The Finnish welfare state is attractive to Estonian migrants

Estonian migrants are attracted to Finland because Finland is an encompassing Nordic welfare state. Their objective is not to take advantage of the system, but to work and participate in maintaining it.

Estonian migrants in Finland aspire to full social citizenship in the welfare state by stressing to be ‘hard workers’ and ‘dutiful taxpayers’ and by distancing themselves from other immigrant groups whom they consider undeserving of the support of the welfare state.

“Estonian migrants have a very high appreciation of the Finnish welfare state. They prefer working in Finland instead of Estonia, where individuals cannot expect the same kind of protection from the state if they lose their job, for example,” says Dr Rolle Alho at the Swedish School of Social Science at the University of Helsinki. Alho and university lecturer Dr Markku Sippola at the University of Tampere have studied Estonian migrants’ attitudes to the Finnish welfare state.

The term 'welfare state' has somewhat different connotations across countries. In the Nordic context –including Finland– the welfare state is characterized by its relatively generous and comprehensive welfare provisions and services from ‘cradle to grave’ that encompass the whole population. Accordingly, in the Nordic countries the state takes much responsibility in guaranteeing the population's well-being. The Nordic welfare state is financed via tax revenue.

Embracing the welfare state, distancing themselves from other migrant groups

Fifty-one Estonian migrants living in Finland were interviewed for the study. The interviewees’ aspirations to full social citizenship were manifested through positive sentiments towards the institutions and norms of the Finnish welfare state, but also through the act of distancing themselves from other migrant groups, who, according to the interviewees, do not support themselves through work and who are therefore less ‘deserving’ of the services of the welfare state.

“The Estonian migrants strongly emphasised that they are good employees and taxpayers and therefore deserving members of the welfare state, and they felt this should place them on a par with native Finns,” says Alho.

The distancing rhetoric practised towards other migrant groups was in some cases expressed in the form of racist remarks about other immigrant groups, who were felt to be exploiting the system.

“In today’s polarised immigration debate, we must keep in mind that it is easier for Estonians to integrate and learn Finnish. Estonians are not subjected to racism and discrimination in the same way as many other migrant groups, however, the interviewees showed little recognition of why certain migrant groups have higher rates of unemployment and find it harder to integrate into society,” Alho says.

“There is tension and even racism between groups of migrants, who distance themselves from each other. They seek to rhetorically position themselves as different from and superior to other groups. This probably stems from a common human need for self-assertion.”

Alho sees similarities between the Estonian interviewees’ positioning in Finland and that of Finns in Sweden. Many Sweden Finns are active in the Sweden Democrats Party and side with the so called immigration critics.

“It may be psychologically easier to identify with the majority population and distance oneself from other migrant groups.”

The Nordic welfare state as opposed to a neo-liberal economy

Estonia and Finland are two very dissimilar types of welfare states. Estonians form the largest non-national group in Finland, and Finland is also the leading country of destination for Estonian migrants. Estonian migration to Finland is mainly work related, since Finland offers higher wages and better working conditions.

Another reason is that the Estonian neo-liberal economic model is very susceptible to economic fluctuation, which in combination with weak social security leaves the Estonian workforce highly vulnerable in times of economic recession. Consequently, Finland is an attractive option for Estonian workers struggling with low wages and weak welfare protection. At the same time, many sectors of the Finnish labour market are dependent on an immigrant workforce. Geographical and linguistic proximity as well as free mobility serve to further facilitate migration.

“We argue that the primary motive for Estonians to migrate to Finland is their aspiration to full social citizenship in the welfare state. By working and paying taxes, workers also gain the protection of the welfare state.”

“We wish to emphasise, however, that although Estonians appreciate the protection offered by the Finnish welfare state, we are not evidencing a kind of ‘benefit tourism’, since migration is mainly motivated by the relatively high wages and job opportunities in Finland and not by the protection offered by the welfare state,” Alho says.

Benefit tourism refers to non-work-related migration solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the social welfare system.

The welfare state provides an incentive to participate

In political discourse, migrants’ access to the welfare state is often framed as a threat to the sustainability of the system. In the case of this study, however, access to the generous Finnish welfare state seems rather to increase migrants’ motivation to participate in the Finnish labour market.

“We argue that the Estonians’ embrace of the Finnish welfare state is explained by their experience of the welfare state protecting the individual against risks.”

Although the Finnish welfare state has also been subjected to neoliberal pressure to downsize, it is still comparatively generous and encompassing in a European context, and particularly in a global one.

There is a growing scholarly interest in the relationship between the welfare state and migration. Much of previous research has focused on the intersection of migration and different welfare regimes, but migrants’ subjective understandings and experiences of the welfare state are less studied. With its focus on Estonian migrants’ understanding of the welfare state, Alho and Sippola’s study is a new contribution to the field.

The research article Estonian Migrants’ Aspiration for Social Citizenship in Finland: Embracing the Finnish Welfare State and Distancing from the ‘Non-Deserving’ (Rolle Alho, Markku Sippola) has been published by Journal of International Migration and Integration.

Additional information:

Dr Rolle Alho

+35840 7204 121