Finland resists immigration tide
Associate since 1991
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November 17, 2011
The further north one travels in Europe the fewer immigrants there are. This, of course, has something to do with the weather and by the time one gets to Finland the proportion of immigrants in the population is only 3%, far less than France, Germany, Italy or even the damp UK. Finland has the added deterrent of having a near impenetrable language.
But Finland is a highly industrialised country. Not just the home of Nokia but of a large number of high tech companies that do business all over the world. The question is how can Finland manage without large scale immigration? Every other industrialised country has argued that it needs them. Ever since the 1950s, when post war economic growth got into its stride, immigrants have been recruited to do the menial jobs that natives increasingly would rather be unemployed than do- to clean the streets, empty the dustbins and to work night shifts in industry.
Apart from the weather and language a big part of the answer is that Finland industrialised late. Until the 1980s it was so underdeveloped it was still exporting labour. But, as with all countries that industrialise later, there are some advantages. In Finland’s case it was able to jump straight into the high tech world. It did not have a semi-alienated proletariat as in Britain, Germany and France where the hardships of the industrial revolution bred intense poverty and resentment, handed down from generation to generation. According to former prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, Finland has had the great advantage of having what is considered one of the world’s top three educational systems which started under the wing of a then thriving Lutheran church and “which is now sustained by teachers with PhDs, who are constantly re-trained and who have a high social status, unlike in most countries”.
Only in the 1970s did Finland start to become more like the rest of Europe, but even in the eighties there were more emigrants than immigrants. Finland slowly detached itself from the embrace of Russia and turned south towards the European Union which it joined only in 1995. In the 1990s, thinking it should be more open to the world and accept its responsibilities, it laid down the welcome mat to refugees- in particular Yugoslavs, Somalis and Iraqis. Despite the climate and language some refugees wanted to come as the Finns went out of their way “to be welcoming and warm, finding them jobs and nice flats”, says Sonja Hamalainen, an advisor to the minister of the interior. Only a decade ago did economic migrants from the Third World, whose primary motivation was to seek work, start to arrive, fifty years later than in the UK, France and Germany, and in much smaller numbers. (Their neighbours Russia and fellow EU member, Estonia, also have exported significant numbers to Finland but Estonians tend to keep their primary residence back home.)
These immigrants have cleared the path to Finland just as a new phenomenon is sweeping through the industrialised countries- the growing number of older people and unchanging retirement ages. People are healthier for longer and living longer and each decade that passes it becomes more so. These retirees could fill many of the jobs migrants, both unskilled and professional, would otherwise do. Yet retirement ages are stuck in the low 60s and soon, if this is not substantially revised upwards, people will be working for 45 years and in many cases being retired for 30 or, once another generation grows up, even 40 years. No state or insurance company has money in its coffers to pay for that.
Successive Finnish prime ministers have volubly warned the electorate about this but they have not been listened to. The unions are strong even among the professional classes and it is difficult to enact change. Once the present European economic crisis ends, argues Passi Saukkonen of the University of Helsinki, the need for migrants will grow steadily as the number of ageing, already growing faster than the rest of Europe, increases.
To most people’s surprise at the last election Finland saw the meteoric rise of a new right wing, nationalist, political party, “The True Finns”. Before it had won a mere 3% of the vote. Now it was 20%. Slowing down the rate of entry of immigrants is one of its planks. However, observers stress that only a small proportion of its voters are vociferously anti-immigrant, although this could grow if immigration increases. Presently its impetus mainly comes from its anti-EU stance.
Can a modern, industrialised, economy do without so many immigrants? So far the answer seems to be “yes”. Perhaps unbeknown to themselves Finns did find a way through good education and high tech industry of lowering demand, and supply was slow to develop. But, as the country ages, if it wants to continue as it has before, it will have to get a grip on its out-of-date retirement policy.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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