Migration has shaped the European population for the last several centuries. It has in the past manifested in large-scale out-migration, starting from the major explorations of new lands up until World War II, which gave rise to large overseas nations and colonial empires inhabited by Europeans. Emigration helped to alleviate problems stemming from overpopulation as a demographic equilibrium mechanism. Due to few immigration restrictions in the destination countries, the emigration of Europeans scaled up to levels that are not far from contemporary mass migration. The rapid population growth that forms the basis for unidirectional mass migrations is a unique phenomenon, covering a rather short time span in the scale of the development of a society. During this period, the pre-modern demographic regime, characterised by high mortality and high fertility is substituted with a modern regime of high life expectancy and small family sizes. This transition reached its end in Europe in the middle of the last century. The different timeframes of demographic modernisation in Europe and other regions of the world created a novel situation in the second half of the 20th century, in which Europe became one of the main destinations of international migration.

The transformation from emigration to immigration has had multi-faceted consequences for European societies. The European Commission has seen immigration as one of the factors relieving the effects of population ageing and a shrinking workforce on the competitiveness and sustainability of the European Union (EC 2006). Against this background the current chapter seeks answers to three questions. Firstly, what have been the trends and contribution of international migration in the transformation of Europe’s population size? Secondly, what are the sizes of the population groups in different European countries that have been created by immigration, emigration and return migration? Thirdly, how does migration relate to the contemporary demographic challenges that Europe faces? We touch briefly on Estonia, but a more detailed discussion of migration processes in Estonia is covered in sub-chapters that follow.

Periods of migration in post-war Europe

In the analyses of migration focussing on Europe, the period after World War II can be decomposed into several periods (Van Mol & de Valk 2016). The first one included the years of rapid economic growth in the 1950-1960s. In this period several governments in the North and West European countries actively supported recruitment of foreign workers to cover the high labour demand. In Europe a migration system was established in the first post-war decades where people moved from southern countries (Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Greece and Portugal) to more northern countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and the United Kingdom). In the 1960s the recruitment was extended to outside of Europe, with the signing of contracts with the Turkish, Moroccan and Tunisian governments. People arriving on the basis of these contracts were treated as guest workers, assuming their return to their home countries after the assignment ended. Since work-related migration was considered as temporary, integration of immigrants was not the focus of attention.

The second period of the post-war migration started in the 1970s. The oil crisis and the end of the favourable economic outlook suddenly decreased employment and demand for labour. Destination countries reacted to this with restrictions on immigration, but these limitations often had a counterproductive effect, increasing the motivation of immigrants to stay in these countries permanently, bringing family members to live with them. During this period people in the host countries started to consider immigrants as competitors who take jobs from the locals through lower wage demands. Also the need for policy measures supporting integration of immigrants became more widely acknowledged. In the middle of the 1970s the return of Europeans from colonies that had gained independence came to an end. An important characteristic of this period was also the upsurge in the number of asylum seekers.

The third period of migration is related to the disappearance of the barriers that divided Europe into West and East. Although migration from East to West had not completely stopped during the Cold War years, the dissolution of the Iron Curtain and the later enlargement of the European Union opened the way to increased migration flows from East to West. This was driven mainly by the sharp contrast in standard of living between the origin and destination countries in the beginning of the 1990s and also by wars held in the former Yugoslavia. The North-South migration flows that had dominated intra-European movements until then decreased. Economic growth and small sizes of cohorts reaching working age changed the Mediterranean countries in the 1990s into very attractive migration destinations, but the economic crisis at the end of the 2000s transformed the migration scene once again. The economic recession decreased intra-European migration intensity and temporarily changed the balance of flows to the benefit of out-migration from the countries most affected by the crisis. The number of immigrants from outside of Europe did not decline; instead it has increased during the refugee crisis. The refugee crisis and its impact are discussed in the penultimate sub-chapter.

The contribution of migration to population dynamics

Migration may decrease or increase population size depending on the relation between the numbers of arrivals and departures. Figure 1.1.1 and 1.1.2 presents the direct cumulative effect of migration and natural increase on the population number in four regions of Europe from the middle of the 20th century up to 2015. In accordance with a somewhat earlier turn from emigration to immigration, Western Europe has surpassed other regions of the continent in terms of the population-enlarging effect of migration during almost the whole of the observation period. The contribution of migration in the region has increased starting from the 1980s than in the first post-war decades when governments of Western Europe actively supported foreign labour recruitments. Northern Europe became a migrant-receiving region slightly later, but migration has since then contributed an increasing share to the overall growth in population size. In contrast with Western Europe, Figure 1.1.1 points to a further shift towards an increased contribution of migration in the 2000s. As a result of these changes the Nordic countries have become one of the most attractive migration destinations in contemporary Europe.

Due to the later onset of demographic modernisation, the negative net migration in Southern Europe was substituted with the positive net migration a couple of decades later than in the northern and western parts of the continent. In the 1950–1960s migration was still a population-decreasing factor in the Mediterranean countries. Evidence for Eastern Europe reflects the effect of the closed borders of the communist regimes, which kept the whole region’s cumulative net migration close to zero until the end of the 1980s. The fall of the Iron Curtain has increased population decline in Eastern Europe due to migration while it has increased the positive net migration in other regions of Europe. Judging from the decreasing slope in the Figure 1.1.1, the speed of the population decline due to migration in Eastern Europe has not changed significantly since the beginning of the 1990s. This is rather expected considering the inertia of population processes.

In Estonia, demographic dynamics differs from all the four regional patterns. During the occupation period Estonia was distinguished from most other Eastern European countries by a positive net migration, bringing us closer to Northern and Western Europe, which were also characterised by immigration prevalence. Starting from the 1990s migration has reduced the Estonian population, similarly to general trends in Eastern Europe. Out of other countries in the eastern region that joined the EU at the same time as Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary have been characterised by a moderately positive net migration. Also Russia features a positive net migration.

Figure 1.1.1. Cumulative net migration, Regions of Europe and Estonia, 1950–2015

Source: UN 2015, authors’ calculations.

Figure 1.1.2. Natural net migration, Regions of Europe and Estonia, 1950–2015

Source: UN 2015, authors’ calculations.


Definition of regions (used throughout the whole sub-chapter)

Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark

Western Europe: Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom

Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary

Southern Europe: Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal.

The contribution of natural increase on the changes in population size had been stronger in all regions during the early post-war decades, but since then the contribution has decreased. This contrast between the earlier and current situation is especially stark in Eastern Europe where natural increase has decreased population since the 1990s. Even though all four regions had a larger population size at the end of the observation period than in the beginning of the period (by 28%-42%), the population growth has happened by different combinations of migration and natural increase. The only source for cumulative population growth in Eastern Europe has been the natural increase that occurred in the 1950-1980s; negative net migration has reduced the overall growth. In other regions of Europe both net migration and natural increase contributed to the population growth. The positive impact of migration has been the largest in Northern and Western Europe where 35% and 40%, respectively, of the growth can be attributed to this component; in the years 2000-2015 the contribution of migration amounted to 73% and 65%, respectively. In Southern Europe the direct effect of migration was 25% of the population growth in 1950–2015; during the last 15 years it has even reached 90–100% for the Mediterranean countries. In the case of Estonia, positive net migration constituted 44% of the total change in population size since the middle of the 20th century. In 2000–2015 migration accounted for 61% of the population loss in the country.

Immigrants, emigrants and return migrants


As a result of international migration, foreign-origin populations emerges in destination countries, as from the perspective of the sending countries the same groups of migrants and their descendants form diasporas. The country of birth of a person and his/her parents provide the basis for defining the foreign-origin or immigrant population, independent of citizenship, ethnicity or other characteristics. Generally first and second generation immigrants are included in the foreign-origin population (Eurostat 2011). The first generation consists of people who have been born abroad and moved to their country of residence. The second generation consists of children of the immigrants, who have been born in the country of residence, but at least one of their parents has arrived from abroad. Former internal migrants and their children who, as a result of the division of countries or border changes, happened to live outside of their country of origin are also considered as foreign-origin population.

On average, first-generation migrants constituted 12% and the second-generation constituted 6% of the working-age population (ages 15–64) in the European Union, amounting to a proportion of 18% of foreign-origin (Data also include the Member States of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland), but for the sake of brevity this article mentions only EU States.). Immigrants make up over half of the population in Luxembourg, as in Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and a number of small island states in various regions of the world. This brings our attention to the fact that the effect of migration on large and small societies may not be similar. However, the high proportion of foreign-origin population in Switzerland indicates that in the case of long-term large-scale in-migration, the native population may become a numerical minority even in a medium-sized country. Among larger countries of Europe, the first- and second-generation immigrants formed 28%, 27% and 21% of the working-age population in France, the United Kingdom and Germany, respectively; in Italy, a country with a later transition from emigration to immigration, the foreign-origin population constituted 12%.

The averages for regions added to Figure 1.1.3 confirm the larger influence of immigration in Western and Northern Europe. Interestingly, despite the cumulative migration loss over the last quarter of a century in terms of the proportion of foreign-origin population, Eastern Europe (12%) surpassed the Mediterranean countries (9%), which were prime immigration destinations in the 1990s and 2000s. Mass immigration happened in several Eastern European countries during the communist regimes. The fact that the number of second-generation migrants surpasses that of the first-generation migrants (by 1.6 times in the age group 15-64) is evidence of an earlier peak in immigration in these countries. A second feature of the continent’s eastern part is the large variation in the migration experience: the countries of this region can be found in the near-top as well as bottom positions in the European rankings of proportion of foreign-origin population. Despite the return migration of nearly a quarter of immigrants in the 1990s, Estonia holds second place among the EU Member States, with a 33% foreign-origin population, after Luxembourg and followed by Sweden.

Figure 1.1.3. Proportion of the foreign-origin population,

Source: Eurostat 2016, European Union Labour Force Survey, authors’ calculations

Note: No data available for the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark.

In addition to the number of immigrants, the origin of migrants also shapes the effect of international migration on destination countries. In the case of the European Union, this starts from the fact that the residents of the Union have been granted a different legal status than people arriving from the third countries outside the Union. The country of origin may matter for the integration of immigrants: in addition to the distance measured in miles and flight hours the difference between societies is also manifested in culture and values. For example, formation of mixed partnerships between the native and foreign-origin population – a litmus test of integration – decreases in line with the increase in cultural differences between the sending and the destination countries.

On average, migrants from outside of Europe constitute 52% and migrants from European countries constitute 48% of all the immigrants living in the European Union countries (The origin refers to all immigrants that had arrived in the countries of Europe by the time of the last census round (2010), irrespective of the period of arrival). The largest sub-group of non-European origin is formed by migrants from Asia (20% of immigrants), followed by people from Africa (17%), and Latin-America and the Caribbean (9%). The share of immigrants from North America and Oceania to the European Union is limited to 1.5% and .5% respectively. When distinguishing migrants from other European countries from people arriving from outside of the continent, eastern Member States of the European Union stand out with the most European-centred immigration (Figure 1.1.4). In these countries 92% of immigrants originate from Europe; the respective ratio is almost twice that of other regions (48%–53%).

In terms of countries, the variation in proportions between intercontinental and European immigration is even larger. The smallest proportion of immigrants from other European countries is observed in the Netherlands (29%), Portugal (32%) and France (33%). The United Kingdom (37%) stands out with its smaller proportion among larger European states, whereas in Italy and Germany immigrants from other European countries predominate (proportions 57% and 65%, respectively). In Croatia, Slovenia and Slovakia the share of in-migrants from European countries reached 96–99%.

Figure 1.1.4. Origin of immigrants,

Source: Eurostat 2016, population censuses of European countries, authors’ calculations.


Even though the migration process starts from out-migration (to reach a new location one has to leave the previous place), it is difficult to obtain comprehensive information about emigrants. The reason behind this is not only that people tend not to register their departure, but also after leaving the information on emigrants is not included in the accounts of the sending country anymore. This is why the evidence on emigrants is obtained from the destination countries. It has to be kept in mind when interpreting the data that they do not reflect people that have left for countries outside of the European Union or the European Free Trade Association. Since the majority of out-migration from the EU countries is to other Member States of the Union, this should not significantly impact the results. In the beginning of the current decade, 4% of EU-born residents of the Member States lived outside of their country of birth (in other Member States), this being three times less than the proportion of first-generation migrants living in EU countries, born outside the EU. Sometimes the relative number of Europeans that have departed from their country of birth to other Member States has been considered too low and hindering EU competitiveness. At the same time, the moderate relative number of emigrants intertwines well with the view that connects the intensive out-migration with an earlier pattern, experienced in Europe before the middle of the 20th century.

Luxembourg (16%), Cyprus (15%), Ireland (12%) and Romania (11%) feature the largest relative numbers of out-migrants to other EU countries (Figure 1.1.5). A threefold-higher share of emigrants (9%) in Eastern Europe compared with the rest of the continent demonstrates this region’s difference in migration situation. The number of people that have left Estonia (6%) is lower than the average in the EU Member States in Eastern Europe. In the lowest part of Figure 1.1.5, which collates countries with small proportion of emigrants, one finds all larger European countries. The similarity of the proportion of out-migrants for Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom (all below 3%) indicates the possibility that the scope of emigration may depend also on the size of the country and the number of its inhabitants among other factors. In case this holds, the migration challenges that small countries face are greater, not only in terms of immigration but also in terms of emigration (it is also corroborated by the statistically-significant correlation coefficient (0.48) between the population number and the number of emigrants).

Figure 1.1.5. Proportion of out-migrants

Source: Eurostat 2016, population censuses of European countries, authors’ calculations.

For other reasons the limited emigration from Scandinavian countries is worthy of attention. Namely, the Nordic countries have had free movement of people into their region for over 60 years already. Since 1954, Nordic citizens have had the right to live and work in countries of the region without residence or working permit. The long-term openness to intra-region migration and the linguistic and societal similarities between the Scandinavian countries have not brought about remarkable migration flows between the countries. In contrast, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are among the European countries with the lowest proportion of emigrants (below 3%). In Finland the proportion is slightly higher due to work-related migration in the 1960s, but not more than one-two percentage points. A plausible explanation for the low propensity to emigrate is the high well-being levels in Nordic societies.

As regards the destination of out-migrants, the majority of people (60%) who left Northern European countries settled in another country in the same region, while almost a third of emigrants from the region have moved to Western Europe. Also out-migrants from Western Europe moved mostly (over three- fifths) to other countries in the region. The second most important destination (almost one-third of those departed) for West European emigrants has been the southern countries of Europe. The common feature of out-migration from Southern and Eastern Europe is a moderate number of people moving to other countries in the same region (less than 10% of out-migrants). Ninety per cent of the people that have moved out from Mediterranean countries have migrated to a Western European country. The most important destination of Eastern Europeans has also been Western Europe, but over 20% of East Europeans have settled in Southern Europe. The proportion of Nordic countries as a destination for East Europeans is a few percent on average; an exception being Estonia with migration towards Finland.

Return migrants

One of the most important characteristics of migration is the repetitiveness of events. It is known from surveys that in Estonia, for example, people change their residence on average 5–6 times during their life-time; this seems to increase in younger generations. In the context of international migration the repetitiveness of events gives rise to return migration (out-migration is followed by returning to the sending country), movement to the next destinations (from the destination country further to other countries) and circular migration (repeated departures from and returns to the sending country). According to the opinion of several authors, one of the characteristics of contemporary migration is the more frequent occurrence of migratory moves, with complicated time-space patterns as mentioned above (Sheller & Urry 2006; Skeldon 2012).

Figure 1.1.6. Proportion of return migrants among native-born out-migrants

Source: Eurostat 2016, population censuses of European countries, authors’ calculations.

Note: Data for France is missing.

According to the data in Figure 1.1.6 the highest proportion of returnees is characteristic of Northern Europe (35%), while out-migrants from Eastern Europe have returned the least (8%) in the first decade of the 21st century. At the top of the list of countries is Denmark, where 47% of out-migrants returned to their country of birth. The lowest return rate among the European Union countries is in Romania (1%). Estonia (17%) is located in the middle of the list, with slightly higher proportion of returnees than Latvia and Lithuania, but behind Finland. When comparing proportions of returnees one has to keep in mind that the measures are influenced by the time elapsed since the preceding out-migration. Because the residents of the Eastern European EU Member States were granted the opportunity of free movement later (6–7 years before the end of the observation period), out-migrants from these countries have had less time to return yet. However, based on the proportion of returnees it is difficult to estimate if migration leads to more native-born people leaving a country at a certain period than returning.

The relation between out-migration and return migration is more precisely characterised by the balance of out- and return migration of people born in a sending country, i.e. the native-born population. In the case of a positive net rate, the return migration surpassed out-migration in the period 2000–2011, while a negative net rate indicates an opposite situation (Figure 1.1.7). Comparing countries’ rankings in this and the previous Figure, a similarity can be observed (Pearson’s correlation coefficient 0.57). As regards groups of countries, Northern Europe is the only region where the net of out- and return migration rate is not negative (+6‰). Unlike for conventional net migration rate, a large positive net rate of out-migration and return-migration rate can hardly exist for native-born population because a relatively limited pool of potential return migrants. The largest negative net rate of out- and return migration applies to Eastern Europe (-32‰).

Since the measures presented in the Figure are for a decade-long intercensal period, moderate positive or negative net rates can be considered as a situation rather close to the equilibrium between out- and return migration of native-borns. If the conditional limit for net rates were set between +10 and -10 per thousand, and -10 per thousand per decade, two countries with a prevalence of return migration remained out of the balance zone (Denmark and Greece) as well as nine countries with a prevalence of out-migration, most of which were in the Eastern Europe. The excess of out-migration was largest in Romania (-83.5‰), while in Estonia the net rate was -25 per thousand. Croatia was the only new EU Member State where the net migration rate for the native-born population was slightly positive. To this end it is interesting to note that Croatia has in recent years experienced the largest growth in human development index among the Eastern European countries.

Figure 1.1.7. Net migration rate of native-born population,

Source: Eurostat 2016, population censuses of European countries, authors’ calculations.

Return migration has sometimes also been characterised by the proportion of return migrants among in-migrants. In Estonia this proportion has been increasing remarkably since the turn of the millennium, and in the last years returnees have formed about half of all immigrants to the country. A comparison across countries shows that the proportion of return migrants among in-migrants is not related to the rate of return migration, and even has a negative association with the net rate of out- and return migration rate of native-born population. Return migrants form the largest share of the in-migrants (51%) in Eastern Europe where the propensity to return to country of birth is the lowest among regions of Europe. The plausible reason for this may be the lower attractiveness of the Eastern Europe for migrants coming from other regions, including outside of Europe.

Is migration a solution to contemporary demographic challenges?

It is important to clarify the role of migration in relation to the demographic challenges European societies face. European Commission documents discuss population ageing and decline of the working-age population as the main challenges stemming from contemporary demographic development (EC 2006). The Commission has started from an economic point of view in assessing the effect of these trends. The slowing of economic growth, and the worsening proportion between the population groups that pay taxes and the ones that are supported by taxes, are seen as the undesired consequences of demographic changes. The Commission considers immigration – which would bring in additional labour and would help to cover the labour demand in sectors requiring more as well as fewer skills – as one of the solutions to these problems.

Internationally, the best-known attempt to evaluate the ability of migration to offer a solution to declining and ageing populations was conducted by the UN Population Division at the beginning of the previous decade (UN 2001). This study included eight countries (Italy, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Russia, the USA and the United Kingdom) and two regions (Europe and EU-15 countries). The purpose was to specify the scope of migration that would avoid the decline of working-age populations and guarantee the stability of the old-age dependency ratio until 2050 (the old-age dependency ratio indicates the number of older people per 100 working-age persons.) Results indicated that for most countries immigration should have been substantially increased to avoid the decline of working-age population — in the case of Europe as a whole by almost threefold (161 million immigrants in 2000–2050). Keeping the old-age dependency ratio at the fixed level proved to be impossible. According to the UN estimates this would have required the arrival of 1.35 billion migrants (sic!) in the period 2000–2050.

The simple fact that immigrants also age makes it impossible to keep the old-age dependency ratio stable. The effect of migration on maintaining a younger age structure is therefore temporary; at best it may work for three-four decades. For a permanent effect the number of new immigrants should grow constantly in order for the number of newcomers to outweigh the ageing of the previous arrivals. The limited ability of migration to hold back population ageing is confirmed also by other results. According to a UN international migration report, in 2015 the median age of the world population was 30 years, while the average age of people who had moved from one country to another was 39 years (UN 2016). The median age of the total population of Europe and the median age of the 76 million immigrants living on the continent were 42 and 43 years, respectively. The insignificant effect of migration on the population age structure is confirmed also by the analyses of migration on European population trends since the middle of the 19th century (Murphy 2016).

The aforementioned results suggest that the ability of immigration to rectify the problem of population ageing is doubtful. On the other hand, it has also been noted that the effect of population ageing has been overestimated due to over-simplification in the use of measures. Usually, the impact of population ageing is charted based on the old-age dependency ratio, which is calculated as the ratio between people in the age groups 65+, and 20–64. The downside of this approach is that these age groups do not correspond to the actual age limits of working age, and not all people in the working age are economically active. Sanderson and Scherbov (2015) demonstrated in a recent analysis that the increase of the old-age dependency ratio will be remarkably smaller than one would think, if applying a dynamically-constructed ratio based on the actual proportions of non-working older persons and working people.

Neither population decrease nor the transformations of the ethnic structure of populations have been mentioned as major demographic challenges in the European Commission documents. At the same time it has been shown, based on demographic models, that immigration lasting for a relatively long time, in the case of below-replacement-level fertility, will lead to a situation where immigrants and their descendants constitute a majority of the destination population (Espenshade et al. 1982). Whether or not things will turn out like this in reality depends on the amount and duration of in-migration as well as the fertility levels of the destination countries. Empirically, population projections that distinguish population groups by ethnicity or origin seek answers to these questions. In Europe, the statistical offices of the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom, as well as Eurostat, have constructed such projections; in addition, researchers have made calculations for several countries. These forecasts indicate an increase in foreign-origin populations until the end of the projection period (mostly 2050). Although the projected proportion of foreign and native populations in any of the countries included in the calculations did not reach a turning point by the middle of the 21st century, it is also not possible to deny the movement in this direction. For the United Kingdom it has been estimated that the native British population may become a minority starting from the 2070s in the case of persistent large-scale immigration. Proportions of foreign-origin populations reaching 45–50% by the 2060s have been projected for Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Spain and Germany (Lanzieri 2011). Even though these projections may not become a reality, they do indicate the possible demographic future in the case that mass immigration continues in many European countries.


Europe experienced a transformation from a several-century-long excess of out-migration, to the excess of in-migration in the middle of the 20th century. The first countries to reach this turning point were in Western and Northern Europe, while the excess of immigration in the Mediterranean countries occurred in the last decades of the century. Many European countries have developed a demographic dependency on migration whereby the direct or indirect effect of immigration is the main or only factor sustaining, or avoiding the decrease of, the population size and workforce. Population projections indicate that in the absence of in-migration population size would start to decrease after the middle of the 21st century also in Northern Europe, a region which enjoys the highest fertility rates in contemporary Europe (according to Eurostat the total fertility rate was 1.79 in the Nordic countries and 1.58 children per woman in the European Union countries in 2014).

Eastern Member States differ in their migration situation from other European Union states; they have given almost ten million people to other countries other regions of Europe over the years. Although free movement is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, the literature also recognises a downside of intra-European unbalanced migration (Ivanov 2009). Unlike the developing countries that are experiencing rapid population growth, Eastern Europe has been characterised by an exhaustion of demographic growth potential for a few decades now. In this situation emigration tends to increase the labour shortage in the eastern countries of the Union, which can turn the gain from the migration processes in the Union as a whole into a zero sum game. Several eastern States of the EU balance the negative net intra-EU migration with immigration from the neighbouring non-EU countries, which also suffer from depopulation.

The findings of the sub-chapter demonstrate the greater openness to impact of migration in smaller countries. This fact seems to hold both for the effects of in- and out-migration as smaller countries are more often characterised by a larger proportion of foreign-origin population as well as a larger relative number of people that have left their homeland. Estonia also stands out in several characteristic features in the international comparison. In the period since World War II, the Estonian migration dynamics does not fit any regional pattern observed in the sub-chapter. Until the end of the Soviet occupation period Estonia resembled Nordic and Western European countries with its positive net migration rate. However, after the restoration of its independence the migration processes of Estonia have followed the path of Eastern Europe, and closeness to the Northern European countries is observable only in the geography of out-migration. Despite the large-scale return post-war migrants at the close of the 20th century, with regard to the proportion of the foreign-origin population Estonia ranks second among the EU countries. The following chapters are expected to highlight how these characteristics are considered in the migration and integration policies of the country.

From the perspective of the European Union as a whole, migration between Member States is rather modest: in the beginning of the current decade a total of 4% of the Union’s residents lived outside of their country of birth, in other EU States. The respective number is below the average in the Scandinavian countries, where the population has enjoyed the freedom of unrestricted movement between their neighbouring countries for more than 60 years already. The Nordic experience shows that open borders do not necessarily bring about a large-scale flow of people across borders even if the linguistic, historic and cultural similarity of the countries creates perfect conditions for that. These findings are corroborated by the near-balance state between the out- and return migration of native-born populations in two-thirds of the EU States. It supports the view that migrations between advanced societies are characterised by shorter-duration mobility rather than irreversible lifetime moves (Sheller & Urry 2006; Skeldon 2012).

As regards population ageing, migration can have only a postponing effect for a few decades. Successful coping with the challenges of population ageing assumes a more diversified response from the society than migration can offer. The decrease in workforce is, however, possible to relieve with immigration, at least for as long as there are countries with growing populations or with markedly lower well-being. This strategy is accompanied entails a transformation in ethnic composition of host societies. In the case of the continuation of migration at current levels immigrants and their descendants would form equal or even higher shares than native populations in some European countries by the second half of the 21st century. Population scientists have depicted this transformation as the third demographic transition, emphasising its symbolic meaning (Coleman 2006). Predicting the minority status of the native populations of host countries may seem like tabloid demography, but the proportions of the foreign-origin populations reported in statistics indicate that several European countries have already gone half-way along this path. The future much depends on how open to immigration countries in the coming decades will remain.


The authors thank Jaak Valge and Tiit Tammaru for comments on an earlier draft of this article. The basis of this sub-chapter is research done in the framework of targeted funding from SF0130018s11 by the Ministry of Education and Research.


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