Three main points of the chapter

  1. Inter-state migration is affecting societies at present more than ever before in history. In many European countries, immigration has become the main and only factor preventing or slowing down population decline. Should migration stop, population numbers would start declining after a few decades even in the Nordic countries, the region with the most sustainable demographic regime in present-day Europe. This situation can be termed demographic dependence on migration.
  2. The idea that immigration makes it easier to deal with the challenges presented by the aging of populations is misleading in a long-term view. The immigrants also grow older every year, and their birth rate usually tends to become similar to the average of the destination country in the second generation, and can even be lower. Therefore, a more diverse response than just facilitating migration is required from a society to adapt successfully to aging, which is one of the inevitable manifestations of demographic modernisation. Migration can mitigate workforce shortages, but it tends to be accompanied by changes in the population structure. If the present trends continue, a number of European countries may see their migrant-origin population develop into the majority in the second half of the 21st century. This gives reason to consider whether there could, in some cases, be too much immigration.
  3. Demographic projection results show that if emigration continues and fertility remains low, the population of Estonia will be under 800,000 by the end of the 21st century. In the context of breaking this trend toward decline, one of the main questions will be how much we should rely on immigration and how seriously should we try to create conditions for increasing fertility by making the society more family- and child-friendly. A part of the solution can also be the facilitation of re-migration, but its impact will be less significant than that of the other two. Making choices and designing policies related to these questions is fully within the competence of Estonia.

Starting points

The starting point of the opening chapter of this year’s Human Development Report is the concept of the present time as an age of migration. This popular metaphor is reinforced by the constant and impressive increase in the number of people participating in international migration. Developments in transportation have made the crossing of long distances quicker, safer and more affordable to larger groups of people than ever before. The open borders between various countries and regions have removed political barriers to migration. According to the World Bank, the amount of remittances sent back home by people who have gone to work abroad is larger than aid given to developing countries or the amount of direct foreign investments made into these countries.

Another indicator of rapidly increasing international mobility is the number of tourists, which has grown 50-fold compared to the middle of the last century, and was getting close to 1.2 billion people last year.

The chapter is centred around international migration in the classical sense of the concept, i.e. people changing their permanent place of residence across state borders. In spite of the increasing frequency of short-term mobility (temporary migration, commuting, tourism, etc.), the actual demographic effect of migration is achieved by changes in the permanent resident population. When borders are open, migration becomes an equal or even more important factor shaping the demographic situation of a country than birth and death rates. The aim of the articles in this chapter is to give the reader an up-to-date overview of migration trends, their impact on population dynamics and structure as well as policies aimed at regulating migration. The focal point is Estonia, but in order to set the developments in Estonia into a broader context, the chapter also offers comparative data on other countries and regions of Europe. The chapter is centred on the present situation, but to explain the demographic changes brought along by migration, the timeframe has sometimes been extended into the past as well as the future.

Europe will be facing significant demographic changes in the 21st century. If the developments were based only on the internal demographic potential of the European countries themselves, the population of the continent is projected to decrease by over 190 million people, i.e. by more than a quarter, by the end of the century (UN 2015). Europeans would count for 5% of the total global population in the year 2100, which is equal to a fifth of their relative share in the late 19th century, the historical peak. In parallel with declining population numbers, the population would be aging. The ratio of older people to working-age persons would increase more than twofold compared to the present, according to projections. This will be a challenge to the sustainability of the generous pension and social welfare systems, especially considering the large debt burden of several European countries. It should be noted that this view of the future is not based on some pessimistic scenario – rather it assumes a growth in the total fertility rate in Europe from the 1.6 children per woman at present to 1.80–1.86 children in the second half of the century.

This being the outlook, immigration is seen as one of the solutions to slow down the impending population decline and aging. The idea has been expressed vividly by former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan in his acceptance speech for the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought a dozen years ago, where he said, among other things: ‘There can be no doubt that European societies need immigrants. Europeans are living longer and having fewer children. Without immigration… jobs would go unfilled and services undelivered, as economies shrink and societies stagnate. Immigration alone will not solve these problems, but it is an essential part of any solution’ (Annan 2004). He also focused on the broader role of migration in defining European societies, which is related to the topic of Estonia’s Human Development Report this year: ‘A closed Europe would be a meaner, poorer, weaker, older Europe. An open Europe will be a fairer, richer, stronger, younger Europe - provided Europe manages immigration well.’ The first chapter of the Report attempts to provide information and discussion around these topics.

Projections show a continuing aging and decline in the population for Estonia as well. If the UN projection scenario seen as most likely were to come true, the number of inhabitants in Estonia would decrease at the same rate as in the rest of Europe and would fall slightly below one million by the end of the century. In the case of Estonia, this outlook is supplemented by a historical experience different from that of many European countries. Namely, Estonia is one of the few countries in the world where the number of native people has not reached the pre-WWII level (Katus & Puur 2006). During the two and a half decades that have passed since the restoration of independence, the population of Estonia has decreased by more than a quarter of a million persons, with (e)migration accounting for two thirds of that number. The chapter attempts to define the main themes that characterise migration-related developments in present-day Estonia and offers a discussion of potential policy choices.

Article topics

The chapter consists of five papers approaching the subject from angles that complement one another. Most of the articles can be viewed as original research presenting new data and bringing new input for thought.

The first article of the chapter (by Allan Puur and Luule Sakkeus) presents an overview of the main trends of international migration in various regions and nations of contemporary Europe as well as the population groups formed as a result of international migration (immigrants, emigrants and return migrants). It also discusses the possibilities of migration mitigating the demographic challenges Europe is facing. The value of the article is enhanced by a use of recent census data from more than 30 European countries - material that has not been explored fully even in specialist literature.

The second article (by Alis Tammur, Allan Puur and Tiit Tammaru) looks at the trends of external migration in Estonia from the turn of the century to the present. The authors use various data sources and evaluation methods to try to establish whether it would be appropriate to say that Estonia is experiencing a migration turnaround - the process whereby immigration begins to exceed emigration. Another significant contribution of the piece is the comparison of recent migration trends of Estonians and other ethnic groups, which will give the reader a better understanding of the impact of present-day migration on Estonian society.

The third article (by Eva-Maria Asari and Helina Maasing) is dedicated to migration policy. In the first part of the article, the authors bring our attention to the characteristic features of this area that have to be kept in mind when designing and implementing migration policies. The main part of the article examines the development and main features of the immigration policies of the European Union and Estonia, different recruitment schemes of foreign workforce and their suitability for the circumstances of Estonia, as well as the reflection of migration-related issues in the state strategy documents of Estonia.

The fourth article (by Kert Valdaru, Eva-Maria Asari and Lauri Mälksoo) focuses on the refugee crisis that has been constantly feeding the news stream for the past few years. The article discusses the reasons for the crisis, its development so far and the obligations of states towards asylum seekers. The authors also look at the socio-economic, political and legal implications of immigration for European societies in a broader sense.

The last article of the chapter (by Luule Sakkeus, Jerome McKibben, Allan Puur, Leen Rahnu and Liili Abuladze) presents a demographic projection specially compiled for the Human Development Report, aiming to explain the impacts of international migration on Estonia’s population numbers, the size of its working-age population and the overall age structure in a longer perspective (until the year 2100). Another feature of the new projection is the distinction between ethnic groups (Estonians and other ethnicities), which is relevant in the context of migration and which has never before been attempted in Estonia. It also provides a framework for the discussions on the role of migration in the future of Estonia as a nation-state.

Some of the results

In hindsight it becomes clear that the meaning of migration has substantially, and probably irrevocably, changed for European societies since World War II. In the course of just one human lifespan, the continent that used to give away tens of millions of people has become a continent whose countries have a higher number of immigrants (76 million, 2015) than anywhere else in the world. Even more significantly, immigration has become the main factor in maintaining population growth in a number of European countries. In 2015, the direct impact of migration accounted for 85% of the population growth of the European Union, and if indirect influences are also considered, immigration has become the sole factor helping to avoid population decline in the European Union. Should migration stop, population numbers would start declining in a few decades even in the Nordic countries, the region with the most sustainable demographic regime in present-day Europe. Against that background, it is hard to describe the present situation as anything other than a demographic dependence on migration for European societies.

The articles of the chapter show that Europe has quite a good chance of compensating for the declining numbers in the workforce at home with the help of migration. This is based on continuous population growth in regions that are comparatively close to Europe, and easily able to cater to the whole workforce need of the continent until the end of the 21st century. From the perspective of the inhabitants of the countries of origin, it is the significant differences in income and prosperity as well as the tolerance of the Europeans and the high standards of human rights that make Europe an attractive destination for migration (Demeny 2016). Further the chapter demonstrated the fallibility of the idea that immigration would help solve problems related to the aging of the population. According to a projection by the UN, approximately 100 million new immigrants (also counting the offspring) will be arriving in Europe until the end of the 21st century (UN 2015). However, the arrival of this large number of people would affect the ratio between the elderly and the working-age population at the end of the century by only a couple of percentage points.

When discussing the openness of societies, the impact of immigration on the ethnic structure of the destination countries tends to be largely ignored. Two-fifths of the countries of Europe do not collect information on that, although statisticians have deemed it necessary within the context of increasing international migration. The projections referred to in the chapter show that if the present migration trends continue, the migrant-origin population groups may reach a similar proportion to that of the natives in several European countries in the second half of the 21st century. Predictions like this may seem hard to believe at first sight, but data presented in the chapter focusing on foreign populations shows that approximately ten European countries are already at the half way point to that reality. It is also not likely that the impact of factors facilitating mass immigration (significant differences between the prosperity levels of source and destination countries, population growth in source countries) are likely to disappear in the near future.

The outlook emerging from the chapter gives reason to ask how successful the societies of the destination countries will be in integrating such large numbers of immigrants. It is not easy to provide a concise answer, as there is no comparison data available for such large-scale changes in ethnic structure from recent history. Answering is further complicated by the fact that the integration process depends on policy, on the geographic origin of the immigrants, the extent and nature of the differences between the source and the destination countries as well as many other factors. A socio-economic integration into the society of the destination country does not necessarily mean cultural integration in today’s world. Immigrants, especially if they belong to larger communities, may retain their cultural and ethnic traditions in the destination country. This is facilitated, among other things, by the transnationalisation of migration-origin communities, a phenomenon that will be studied closely in the next chapter of the Report.

Digital communication devices and social media let even small and scattered communities keep in touch amongst themselves as well as their home country, on a daily basis. As demonstrated by the terror attacks in Brussels, Paris, Nice and Berlin, new technologies provide opportunities for evil as well as good things. One would still like to hope that the state of emergency declared in France for over a year now is not about to become the new normality in Europe. However, it would be naive not to notice that under certain circumstances, a combination of openness to migration and transnationalism may lead to the emergence of parallel societies internally whose members may share the same social time/space, but have relatively little contacts on the level of networks, culture and values (Coleman 2009). Based on our current knowledge, the sustainability of such situations is hard to predict. One of the factors determining the outcome seems to be the cultural difference between the source and destination societies. It is therefore highly appreciated that a chapter describing cultural changes is included in the Human Development Report this time.

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that the chapter’s article on the refugee crisis focuses on migration and terrorism as the most important challenges facing the European Union. These matters have taken priority over the issues of economic sustainability and the employment market, which had been the highest concerns for the people of the EU for years. The authors do not write off the concerns of the people as simply being caused by the population being insufficiently informed, but rather find that the states and the institutions of the European Union should use this situation to develop and implement immigration action plans that are more efficient than the present ones. Still, it is clearly understood that Member States have different views on immigration and refugees, which does not make it easy at all to cooperate and reach a consensus on the application of measures. It is also a thought-provoking fact that the refugee crisis that has hit Europe seems to have brought along a legal crisis concerning international, European and constitutional law. The authors hold the opinion that we may be having a discussion on how to apply the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees in the framework of mass migration. The right of asylum will of course remain, but it must be kept in mind that this right was intended as a temporary, life-saving measure for persecuted groups, not as a right for whole nations to move to countries that provide a safer life. The future balance of various legal benefits is hard to predict at the time of writing this Report.

The parts of the chapter concerning Estonia demonstrate that since World War II, Estonia has been more open to migration than most countries in Europe. The comparisons provided in the articles show that in terms of the ratio of foreign-origin population to the native population, Estonia holds second place after Luxembourg in the European Union. Concerning emigration after 1990, only three states of the European Union precede Estonia. Putting these two rankings together, it is no exaggeration to say that Estonia is one of the European countries most affected by migration since the middle of the 20th century.

In the article on migration-related developments in Estonia in the 21st century, one of the central questions is whether after 25 years of emigration, Estonia has reached a turning point where migration starts to increase the population again (though naturally at a slower pace than in the post-war decades). The authors have indeed found some signs of a possible turnaround: in 2015, for the first time since the restoration of independence, the number of immigrants exceeded that of emigrants by 1,000, and the initial data of 2016 available at the time of writing seem to confirm the continuing of this trend. We should consider the possibility, however, that while the migration balance of the total population is positive, the emigration may still be larger than immigration among Estonians themselves.

The projection in the final article of the chapter investigates the demographic future of Estonia in the context of different migration and fertility scenarios. Of the scenarios analysed, the least favourable results from the point of view of sustainability would be realised if the present demographic trends continued without major changes. There are two ways to stop the decrease of Estonia’s population and workforce, the analysis says.

The first path presumes, on the one hand, a migration model where the movement of people across state borders may be intensive, but in the longer run, the emigration and immigration streams would be balanced. Another precondition for this path is an increase in the fertility rate close to the reproduction level (an average of 2.07 - 2.08 children per woman), which would ensure that future generations of children would not be much smaller than those of their parents.

The other path towards abolishing population decline and stabilising the population presumes a more moderate increase in the fertility rate (to 1.87 children, which is close to the present average number of ever-born children in generations of women currently approaching the end of the reproductive age in Estonia) and immigration. If the fertility rate is below replacement level, continuous and significant immigration during a longer term is required (the calculations presume close to 190,000 immigrants by the end of the 21st century) to avoid the shrinking of population size. We may of course debate whether it is necessary at all to put an end to the shrinking of the population.

There is no strong correlation between the size of a country and its prosperity level. It transpires from the final chapter of this Human Development Report that the sustainability of the Estonian nation-state is more dependent on the development ability of Estonian culture than just the demographic development of Estonia. However, it is not possible to separate these two - the culture and the people - from each other. It is hard for a shrinking nation to sustain a culture that is diversified enough to fulfil the prerequisite of understanding the rapidly changing world and coping with the challenges it presents.

Viewed together, the articles in this chapter should present food for thought for discussing policy alternatives and to form knowledge-based preferences. One of the choices facing Estonia as well as Europe seems to be whether or not to place our hopes first and foremost in immigration for stopping further decreases in population and workforce - or to try and support reproduction of the native populations more actively. The projections presented in the chapter show that if successful efforts are made to support fertility and family policies, an age structure can be achieved that is more sustainable demographically as well as economically. This would mean that a part of the productivity growth would not have to be ‘spent’ on compensating for the negative fiscal impact of demographic changes, and the benefits could be spent more efficiently on improving the living standard and the competitiveness of the society. Greater care for families should not be seen as a movement towards the past or towards a less open society. The strategy would rather imply improved self-reliance and consequently also a better sustainability of the society.

The question of to what extent demographic processes can be influenced through the application of various policy measures is of course an important issue but it goes beyond the focus of this Report. The authors of the article on migration policy have been rather cautious in providing an answer and have pointed out the complexity of the task. The differences between countries concerning migration and demographic processes, however, bear evidence that the societal context - an integral part of which also involves policy models - has a decisive role in moulding demographic processes. This conclusion should be an incentive for a society and its institutions to look for knowledge-based solutions in this field. In accordance with the subsidiarity principle - one of the cornerstones of the European Union - designing policies in areas that serve these purposes of demographic sustainability is a responsibility of the Member States themselves.


Annan, K. (2004). Kofi Annan on an immigration strategy for Europe. Population and Development Review, 30 (1): 188–189.

Coleman, D. (2009). Divergent patterns in the ethnic transformation of societies. Population and Development Review, 35 (3): 449–478.

Demeny, P. (2016). Europe’s two demographic crises: The visible and the unrecognized. Population and Development Review, 42 (1): 111–120.

Katus, K., & Puur, A. (Eds.). (2006). Eesti rahvastikuarengu raamat. Esimene väljaanne. Tallinn: Eesti Kõrgkoolidevaheline Demouuringute Keskus.

UN (2015). World population prospects: The 2015 revision, I: Comprehensive tables. New York: United Nations.