countries like the United Kingdom or the United States, where they gain experience and professional networks that prove useful upon their return to Finland.

Although many people migrate from Finland for diverse professional opportunities, over the past 20 years insufficient salaries have seldom been the cause of wide-scale emigration. Salaries are low in many fields, however, and a small number of Finnish nurses and other experts have sought higher wages in Norway and the Persian Gulf area, respectively.

The Difficult Return of Ethnic Finns

In April 1990, then-president Mauno Koivisto declared that all ethnic Finns living within the former Soviet Union would be eligible for an automatic residence permit if they chose to return to Finland.

Many of these people, known as Ingrian Finns, are descended from 17th-century vanguards of Swedish Lutheranism who originally settled in Ingria, near Saint Petersburg, when Finland and that part of present-day Russia were under Swedish control. Because the Ingrian Finns 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.

Although no official record of the number of returning ethnic Finns has been maintained, estimates indicate that between 20,000 and 40,000 Ingrians have benefited from Finland's Right of Return law over the past 20 years.

As of 2010, the government of Finland opted to end the special allowance for the repatriation of Ingrian Finns. From this point forward, Ingrian Finns who wish to migrate to Finland must do so through the same immigration channels as other migrants.

Although many repatriated Ingrian Finns have integrated well into Finnish culture, aided by a strong Finnish identity and good language skills, others are unable to fully integrate due to language and cultural barriers. This is in part due to the fact that many Ingrian Finns lack a sufficient Finnish identity since four-grandparent ancestry was not required for return migration from Russia. Additionally, the partly completed Soviet assimilation of the past has ensured that most of the young people of Ingrian-Finnish descent speak only Russian or Estonian.

Many Ingrian Finns actively participate in civic activities, and research efforts into their sociology have commenced. While no widespread anti-Ingrian sentiment has emerged in Finland, the media has frequently covered the use of drugs by some young Ingrian Finns. The media attention, some claim, is disproportionate to the size of the problem.

The Policymaking Process

Because the European Union’s (EU) immigration agenda is still being formed and is currently limited in scope, the most important regulations concerning immigration and immigrant integration in Finland are made on the national level.

The parliament is responsible for making legislative decisions, while the preparation of draft bills is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior's Immigration Department, and, to a lesser extent, other ministries such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All efforts are overseen by the Minister for EU and Immigration Affairs, and the Finnish Immigration Service is the central operative agency.

Prior to the 2007 parliamentary elections, the Ministry of Labor was responsible for most immigration-related duties. Since that time, however, the Ministry of Labor has been reorganized and currently oversees few immigration-related matters.

Labor, Student, and Family Reunification Immigration

Although immigration rates have slowed in recent years due to the economic downturn, Finland still regularly admits thousands of labor immigrants who are able to secure job contracts with Finnish employers. There is no system or recruitment plan regarding future labor immigration, and the flow of economic migrants to Finland has consistently been sparser than that of other prosperous Western countries.

Generally speaking, bolstering industry via the encouragement of short-term labor migration has not been high on the agenda in Finland; rather, strong labor unions and permanently positioned civil servants have given way to a more long-term, cautious — even reluctant — approach to labor migration.

The result has been relatively little economically motivated immigration. Instead of having large numbers of immigrant workers in low-skill jobs, Finns have mechanized and automated work processes, decreasing the need for additional immigrants and relieving the pressure for more open labor migration policies.

Despite plans to systematically recruit manpower in the coming years, labor immigration in Finland basically operates as an ad hoc, individual-based process. The Immigration Service (under the Ministry of the Interior) makes the ultimate decision as to whether a potential labor migrant is permitted to enter the country.

The process for getting work permits is rather easy, and has recently been further simplified in that there is no longer a requirement for the prospective employer to prove the necessity for recruiting a foreign worker over a resident applicant in the application process. Seasonal agricultural workers are entitled to work in Finland without a residence permit if the working period is less than three months.

Student migrants make up the largest portion of all immigrants, and education-related migration has remained steady for some time (See Table 1). Registered students are now subject to a lighter immigration process, and basically need only a temporary residence permit to study in Finland. The government has adopted a strategic goal to more closely link students educated in Finland with the country’s labor market needs, and has implemented less strict work permit policies for students where work is available.

Family-based immigration and family reunification, particularly from Somalia, has increased greatly over the past several years. Familial immigration processes in Finland are stricter than those in place for labor or student immigration. Secure income and proper, vetted identification documents are required in order for a migrant to seek a residence permit based on family reunification or some other familial reason. Moreover, the immigration of children and underage family members is subject to much tighter regulations and procedures.

Table 1. Residence Permit Decisions, 2009
Grounds for Application Positive Negative Total
Employment 2,883 1,087 3,970
Self-employment 57 13 70
Persons of Finnish origin 474 159 633
Students 3,993 334 4,327
Other grounds 2,497 190 2,687
Family tie, marriage etc. 1,674 302 1,976
Family tie, children 2,654 342 2,996
Family tie, others 246 525 771
Family members of Finnish citizens 730 100 830
Total 15,208 3,052 18,260
Source: Finnish Immigration Service. Available online.

Asylum Policies and Issues

Finland is in favor of uniform EU-wide legislation for international protection, and its asylum policy is harmonized with that of the greater European Union as laid out in the multiannual Stockholm Program.

The program began in 2010 and will continue through 2014. This includes adherence to the Dublin structure, whereby an asylum seeker coming from an extra-EU country of origin via a EU Member State may be, under certain conditions, returned to this EU country.

Asylum-seeker reception, interviews, and application decisions mainly fall under the mandate of the Finnish Immigration Service, which also has a hand in refugee quotas, while asylum-related policy decisions are left to the Ministry of the Interior's Immigration Department. New regional, multi-branch service centers work to settle immigrants in municipalities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the regional governmental service centers, and the local police also play a minor role in executive operations.

Finland currently receives between 2,000 to 6,000 applications for asylum annually, up from the 1,000 to 3,000 received in the first half of the 2000s. There are three main causes for this escalation: the increase in awareness of Finland as a stable and socially developed country with few incidents of racial violence; the lack of a well-established, anti-immigrant far right; and increased asylum entry restrictions in other Western countries.

The increase in annual asylum applications has caused Finland to examine more closely the asylum policies of neighboring Nordic countries. This scrutiny has resulted in a wider variety of measures in application procedures, such as language testing and medical exams. Integration services and monetary benefits have also been adjusted to limit unfounded applications and misuse.

Since 1990, Finland has received 3,000 Somalis fleeing civil war, thousands of Kurds from the Middle East, and thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in the Balkans. Because of the large gap in living standards across the Finnish-Russian border and the ongoing human rights situation in the Caucasus, Finland received over 10,000 asylum applications from the former Soviet Union and Russia between 1990 and September 2010.

Most asylum applicants today come from Iraq, Somalia, Russia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iran, Turkey, and Nigeria, with the variety of countries of origin constantly increasing (See Table 2).

Table 2. Top Ten Countries of Origin for Asylum-seekers, 2007-2009
2007 2008 2009
Iraq 327 Iraq 1,255 Iraq 1,195
Russia 172 Somalia 1,181 Somalia 1,180
Serbia 152 Afghanistan 254 Bulgaria 739
Afghanistan 96 Russia 209 Russia 602
Somalia 82 Serbia 172 Afghanistan 461
Iran 79 Iran 144 Kosovo 284
Turkey 73 Bulgaria 82 Iran 162
Belarus 48 Nigeria 77 Turkey 140
Nigeria 41 Belarus 68 Nigeria 131
Congo, Dem. Republic 36 Turkey 65 Sri Lanka 102
Asylum seekers total* 1,505 Asylum seekers total* 4,035 Asylum seekers total* 5,988
Nationalities represented 76 Nationalities represented 84 Nationalities represented 88
Source: Finnish Immigration Service. Available online.
Note: Figures through October 2010 are availale online.*These figures refer to the total number of asylum seekers in a given year.

Traditionally, the Finnish Immigration Service 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, judicial inspection of the case has revealed an obvious and immediate need of protection. Therefore, while 30 to 40 percent 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 do receive often allow the person to permanently settle in Finland.

Concerning the proportion of positive to negative asylum decisions on first-time applications, the ratio (including decisions in favor 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, with the exception of 2001 when the positive to negative ratio peaked at three to four. These figures mean that, on average, more than 25 percent of all asylum seekers between 1990 and 2010 were entitled to remain in Finland with some type of residence permit.

A relatively new law mandates that asylum seekers are permitted to work within three months of residence in Finland, or after six months if the applicant has no valid identification upon arrival.

Figure 2. Asylum Decisions by Type and as Percentages of the Total, 2008-2010
Source: Finnish Immigration Service
Note: These figures refer to decisions on asylum cases adjudicated in a given year; not the total number of applications for asylum submitted in that year. The total number of asylum decisions in 2008 was 1,995 (785 positive and 1,011 negative); in 2009 was 4,335 (1,373 positive and 2,568 negative); and in 2010 was 5,697 (1,707 positive and 3,382 negative.)

Refugee Quota System

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 fluctuates between 500 and 750 refugees annually, is typically intended to protect people from the Middle East's most conflict-torn areas. The government fulfills the quota by selecting vulnerable refugees from that 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 entry of Bosnian refugees during the Bosnian war, Albanians during the Kosovo war, and, more recently, Myanmar refugees from Thailand and Congolese refugees from Rwanda.

Integration Challenges

One of the most important challenges facing the government is ensuring the integration of the foreign born and their children.

The guiding principle behind Finnish integration policy is to treat the foreign born equally to native-born Finns, unless certain exceptions concerning immigrants have been made explicit. Immigrants are guaranteed rights to health services, education, citizenship, housing, employment, and suffrage, which are independent of specific integration policies. For example, immigrants who have lived in Finland for two years have the right to vote in municipal elections, and the right to vote in national elections is conditional on citizenship.

To advance these aims and provide a legal basis, there are rather modern provisions on integration in the Integration Act and, to a lesser extent, in the Constitution, the Aliens Act, and the Equality Act.

The Integration Act, which entered into force on January 1, 2006, was established to promote the integration, equality, and freedom of choice of immigrants through measures that help them acquire the essential knowledge and skills they need to function in society. It also ensures the livelihood and welfare of asylum seekers by arranging for the conditions of their reception.

There are three levels — national, local (or municipal), and individual — on which the increasingly complex matters of immigrant education, employment, housing, and social services are addressed in legislation.

At the national level, the government is responsible for the overall crafting of integration policy and for providing information and guidance to local authorities on matters concerning the integration of immigrants. The government has placed several bodies in charge of these functions and also collaborates with various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on these matters.

On the local level, there is the "Integration Program," a document drawn up by local authorities in collaboration with the Social Insurance Institution. This document sets out the major guidelines on migrant integration at the local level.

Individually, an immigrant is granted an integration allowance when a personal integration plan is agreed upon. These plans constitute a mutual agreement between the immigrant and Finnish officials, whereby current and future education, vocational training, and language courses that support immigrant integration are agreed upon.

The practice of using individual integration plans is not without criticism. According to some, they can be considered by immigrants to be mere formalities, and consequently the full substance and potential of the plan for the immigrant can be compromised.

The effectiveness of individual plans is also considered limited due to language problems, cultural issues, limited resources on the part of authorities for concentrating on individual cases, and the misconception by authorities that their main role is to assist with job seeking. The traditionally passive authority-client attitude of many immigrants, which is often acquired in less democratic countries of origin, has also inhibited productive dialogue on integration.

Citizenship Acquisition and Dual Citizenship

The legislation regulating citizenship attainment in Finland 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 either in satisfactory economic standing or entitled to support, and has adequate command of at least one of the official languages – Finnish or Swedish.

An established residence in Finland is also required. A former Finnish citizen or a Nordic citizen is required to live in Finland uninterrupted for two years, whereas others must live in Finland for six consecutive years or a total of eight years in several periods after the age of 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 must prove they live together and have done so for the past three years.

A change to the current citizenship law that would shorten the length of time immigrants are required to live in Finland before applying for citizenship, among other proposed recommendations, is currently under consideration in the parliament.

On June 1, 2003, Finland passed a new law that allows dual citizenship and that makes it easier for both foreigners and people of Finnish descent to work in Finland. According to the law, an individual no longer has to give up his or her Finnish citizenship if he or she acquires a second, foreign citizenship. The new law also allows a foreigner to acquire Finnish citizenship without relinquishing his or her native citizenship.

Table 3. Top Ten Countries of Origin of Applicants for Finnish Citizenship, 2007-2009
2007 2008 2009
Russia 1,857 Russia 1,832 Russia 1,455
Former Yugoslavia 301 Somalia 420 Somalia 350
Estonia 246 Afghanistan 278 Afghanistan 280
Iraq 244 Iraq 266 Iraq 252
Afghanistan 241 Former Yugoslavia 255 Iran 249
Somalia 207 Iran 251 Former Yugoslavia 203
Iran 203 Estonia 203 Estonia 155
Turkey 130 Turkey 158 Turkey 142
Bosnia and Herzegovina 80 Ukraine 84 Sudan 121
China 30 China 68 Bosnia and Herzegovina 75
Applicants total 4,569 Applicants total 4,986 Applicants total 4,417
Source: Finnish Immigration Service. Available online.

Immigration and the Aging Population

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

What’s more, there will be another retirement peak beyond 2025. In the future, the single largest generation in Finland will be that of the 60 to 64-year-olds, who will retire before 2030. That is, unless the current retirement age of between 63 and 65 is raised.

Increasing life spans are also set to contribute to the aging of the Finnish population. In coming years, males 60 years of age and older are expected to live 18 years longer, and females of that age are expected to live 22 years longer, thus increasing the elderly population proportionally. This will place an increasing demand on Finland’s high quality, universally provided health and pension benefits. This trend is illustrated below in Figure 3.


Figure 3: Proportions of Elderly, Working-age, and Child Populations, Actual and Estimated; 1950-2060
Source: Statistics Finland.

As the elderly population continues to swell, working age adults will need to shoulder the burden of accumulating the fiscal resources necessary to finance public services. Additionally, there may be a need to fill vacant slots in the labor market left by retirees, and added pressure for workers in specific industries such as elderly care and hospice. A push for attracting more labor migrants may work to increase the working-age population in Finland, thereby increasing the available tax pool.

With the government granting several thousand long-term residence permits and naturalizing 2,000 to 3,000 people each year, it is possible that immigrants could compensate for any future labor shortages. But statisticians and economists disagree about whether there will be a consistent need for skilled or unskilled foreign labor in the first place.

Some also argue that if migrant integration and labor migration policies are not improved, then the lack of Finnish language skills and occupational expertise on the part of migrants will inhibit their ability to become full participants in the labor market in any case.


Finland currently stands on a dividing line. On the one hand, the population is undoubtedly growing older in this prosperous country. Immigration could be a partial solution to both servicing the elderly and contributing to an increase in the working-age population. Indeed, immigration is at its best a welcome boost for a nation in need of rejuvenation as new ideas, contacts, and businesses typically emerge from the moderated immigration of well-integrated labor migrants.

On the other hand, the integration problem in Finland is not yet solved. Humanitarian-related immigration does not yet convert to a productive labor force, and the majority of the Finnish population does not support further immigration.

While Muslim extremists do not seem to pose a major security threat in Finland, recent statements in Russian foreign policy circles about the sheltering of Russian minorities abroad have prompted new questions: Whether a weakly integrated, uncommitted Russian minority could pose a security and sovereignty threat in EU countries near Russia?

In fact, the migration policy situation in Finland is currently characterized more by questions than by answers. How many additional immigrants should be admitted into Finland? Can current and future immigrants be successfully integrated to maximize the economic benefits of migration and avoid any potential security threats? To what extent is it Finland’s responsibility to extend humanitarian relief to asylees and refugees? What is the best way to determine the limit on humanitarian relief, and how to deal with those that exceed the limit?

The parliamentary elections scheduled for 2011 are the time when the aforementioned questions are likely to be debated.


Aliens Act. Helsinki, 2010. Available online.

Bartram, David. Conspicuous By Their Absence: Why are There So Few Foreign Workers in Finland? Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Vol. 33, No. 5, July 2007, pp. 767-782

CEREN, The Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism. Available online.

DEMI, Research Centre on Transnationalism, Migration and Development. Available online.

ETMU, The Society for the Study of Ethnic Relations and International Migration. Available online.

Government Program on Immigration, 2006, Available online (In Finnish).

Immigration Service. Newest statistics. Helsinki, 2010. Available online.

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

Legislation and Recommended Websites

Institute of Migration

Integration Act. Available online.

Nationality Act. Helsinki, 2010. Available online.

Population League of Finland, Population and Family Research

Statistics Finland. Recent Statistics, 2010. Available online.