Today in Tallinn there was a demonstration against mass immigration. Recently there has been a debate on how many refugees Estonia should take. This and other reasons have caused a surge in nationalism in Estonia (which is also happening all over Europe and still in the US). I find it unfortunate that there still exists such negative feelings towards immigrants and refugees. For an immigrant like me it is not easy to just brush off all the fear mongering. When an anti-immigration party runs on specific policy proposals such as not letting foreigners buy real estate or land I take it personally. As a white male from America who speaks Estonian I have it pretty easy though. Often I think about what my experience would have been like if my background was different. It is for those people that I feel the need to stand up and take a stand. So for all those readers out there, if you meet an immigrant or refugee today give him or her a big hug and make them feel welcome in whatever country you live in.
Why should Estonia be open to immigrants and refugees? here are a few reasons: (Note, I am intentionally avoiding the long and depressing conversation on the negative impact the West has had on many developing countries from which many immigrants come. Failed interventions, sanctions, and exploitive trade and financial regimes would make this post too depressing).
1. During the aftermath of WWII and the illegal Soviet Occupation, the world accepted Estonian refugees with open arms. Many of those Estonians and their desendents live prosperous and happy lives in Canada, Sweden, Australia, and the United States. Many kept their identity and returned to Estonia including President Ilves who was born in Sweden and grew up in New Jersey. For Estonia to reject refugees after having been the benefactor of global good will would be hypocritical and would have significant moral consequences.
2. Solidarity. Estonia loves to get billions from the EU in structural funds which fund roads, schools, hospitals, infrastructure and much more. When Estonia is asked to make some minor contribution (loan to Greece, accommodating 200 refugees) the Estonian public goes bonkers. I wonder how many protesters took a nice air conditioned bus or a modern train to the protest today?
3. Immigration is a two way road. While Estonia has done better than anyone could have expected after the restoration of statehood, the transition was still rough. The minimum wage (which is actually taxed!) is just 390 euros a month. Prices are only slightly cheaper than most other European countries. Life for low wage workers is tough which is one reason why so many people have left Estonia. Many go to Finland, but others to Ireland, the UK, Australia, and quite frankly anywhere. I don't think I know a single Estonian who does not have a family member or a close friend who has left the country. One person I know was living in Burma for the last few years working as a teacher in a private school making way more than Estonian teachers. Burma! Young Estonians often uproot and leave for educational or vocational reasons. There are two lessons to learn from this. 1. Estonia is running out of people, this is especially true in the country side. Eerik-Niles Kross had a good article on this topic that stressed this point. 2. Estonia gets a ton of money from foreign workers. Anyone who has taken the boat to Finland can see all the workers leaving on Sunday night or Monday morning and coming back on Friday. All that money earned in Finland comes back to Estonia. How can Estonians reap the benefits of immigration but then not be open for immigration?
Also, it would be prudent for Estonia to take in people who actually want to live here. This is a key element of solving the demographic problem. Unless Estonians want to work until they are 75, a larger and more efficient work force needs to take shape. If immigration is not part of the answer then the other option is a very expensive policy of paying their own citizens to have more kids and supporting those kids. Currently Estonia pays for: maternity leave for 18 months, child support payments for 18 years, health and dental care, kindergarten (2-6 years old, elementary school (7-19), and college including master level. This is a very large investment that the Estonian government makes and what happens if that person moves to Finland as many are doing? Even with these expensive policies, birth rates are not as high as they need to be to solve the demographic problem. On the other hand, Estonia doesn't pay anything for the birth or education of an immigrant. They come ready to work and pay taxes.
So the next time you see an immigrant give him or her a nice hug, they might need it and probably deserve it.