Immigration in Finland rose even during the pandemic

Expat news
  • Senate Square in front of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral
    Matyas Rehak /
Published on 2023-02-07 at 14:00 by Ameerah Arjanee
A recent study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) found that, among 15 high-income countries, Finland was the only one that didn't have a lower immigration rate in 2020 when measured against predicted immigration in the absence of Covid. Data from the OECD suggests that freedom of movement within the European Economic Area (EEA) contributed to that.

Immigration in most high-income countries plummeted in 2020 – except in Finland

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an independent international research institute headquartered in Vienna. It conducted research about the actual immigration figures in 15 high-income countries as compared to their projected immigration figures if the pandemic had never happened. 

The countries they studied are Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the United States – all countries that have historically attracted immigrants. Their research was published in the academic journal PLOS One on January 19, 2023.

The study found that immigration declined, either slightly or drastically, in all of these countries except for Finland. Australia, Spain and Sweden experienced the biggest drops: 60%, 45% and 36% respectful. As Australia does not have neighboring land countries, moving into and out of the country is largely dependent on air travel, the mode of transport which faced the most restrictions during the pandemic. 

The researchers say that even if Spain is part of the European Union (EU), through which it is fairly easy to travel by land, many of its expats come from Latin America – which requires expensive long-distance air travel, which was difficult to book during the pandemic. In Italy, another EU/EEA country, the ~20% drop in immigration in 2020 can be attributed to very strict lockdowns.

In contrast, Finland surprisingly registered slightly more immigrants than predicted. In 2020, it welcomed 3.6% more new expats than statisticians would have predicted, even if the pandemic had never happened. Even if this increase is modest, it is remarkable in the context of the pandemic. 

Most of the new arrivals in Finland in 2020 were intra-EU/EEA expats

How does one explain how Finland countered the pattern? The IIASA analyzed how stringent were the pandemic policies of each of the countries studied. The stringency was measured according to whether schools or workplaces were closed, for how long they remained closed, if there were mobility restrictions and stay-at-home orders, what kind of travel restrictions to enter and leave the country were put in place, and how all this affected unemployment levels. 

Finland and Norway scored the lowest on this Stringency Index: only 0.6 out of 1. Finland scored particularly low on mobility restrictions, stay-at-home orders and increase in unemployment. These relatively lax rules have clearly played a role in preserving the growth in immigration in Finland despite the overall unfavorable global context.

From where, and under which categories, did most new expats move to Finland in 2020? Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s publication “International Migration Outlook 2021” shows that the large majority of immigrants to Finland in 2020 were either family members of residents/citizens (46.7%) or expats who enjoy free mobility within the EU/EEA region (27.3%).

Meanwhile, the number of refugees and economic migrants from outside the EU/EEA experienced a decrease. For instance, Indians were among the three top nationalities of new expats to Finland in 2019, but they dropped out of this list in 2020 because of the more stringent external border closure. In 2020, the three top regions providing expats to Finland were all European (i.e., restricted by only Finland's internal border): East European countries from the ex-Soviet bloc (14%), Estonia (11%) and Sweden (8%). 

These three European regions were not affected by travel restrictions for non-EU/EEA expats. Finland re-opened its borders to all vaccinated EU/EEA travelers in mid-2021, but third-country (i.e., non-EU/EEA) travelers experienced various restrictions as late as June 2022. New intra-EU/EEA expats did not have much trouble starting to work in 2020 and 2021, as Finland never imposed very strict mobility restrictions within the country itself.

Immigration to Finland kept growing in 2021 and 2022. Schengen Visa News reports that in 2021, the country processed a historically high number of resident permit applications – 36,206, or 71% more than in 2020. The Helsinki Times reports that in 2022, the country's second-largest city, Tampere, saw its population increase by nearly 5,000, partly thanks to the inflow of new expats.

Prospective working-age expats or economic migrants interested in Finland should keep in mind that, at the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the country had released a list of the sectors in which they're most keen to welcome foreign workers: agriculture (including horticulture and fisheries), the food industry, the maritime and manufacturing industries, construction, transport and communications, the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical and health technology industry, and the forest sector. Of course, the demand for healthcare workers also went up with the pandemic, and tech professionals are also in demand.