Migration has been a major influencing factor on the population numbers and ethnic structure of Estonia during the last century and a half. In the second half of the 19th century, the growth of the rural population and the granting of mobility rights to farmers brought along the first great wave of emigration. The next wave, with a smaller number of people leaving, was the great exodus in 1944. After World War II, the migration direction changed and for almost half a century, the demographic development of Estonia was greatly affected by immigration. Restoration of independence and joining the European Union once again altered the migration flows and gave rise to the third wave of emigration. In the 21st century, immigration has gradually started to impact the population of Estonia.

In this sub-chapter, we will focus on changes in migration since the year 2000 and try to find out whether a migration turnaround is taking place in Estonia, with immigration exceeding emigration. The main part of Estonia’s present population is made up of two large groups – Estonians and the mostly Russian-speaking minorities who settled in Estonia during the Soviet era, their children and grandchildren. Earlier research has demonstrated that the migration behaviour of these groups is not similar (Anniste & Tammaru 2014; Pungas et al. 2015; Tammaru & Eamets 2015). In the sub-chapter, we will try to find an answer to the question of what the migration trends of Estonians and other ethnic groups have been in the 21st century. We will also find out how the geography of Estonia’s external emigration has changed during the last decade and a half. We have also paid attention to the reliability of migration statistics in order to determine the accuracy of our conclusions about these processes.

Estonia’s Migration Patterns in the 19th and 20th Centuries

The demographic transition from the traditional reproduction model involving high death and birth rates to a modern one characterised by a long life expectancy and a small number of children is an important milestone in the development of a population. The transition usually starts with the death rate going down, which is followed after a certain period by a decline in the birth rate. Because of the time-lag in fertility decline compared to mortality decline, the population undergoes significant growth during the transition, which usually results in emigration. In Estonia, the emigration caused by the demographic transition happened in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century. According to the 1897 census, there were approximately 110,000 Estonians living within the Russian Empire outside the borders of Estonia, but by the time Estonia gained independence, this number was estimated at 200,000. Insignificant numbers of people also moved away from Estonia to other countries, most notably the USA before World War I. Moderate emigration also characterised Estonia in the first decade of independence. The emigration potential caused by the demographic transition had exhausted itself by the 1930’s: the emigration and immigration streams reached a balance and immigration became slightly higher in the second half of the decade.

The Second World War brought heavy losses to the population of Estonia and caused a new, forced wave of migration. An estimated 80,000 people fled to the West in 1944, while the deportations took more than 30,000 away from Estonia. The overall size of irrevocable human loss during 1939–1944 is estimated at almost 170,000 persons (Rahi-Tamm 2005). The border adjustment of 1944 also decreased the country’s population compared to pre-War times.

The heaviest losses due to the war, the forced migration and the border adjustment were suffered by Estonia’s ethnic minorities: Germans and Swedes left Estonia; the Jewish community was almost annihilated during the German occupation; the number of Russians decreased several-fold as a result of the Russian annexation of the regions on the other side of the Narva River as well as the rural municipalities around Pechora in the autumn of 1944 (Katus et al. 2000). As a result, the share of Estonians increased to an estimated 97% by 1945, while during the last pre-War census (1934), Estonians had accounted for 88% of the population. The only ethnic minority whose continuity was not wholly interrupted by the Second World War and Estonia’s loss of statehood was the Russian population.

A new era started in the development of migration in Estonia after World War II: Estonia became a country of immigration for almost half a century. Compared to other European countries in a similar demographic stage of development, this immigration started early in Estonia (1944–1945) and was very intensive because of a number of factors coinciding. Russia and other Republics of the Soviet Union with a Slavic population were still experiencing quick population growth at the time, which created a good background for emigration to other parts of the Soviet Union, including Estonia.

The migration was amplified by huge differences between the population numbers of the source and destination countries as well as the official policy of those times. Workforce shortages were quoted as the reason for immigration, but there could also have been a wish to tie the new territories more firmly to the Soviet Union with the help of the immigrants. At those times, arrival in Estonia meant moving within the borders of the Soviet Union. People arrived in Estonia mostly from Russia, at first from the regions near the border (Pskov and the Leningrad Oblast), but later also from places further and further off. Kulu (1997) estimates that the population that settled in Estonia during the years 1940–1991 also included around 55,000 Estonians who had been living in Russia.

The migration from the Soviet Union was characterised by a relatively low level of the immigrants settling permanently down in Estonia (Sakkeus 1996). Immigration into Estonia was at its most intensive in the years immediately following the Second World War, when the net migration exceeded 10,000 persons per year. Another larger migration wave took place in the 1960’s. The scope of the immigration is best illustrated by the share of immigrants in the total population: at the time of the last census in the Soviet Union (1989), persons born outside of Estonia accounted for 26% of the population. Among the European countries, only Latvia and Luxembourg had a higher percentage of immigrants at the time. The impact on the changes in the ethnic structure caused by immigration was even larger: the share of inhabitants of Estonia from other nationalities increased over ten-fold, from 3% to 38% in the period between 1945–1989. The impact of Soviet-era immigration is not however limited to the past, but through the large foreign population it left behind affects the present as well as the future.

The next, fourth stage in the development of Estonia’s migration started with the restoration of independence: migration turned from immigration to emigration and the net migration turned negative. In the years 1989–1994 over 80,000 people left Estonia - the emigration was at its most intensive in 1992 and 1993. This was mostly re-migration, as the majority of those who left were military personnel, their family members and others who preferred returning to their homeland to staying in Estonia. The main country of destination was Russia, but there were also those who found opportunities to move to the West.

There was also a little immigration in the 1990’s. According to the 2000 census, 8,000 people settled down in Estonia during the preceding decade, 1,500 of whom were Estonians born outside of Estonia, mostly on the territory of the former Soviet Union. There is no reliable data about the immigration and emigration streams from the 1990’s, and therefore we can make generalisations and draw conclusions using only the balance method. This means comparing the data of two censuses – 1989 and 2000 – and subtracting the natural growth (the difference between births and deaths). All in all, the population of Estonia decreased by 12.3% in the period 1989–2000, 2.5% of which is accounted for by a negative natural growth and 9.8% by a negative net migration. The number of Estonians decreased by 3.4% during the period (2.3% because of the negative natural growth and 1.1% because of the negative net migration). The decrease in other ethnic groups living in Estonia reached 26.7% (3.0% because of natural growth and 23.7% because of the net migration). As a result of these changes, the share of Estonians in the total population of Estonia increased to 68% by the millennium.

In the second half of the 20th century, migration had affected the population numbers of Estonia more than natural growth (the difference between births and deaths). It was only in the second half of the 1980s and in the second half of the 1990s that the natural growth of the population clearly surpassed the net migration. When comparing net migration with natural growth, it should be noted that besides the direct impact of migration reflected in the balance, the lion’s share of the positive natural growth of the post-war decades was also fuelled by migration. The migrants arriving in Estonia were mostly in the family-formation age of 20–30 years, and more than three-fourths of the positive natural growth of the 1950–1980 period can be attributed to them. These numbers are evidence that Estonia has been highly susceptible to the impact of immigration already since the mid-20th century.

Migration in 2000–2015

The aim of this sub-chapter is to outline the migration trends of Estonia’s in the years 2000–2015. The steep social reforms brought along by the restoration of independence had been carried out in Estonia by that time. The new institutions appropriate to a democratic society and market economy had been established and were functioning, and the economy of Estonia had started to grow after the steep decline of the early 1990’s. The return migration of Russian-speakers back to their homelands following the demise of the Soviet Union had also ended. The year 2000 suits well for a starting point of the analysis since census took place at that time, which provided an inventory of the significant but poorly-documented demographic changes of the preceding decade, and a baseline for following migration trends before and after Estonia joined European Union in 2004. Finally, the production of migration statistics, which used to be problematic in the whirlwinds of the transition period in the 1990, started again since 2000 census.


In 2015, Statistics Estonia adopted a new methodology for migration and population, statistics based on counting the various ‘signs of life’ left in various registers by a person, instead of the registered migration events (Tiit & Maasing 2016). The new method presumes that if certain procedures are performed in connection with a person in Estonian registers, there is reason to believe that the person is living in Estonia. And vice versa – if there are no procedures performed in connection with a person in Estonian registers, the person is assumed to have left Estonia. This method was used for estimating the population numbers of Estonia in 2016 as well as the persons immigrating and emigrating in 2015. Unfortunately, the migration data obtained using the new method cannot be compared to previous data (the number of persons arriving in Estonia increased 3.9-fold between 2014 and 2015, and the number of persons leaving Estonia by 2.8-fold). Therefore this sub-chapter is still based on the change-of-residence data obtained from the population register.

In Estonia, migration statistics have been based on residence notifications submitted to the Population Register during the study period. In accordance with the international definition, external migration means the registration or deregistration of a person coming from abroad into or from a residence located in Estonia, if the change of residence lasts for at least one year. A stay or absence of a person in or from Estonia lasting for less than 12 months is not considered a permanent change of residence and is therefore not reflected in migration statistics. The same principle is also applied to defining a permanent residence during censuses, which will ensure a harmonisation of data coming from different sources.

Figure 1.2.1 shows the Register-based numbers of immigration and emigration as well as the net migration for the years 2000–2015. All in all, 40,900 persons arrived in Estonia in this period and 69,600 left. Leaving aside the year-to-year fluctuations, both immigration and emigration have increased since the turn of the century. This is clearly seen from the average annual number of migrations registered in the periods 2000–2004, 2005–2009 and 2010–2015, which is 600, 4,000 and 3,800 immigrations and 2,400, 4,700 and 5,900 emigrations, respectively. The larger increase, comparing the periods 2000–2004 and 2005–2009, is related to the extensive migration opportunities that opened up after Estonia joined the European Union, and an improved registration of migration cases may also play a part. A comparison of the periods of 2005–2009 and 2010–2015, however, shows that the increasing tendency of immigration as well as emigration has continued after joining the European Union. The parallel increase of both immigration and emigration flows can partly be explained by the fact that a significant percentage of the people arriving in Estonia (almost 50% in the most recent years) are people who have emigrated from here previously.

It can be seen from the Figure that when emigration increases, an increase in immigration will follow in a few years. The dominance of emigration reduced the population of Estonia by 28,700 people, or 2% all in all, over the period we are studying. Comparing the sub-periods of 2000–2004, 2005–2009 and 2010–2015 does not give a clear indication of changes in the net migration (the annual average balances being –1,800, –1,700 and –1,800 persons respectively). Still, the negative net migration has been steadily decreasing over the last three years of the period under consideration. In 2015, the balance became positive again after a quarter of a century, by over 1,000 persons. Although the expectation is in the air, it is still a bit too early to say with certainty that the prediction made a few years ago about the migration turnaround about to take place in Estonia (Tammaru & Eamets 2015) has become a reality. A definitive answer will be provided in the next few years, which will show whether the net migration will remain positive as an average of several years, will be close to zero or show a moderate dominance of emigration.

There are a number of factors in favour of the two former scenarios. First, the number of people in the primary migration age, 20–40 years, is decreasing in Estonia year by year as the people born in the 1990’s and in the following small generations are reaching this age. Thus the number of emigrants is decreasing already because the migration potential of the people of Estonia is decreasing, just as happened in the first decades of independence between the two World Wars. Second, a significant number of the people of Estonia have emigrated abroad in the last quarter of a century. If and when a portion of them return to Estonia, this will increase immigration to Estonia. Third, the wealth of Estonia has improved significantly compared to the first years of the 21st century. This has increased the attraction of Estonia as a migration destination country for immigrants especially from less-developed countries. Fourth, the migration turnaround may be supported by changes in migration policy aimed at facilitating the arrival of people with necessary skill sets to Estonia (the next chapter of the Human Development Report will look at migration policy).

Figure 1.2.1. Immigration, emigration and the net migration, Estonia, 2000–2015

Source: Statistikaamet (Statistics Estonia) 2016; calculations by the authors.

When analysing migration, attention has to be paid to the reliability of the data. Compared to other events influencing population numbers (births and deaths), not all events of migration are reflected in statistics even in the highly-developed countries of Europe. People arriving in a country must register themselves with the authorities in order to be able to perform various procedures (studying, working, applying for welfare support, renting a residence, opening a bank account, etc.). However, this necessity usually does not exist when leaving a country, as people often consider their leaving to be temporary and they do not wish to weaken their ties with the home country by deregistering there.

Estonia is no exception, as can be seen when comparing the migration statistics of Estonia and the destination countries. For example, according to the data of Estonia, 20–50 persons move out of Estonia to live in Denmark every year, while the Statistics Denmark shows that 170–250 people arrive there from Estonia. Emigration to Sweden is also reflected in Estonia’s data (100–200 persons) as several times smaller than in the data from Sweden (500–600 persons). The problem of the under-registration of emigration could be mitigated by a regular data exchange between source and destination countries, enabling the identification of persons involved in migration. Unfortunately this is not a common practice, one of the hindrances being the lack of a unified system of personal identification codes. Estonia has established exchange systems of personalised demographic data only with Finland (since 2004) and Lithuania (since 2013). This makes it possible to use the registration systems of both countries simultaneously to monitor migration flows between these countries (e.g. if a person registers as a permanent resident of Finland, he or she can be noted as having left Estonia). Although almost two-thirds of emigration from Estonia is destined for Finland and is quite well documented thanks to the bilateral data exchange between the countries, a portion of the emigration from Estonia is still not reflected in the data illustrated by Figure 1.2.1.

The impact of the under-registration of migration can be evaluated comparing data from the censuses of 2000 and 2011. Statistics Estonia used these two population inventories to specify the time series of population figures in the census interval. Based on this, we used the balance-sheet method (subtracting the natural growth from the annual change in the population number) to calculate a net migration that takes into account the non-registered migration cases as well (Figure 1.2.2). Looking at the total period of 2000-2011, the negative net migration estimated using the balance-sheet method amounted to 42,100 persons, whereby the dominance of emigration decreased the population by a bit more than 3,500 persons per year on average. Comparing this to the net migration according to Register data (a total of –22,700, i.e. –1,900 persons per year), the net migration achieved with the balance-sheet method is almost 1.9 times larger. Assuming that under-registration of emigration is the main reason for the difference in the net migration, the result corresponds to approximately 30% of emigration cases in the census interval 2000–2011 being left unregistered. Were the unregistered migration cases registered, the reducing effect of the negative net migration to the population number in the census interval 2000–2011 would have been greater than the effect of negative natural change.

In spite of the difference in net migration between the register-based and the balance-sheet method, their temporal dynamics are similar according to both methods (the correlation factor of the two time series is 0.95). The significant similarity of the tendency implies that there were no very big shifts in the registration rate (the share of registered migration cases out of all migration cases) during the census interval. Census-based population inventories have not been carried out in Estonia since 2011 and therefore it was impossible for the authors to evaluate the net migration of 2012–2015 using multiple methods. It can still be presumed that no radical changes have taken place in this period in the registration of migration cases. Therefore it is possible that a certain percentage of migration in recent years is not reflected in the Register-based statistics either. If this is true, the positive net migration of 2015 can actually be smaller than shown by the data presented in Figure 1.2.1.

Figure 1.2.2. Net migration according to Register-based and balance-sheet method, Estonia, 2000–2011

Source: Statistikaamet (Statistics Estonia) 2016; calculations by the authors.

The geography of migration

International migration traditionally flows from poorer to wealthier countries. The migration may be especially intensive if there is a significant contrast between the living standards of neighbouring countries and if a rapid population growth takes place in the source country (e.g. Mexico and the US). Globally, Estonia belongs to the group of wealthier countries when measured by the human development index, but within this group, it is roughly in the middle. This position largely determines the main traits of Estonia’s present migration geography. People come to Estonia mostly from less-developed (and closely-situated) countries with whom we have migration relationships from earlier times. People leave from Estonia to more highly-developed countries.

Looking at the total of the period 2000–2015, 58% of immigrants to Estonia came from European countries (not counting the former republics of the Soviet Union), but a lion’s share of them were return migrants. 32% came from the countries of the former Soviet Union and these were mainly new immigrants. The share of immigrants from other regions was limited to 10%. Of the other continents, it was most often people from Asia (4%) and America (4%) that came to Estonia, while the share of arrivals from Africa and Oceania was less than 1% each. In terms of countries, the largest share of immigrants came from Finland (33%), the majority of whom were re-migrants to Estonia. Russia (22%) was the second source country by share.

Emigration from Estonia in the years 2000–2015 was overwhelmingly European-centred. The people who left for other European countries (excluding the countries of the former Soviet Union), went mostly to countries of the European Union, and accounted for 85% of all emigrants. The countries of the former Soviet Union accounted for 9%. Four percent (4%) of emigrants moved to other regions of the world, with more than half of those who left for regions outside Europe going to America, mostly to the US. In terms of countries, almost two-thirds of the emigrants went to live in Finland. Besides the geographical and cultural closeness and the economic attraction, this high share of emigration to Finland is probably also caused by the information exchange that has been functioning between the Population Registers of the two countries for over a dozen years, ensuring a more complete reflection of emigration to Finland compared to other countries. In the ranking of emigration destination countries, Russia (7%) took second and the UK (6%) third place.

Because of the different geographical features of emigration and immigration, the net migration of Estonia with different regions is not similar. Migration causes Estonia to lose population to European countries with a very high prosperity level: the negative net migration with European countries (excluding the former Soviet Union) for the whole period of 2000–2015 was –37,100 persons. Estonia’s net migration with the countries of the former Soviet Union has been positive, immigration originating from these countries has increased Estonia’s population by 7,000 persons since the beginning of the 21st century. The net migration with the rest of the world also remains on the plus side with 1,300 persons. Figure 1.2.3 shows the dynamics of the net migration with these three regions in the period 2000–2015.

As can be seen from the data, the net migration has been negative with the European countries in all years. The negative net migration increased rapidly after Estonia joined the European Union (2005–2006). The negative balance increased again in the years 2010–2012, but this time it was followed by a decrease to the lowest level yet (–560 persons in 2015). The net migration with countries of the former Soviet Union shows that the attraction of Estonia as a migration destination is growing. While the number of people leaving for these countries exceeded the number of people arriving from them, still, in the beginning of the last decade a growingly positive net migration with these countries can be seen from 2004 onwards. Since 2011, Estonia’s net migration with the countries of the former Soviet Union is positive by at least 1,000 persons a year. Since 2005, the net migration with the rest of the world has also been mostly positive. The main reason behind this change is the increased immigration from Asian countries, mostly from China and India, which exceeds emigration to the US and Australia.

The trends of the net migration in terms of geographical regions give a better background for understanding the basis for the possible migration turnaround. A migration turnaround is most likely to occur when it is supported from the one side by a decrease in a negative net migration with other countries of the European Union, and from the other side by the moderately positive net migration with third countries.

Figure 1.2.3. Net migration by source and destination regions, Estonia, 2000–2015

Source: Statistikaamet (Statistics Estonia) 2016; calculations by the authors.

Migration of Estonians and inhabitants of Estonia from other ethnic groups

Migration significantly influences not only the total population size, but also its ethnic structure. People in the young-adult age group are the most mobile, therefore emigration facilitates the aging of a population in the short- and mid-term view, while immigration helps to postpone aging. Eastern European countries tend to lose their highly-educated and better-skilled workforce to other regions of Europe through emigration. Estonia is quite clearly an exception to this: among those who leave, there have been fewer people with a university degree and a higher share of people with basic education than in the migration-prone age groups on average (Tammaru & Eamets 2015). Earlier studies have also shown that there are significant ethnic differences in migration. There are no studies on Estonia’s migration trends by ethnicity, and this article is the first attempt to start filling this gap.

Unlike one’s country of birth or citizenship, ethnicity is based on person’s self- identification with a certain ethnic group; people of the same ethnicity usually speak the same language and they often follow the same cultural traditions. The tradition to collect or not to collect data by ethnicity differs from state to state. In English-speaking countries and multinational states that used to have large overseas empires, collecting information about ethnicity is a long-standing tradition, while this practice does not exist in many other countries of mainland Europe (Haug 2000).

The age of migration presents new challenges to the collection of information about ethnicity, as there are more and more people with parents of different ethnic background, and for those people ethnic belonging is often not clear-cut. In spite of these challenges, there is no sign from the states that have been consistently collecting information on ethnicity that they are starting to abandon the idea.


For example, according to the data of Estonia, 20–50 persons move out of Estonia to live in Denmark every year, while the Statistics Denmark shows that 170–250 people arrive there from Estonia. Emigration to Sweden is also reflected in Estonia’s data (100–200 persons) as several times smaller than in the data from Sweden (500–600 persons).

In Estonia, the difficulties in determining a person’s ethnicity are relatively insignificant. For example in the census of 2011, this information missed for just 0.1% of the population. The problem with collecting statistical data about ethnicity is rather an administrative one in Estonia. The authorities have not developed a system that would ensure a registration of information about immigrants. This concerns not only ethnicity, but data about a person’s marital status and education is missing for immigrants, too (Puur et al. 2015).

Figures 1.2.4 and 1.2.5 present a comparison of the immigration, emigration and net migration of Estonians and other ethnic groups in the years 2000-2015. For the period overall, the registered emigration of Estonians was 45,700, while immigration was 16,200 persons – the negative net migration being 29,500 persons. The emigration of Estonians increased rapidly after Estonia joined the European Union. After the number of leavers somewhat fell (by about a quarter) in the second half of the 2000’s, a new rise began in the beginning of this decade. The emigration of Estonians peaked in 2013 with almost 5,000 leavers. Towards the end of the period we are looking at, the annual number of people leaving for abroad fell back to around 3,000, which seems to be the minimum limit of Estonians emigrating at present. The emigration of Estonians was not lower than that even in the years of rapid salary growth and high employment.

Figure 1.2.4. Immigration, emigration and net migration of Estonians, Estonia, 2000–2015

Source: Statistikaamet (Statistics Estonia) 2016; calculations by the authors.

Figure 1.2.5. Immigration, emigration and net migration of other ethnic groups, Estonia, 2000–2015

Source: Statistikaamet (Statistics Estonia) 2016; calculations by the authors.

The immigration of Estonians has also been growing over the years. The majority of this migration stream is made up of people returning to the homeland, and therefore the dynamics of previous emigration are reflected in the number of arrivals. Because of the dominance of emigration, the net migration of Estonians has remained negative throughout the period under consideration, but the yearly differences in net migration are remarkable, ranging from –3,700 persons (2012) to –400 (2015). The annual fluctuations are so large that it is hard to predict the direction of the net migration of Estonians in the next years – time will show whether it will be moderately negative, around zero or moderately positive. The combined influence of two factors can be seen behind the decrease of the negative net migration to a record low in 2015. One of them is the increase of return migration, reflecting the previous record-high emigration flows; the other is the decrease in the number of emigrants to the lowest levels of the decade in 2014 and 2015.

The dynamics of the numbers in immigration and emigration among other ethnic groups summed together speak of the shifts that have taken place in Estonia’s migration processes over the last fifteen years. Figure 1.2.5 shows that the increase in immigration by people of other ethnic groups is a significant vehicle of change. While in the years 2000–2004, less than 400 members of other ethnic groups immigrated to Estonia annually, their average annual arrivals exceeded 2,000 in the periods of 2005–2009 and 2010–2015. The first peak of immigration can clearly be pinpointed at the time of the economic boom in the middle of the last decade, but 2015 (2,700 arrivals) has surpassed the level of those times.

Emigration of the members of other ethnic groups has changed less, whereas the moderate growth of the number of leavers has probably been fuelled mostly by the increasing immigration. As a result of the combined influence of changes in the migration flows, the net migration of other ethnic groups has become positive. Since 2006, when the predominance of immigration appeared for the first time, migration has increased the number of members of other ethnic groups in Estonia by an average of 700 persons per year. In the last year of the period under consideration, their positive net migration reached 1,400 persons.

Another thing that deserves attention is the different nature of the connection between immigration and the emigration of Estonians and members of other ethnic groups. For Estonians, immigration means return migration. For other ethnic groups, immigration means mainly the arriving of newcomers. Thus migration renews the composition of the non-Estonian population of Estonia to a certain extent, although the small size of the migration flows relative to the total size of ethnic minorities living in Estonia leaves its impact relatively small.


The aim of this article was to outline the main migration trends of Estonia from the beginning of the 21st century until the present. Although the period under consideration is rather short on the demographic timescale, in the case of Estonia, these fifteen years embrace the leaving behind of the rapid societal changes of the 1990’s, a growth in prosperity and an increasing integration with Europe. These developments constitute a social background moulding the contemporary migration processes in Estonia.

The results show a considerably increasing international migration in both directions. This can be viewed as an increase in the openness of Estonia. Increase in immigration shows that the country is becoming more attractive for people arriving from elsewhere because of growing welfare. The increasing emigration, on the other hand, may be seen as the world becoming more open to Estonia, supported by free movement of people between the EU countries and the exploitation of these new opportunities. People leave Estonia but many also return, indicating that part of the migration is a temporary rather than permanent phenomenon.

The impact of migration on the population numbers of Estonia has been negative for the total period of 2000–2015: the predominance of registered emigration reduced the population of Estonia by a total of 29,000 persons, i.e. by 2%. According to estimates based on the balance-sheet method, approximately 30% of the emigration cases were not registered in Estonia in the census interval 2000–2011. Taking this into consideration, the population loss induced by migration may be somewhat bigger than revealed by official statistics. As a remarkable change, the number of registered immigrants surpassed the number of emigrants in 2015, for the first time since Estonia regained independence in 1991. The fact that the net migration was positive by more than 1,000 persons, gives us a reason to ask whether we are witnessing a migration turnaround that will end the era that lasted for more than a quarter of a century and during which migration reduced the population of Estonia by more than 180,000 persons.

The analyses performed for the present Human Development Report give reason to consider the migration turnaround to be quite likely. It is further supported by initial data concerning 2016 published by the time of this writing of this article, showing that in 2016, immigration also exceeded emigration. A comparison of the migration tendencies of ethnic groups also shows that the timing and the nature of the migration turnaround may be different for Estonians and for people of other ethnic groups living in Estonia. In the case of other ethnic groups, the reversal from the dominance of emigration over immigration to the opposite took place a decade ago. Already in 2006, after Estonia joined European Union, their net migration turned positive for the first time, and an average of 700 more persons of other ethnic groups have been arriving in Estonia than leaving here each year since then.

Migration data are not published by ethnicity in the official statistics (unlike other demographic data), and therefore the reversal has not been noted. This result may at first sight conflict with earlier studies, according to which the emigration intensity of non-Estonians has surpassed that of Estonians (Pungas et al. 2015; Tammaru & Eamets 2015). The contradiction is mainly due to the fact that the earlier studies were based on data from the first decade of the 21st century, when the reversal was only starting to happen and thus it was not yet visible in the conclusions drawn for the census interval 2000–2011. The results concerning migration geography in this sub-chapter give reason to additionally state that the main vehicles of the migration turnaround are an increase in the immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union, especially Russia and Ukraine, and a decrease of emigration to these countries.

It is too early to speak of a similar reversal in the immigration and emigration flows of Estonians, though the volume of the negative net migration has decreased significantly in the last years. It is possible that for Estonians the migration turnaround will mean a diminishing excess of emigration, resulting in a net migration that is close to zero rather than significantly positive. Analysis of wealthier European countries that distinguish between the migration flows of the native population and that of the citizens of other countries also points to this possibility. For instance, according to van Dalen and Henkens (2007), the net migration of the citizens of Austria, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom was negative in the early 21st century, although the general immigration into these countries surpassed emigration considerably because of large numbers of foreigners arriving.

The results presented in this article also call attention to the reliability of migration data. It is not a challenge specific to Estonia alone and, hence, there is a global need to improve the quality of migration data. This problem draws increasing attention, evidence also by a recent article in Science by leading migration researchers (Willekens et al. 2016). As a small society open to external influences, Estonia should consider up-to-date migration and demographic information as a matter of crucial importance. A task towards this goal in the coming years is the successful organisation of a census in 2020, expected to present a meaningful and accurate inventory of the migration-related and demographic changes happening in this decade, as well as the accuracy of intercensal population estimates.


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