Nationals leaving, foreigners coming

TALLINN Estonia has a long history of immigration and third of its population is Russian. It is not rare to hear Slavonic dialects around, they might be tourists, as well as citizens. But if you hear Greek or Spanish in the Town Hall Square, you would definitely think that they are tourists. Weirdly enough, especially since euro crisis hit the Europe – they also might be citizens. 

By Ieva Sliziute

Crisis encouraged people to immigrate to Estonia. Photo: Ieva Sliziute

The immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in Estonia, net migration has been constantly negative in 2000-2011, because more people are leaving Estonia than coming in. Although in 2007 the immigration rate was almost doubled – from  2 000 in 2006 to almost 4000.

A couple thousand of people are choosing Estonia as their destination, as new home for their children, place to have a chance to set their dream business and settle in. The question is: why is the same society driving its nationals away and draws others in?

Various reasons for immigration

Meelika Hirmo, the Communication Manager of Integration and Migration Foundation says: “It’s not the mass flow of immigrants; Estonia is not really popular in the eyes of new immigrants. People mainly come for family reasons: they either have family here or just follows their love to Estonia.”

Even though most immigrants come from Russia, former Soviet Union countries or Finland , a lot of people come from South America, USA and the EU countries. The area of 45, 227 square kilometers is home for people of more than 140 different nationalities.

After Estonia joined the European Union, Estonian migration policy and practices have been greatly influenced by it and open the doors for third country nationals, but there was no sudden increase of immigration in connection with Estonia’s accession.

However, the crisis created the greater interest for third country nationals: in 2008, the quota was increased from 0.05% to 0.10% of the total population, leading to roughly 1,300 people being accepted annually for labour migration purposes. In 2008 a total of 911 temporary residence permits were issued for labour purposes; in 2009 the number reached 1063 permits.

Immigration of third country nationals to Estonia is mainly characterized by the desire to move to Estonia for economic reasons. After Estonia joined the Schengen common visa area at the end of 2007, there has been an increase in individuals showing interest in obtaining Schengen travel documents via Estonia’s representations abroad. Estonia is believed to be mainly a transit country for asylum seekers trying to reach Nordic countries.

Easy to set up business

Ilias Niotis and Loukas Nakosmatis came to Estonia to open their restaurant. Photo: Ieva Sliziute

Ilias Niotis, the chef and owner of the Greek restaurant “Artemis” in Tallinn, says that it is very easy to set up a new business in Estonia. “Everything is organised and very fast. They don’t give you reasons to delay opening up your business, they don’t make you doubt about it”.

His partner, Loukas Nakosmatis adds that in Greece it would be totally different: “It would take much more time, money and they put a lot of pressure on you. We didn’t experience any of it here, in Estonia”.

Meelika Hirmo believes that Estonia being so small is an advantage: “If you have an idea and you work for it and you have set your mind on something innovative and original you can even go to a prime minister and talk about it. Because it is so small! “.

Owner of  “Artemis” agrees with her: “They don’t make you wait, you can do everything via e-mail and if not you can go everywhere by foot”, – smiles Ilias Niotis.

Survive the winter and the crisis

Ilias Niotis points out that it is very important to understand that you have to earn and save as much money as you can to be able to survive the winter. “It’s the time when not only bears are sleeping winter sleep – your business as well.” says he.

“People said that we are crazy when we decided to move to Estonia, because it’s cold and small. Well, the situation has changed during the crisis. Now a lot of them want to come here. Who is laughing last? ” says Loukas Nakosmatis.

Over 50 restaurants in the city center of Tallinn were closed when crisis hit Estonia. Ilias Niotis shares the secret of their restaurant surviving it: “We are doing everything ourselves: we are owners, we are cooks, we are everything. If you have cooks and big staff it’s a lot of expenses and you might not survive the crisis”.

Loukas Nakosmatis adds: “Of course it was hard. Some people say that we are lucky, no, we are not lucky. All we have, we earned ourselves.”

Helping to integrate

Ilias Niotis also points out the cultural differences: “We are loud, we move our hands a lot while talking… and it was weird   for them. Well, it was strange for us that they don’t! Or just that they don’t eat Greek sandwiches with their hands. They ask for fork and knife. Haven’t seen anyone in 30 years doing that! But you adjust: they got used to us, we got used to them”.

For that reason the Integration and Migration Foundation finance the program which helps new immigrants’ to adapt. The so called new immigrants are the people who came to live in Estonia less than 3 years ago.

“We have language courses for them, getting to know the culture, the history they do some tours, they go to government buildings, they visit different museums, they get information how to seek job, get health insurance and so on. It is applicable for non European citizens as well.” says Meelika Hirmo.

The population pyramid presents population change in Estonia since the year 1990 and the projections up to the year 2050.© Statistics Estonia

According to her, new immigrants are easy to attract to participate in integration programs and projects. “They are actively seeking to be integrated, because if you are from Argentina, you don’t have hundreds of thousands Argentineans living here, so you cannot isolate yourself and have a mini Argentina in Estonia. They need to communicate in order to do not feel lonely and the key for it is the language. ” explains Meelika Hirmo.

Immigration will rise

According to the Population pyramid made by Statistics Estonia in cooperation with German statistic office, immigration in Estonia should increase in the future.

The population pyramid shows that mortality is expected to be reduced, fertility rate increased and emigration balanced by  immigration.


Press here to see the Interactive Pyramid of Population.

Here you can watch the story of two Greek immigrants in Estonia:


About Ieva Sliziute