Just over half of Estonians find that the state shouldn't allow any or should allow only a limited number of people of different races or ethnicities to move to Estonia, it appears from the results of the 2018 European Social Survey (ESS).
At the same time, however, people with positive attitudes toward immigrants are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who consider immigrants to be a threat to the economy or culture.
According to a Eurobarometer study conducted in fall 2019, the most supported EU policy among Estonian residents is the free movement of EU citizens; 93 percent of respondents were in favor of EU citizens having the right to live, work, study and conduct business anywhere in the EU. Estonians' positive attitude toward this policy was 11 percentage points higher than the overall EU average, indicating that Estonians value free movement within the EU more highly than the average European.
Paradoxically, however, Estonians consider immigration to be the most significant concern in the EU; over half of respondents indicated that it is a significant concern, compared with an EU average of one third. Estonians' concern about immigration has increased somewhat as well: while 10 percent of respondents in 2018 considered immigration to be the most significant problem in Estonia, by fall 2019, that number had increased to 12 percent.
The issues of foreign labor and foreign students in Estonia have both received increased attention both on the political level and in society in general recently, raising questions regarding what benefits they provide the state but also possible risks involved in immigration.
The ESS, whose latest data was published in 2018 (data can be viewed online here), surveyed the opinions of Estonian residents regarding whether and to what extent the Estonian state should permit immigrants to move to Estonia. A total of nearly 2,000 Estonian residents were surveyed. The results of the survey revealed that people were significantly more prepared to accept the immigration of people of the same race and ethnic group than they were the immigration of different skin colors or ethnic groups.
A total of 52 percent of respondents believed that Estonia should not allow people of different races or ethnic groups into the country, or very few if at all. People were significantly more tolerant of people of the same race or ethnic group; just one quarter of respondents believed that few or none should be allowed into the country.
Perceived threat to economy, culture
Aversion to immigration is often tied to people's fears and sense of danger. The ESS asked Estonians whether they believed that immigration has an overall positive or negative effect on the Estonian economy and culture.
As expected, those Estonians who were against people of a different race or ethnic group immigrating to Estonia also clearly believed that immigration has a negative or very negative impact on the Estonian economy. Meanwhile, 70 percent of those who found that immigration has a positive impact on the economy would allow more immigrants to come to Estonia.
Just how great a concern a ban on the entry of foreign labor into the country is for agricultural companies has recently been especially well illustrated in particular by strawberry farmers. It is likely that among those already dependent on foreign labor are more people who see the benefit in immigrants.
Similarly to the economy, debates on the topic of immigration also emphasize possible risks to Estonianness, nationalism and the Estonian language. Similar stances on culture-related issues can be seen among Estonians as on economic ones. Those who are against immigration also find that it has a negative impact on Estonian cultural life, while those who would allow immigration into Estonia tend to see in them the opportunity to enrich Estonian culture.
The matter of defending the Estonian language and culture has been highlighted in particular in the context of recruiting foreign students and researchers to Estonian universities. Opinions on this matter are likewise largely divided into two camps. Those with a more positive view find that the involvement of foreign students provides the opportunity to come in contact with students from different cultural spaces conveniently, in their own homeland. Others, however, are concerned about the increase in English-language studies and the exclusion of the Estonian language.
General trust, positive attitude
It appeared from the results of the ESS that happier people generally have a more positive attitude toward immigration as well. Likewise, Estonians who trust the state's political institutions and legal system also tend to be more tolerant of people of other races. Among Estonians who are untrusting of the Riigikogu, 74 percent would not allow immigrants of other races or ethnicities to move to Estonia. Increased trust in the Riigikogu correlated with increased tolerance of immigration.
Based on survey results, the majority of Estonians who are intolerant of immigrants tend to lack trust in the entire legal system. This points toward a broader lack of trust and negative attitudes toward other people and groups of people.
For example, one may sense that the legal system does not function or sufficiently protect them, which may in turn spill over into their attitudes toward immigrants and make the former cautious regarding the latter. Cautiousness or fear of the strange or unknown may also be indicative of people's alienation and internal uncertainty, which are also exacerbated by chaotic and unpredictable times.
In conclusion, the ESS revealed that Estonians do not consider immigration to be beneficial to the state. 41 percent of Estonians found that immigrants make Estonia a rather worse place to live, and just 24 percent see in immigrants an opportunity to improve life in Estonia. Changing such attitudes, however, requires a clearer and consistent communication from both companies and institutions of higher education who recruit foreign labor or students.
The data from the ESS was analyzed by University of Tartu (TÜ) master's student Allan Padar.
Note on the data
The European Social Survey (ESS) is an academically-driven multi-country survey, which has been administered in over 35 countries to date.
Its three aims are, firstly – to monitor and interpret changing public attitudes and values within Europe and to investigate how they interact with Europe's changing institutions, secondly – to advance and consolidate improved methods of cross-national survey measurement in Europe and beyond, and thirdly – to develop a series of European social indicators, including attitudinal indicators.
The survey involves strict random probability sampling, a minimum target response rate of 70 percent and rigorous translation protocols. The hour-long face-to-face interview includes questions on a variety of core topics repeated from previous rounds of the survey and also two modules developed for Round 9 covering Justice and Fairness in Europe, and the Timing of Life.
The survey is carried out by participating countries every two years. Estonia's latest round of data is filed under round nine on the website, and fieldwork was undertaken between October 1, 2018 and February 3, 2019 (01.10.18 - 02.03.19) by Statistics Estonia. Respondents over the age of 15 participated from across the country and the answers are weighted to make the survey representative of society. The interviews were carried out in Estonian and Russian.
Questions were asked on the following subjects: trust, politics, social values. social exclusion, discrimination, religion, national identity, life course, justice and fairness
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom also participated in round nine.
Editor: Aili Vahtla