Quarterly 1/2017 |  04/03/2017Netta Mäki

Asylum seekers expected to have little impact on the growth of Helsinki’s foreign-language population

The number of residents speaking a foreign mother tongue – other than Finnish, Swedish or Sami – has increased rapidly in Helsinki over the past few years. At the beginning of 2016, this number stood at 88,000, out of a total population of 628,208. Their share of the total population has increased correspondingly. While in 1990 only 1.3 per cent of Helsinki residents were foreign-language speakers, the proportion increased to 5.4 percent in 2000 and 14 per cent at the beginning of 2016. The rise in the number and population share of foreign-language speakers is predicted to continue.

The latest projection regarding the foreign-language speaking population in Helsinki and the Helsinki region was published in the autumn of 2015. An added challenge for preparing the projection was imposed by the rapid increase in asylum seekers, which began late in the summer and continued for the rest of the year. For this reason, two alternative growth scenarios were projected based on differing estimates regarding the development in the amount of asylum seekers. In addition, a ‘zero’ (0) scenario was calculated. It did not take into account the rapid growth that began in the summer of 2015 but expected the number of asylum seekers to develop in accordance with the trends witnessed in 2010–2014. During this five-year period, the annual average number of asylum seekers stood at approximately 3,500.

The basic growth and fast growth scenarios of the population projection were based on the assessments of the Ministry of the Interior and the Finnish Immigration Service on future numbers of asylum seekers, residence permits granted and family reunification applications. The basic growth scenario assumed that 35,000 asylum seekers would arrive in Finland in 2015; 30,000 in 2016; and another 10,000 in 2017. After this, the number would settle at the 2014 level – in other words, approximately 3,600 asylum seekers per year. The rapid growth scenario assumed that the numbers of asylum seekers between 2015 and 2017 would be the same as with the basic scenario but would continue at an annual rate of 10,000 asylum seekers also after 2018.

Furthermore, the projection assumed that every third applicant would receive a residence permit and that approximately 50 per cent of the permit-holders would end up in the Helsinki Region. Among the latter group, half would settle in the city of Helsinki. The family reunification applications are also expected to bring in family members of the asylum seekers with a few years’ delay. The model, concept and definitions of the projection are described more specifically in the publication “Projection of the foreign-language population in the Helsinki Region for 2015–2030” (Helsingin seudun vieraskielisen väestön ennuste 2015–2030), published by City of Helsinki Urban Facts.

By March 2016, the number of asylum seekers had decreased to the level of March 2015, and in June and July there were fewer asylum seekers than at the same time in the previous year. Since it now seems that the increase in the number of asylum seekers may have been largely a temporary phenomenon, the projection’s ‘zero scenario’ has been found to be more realistic than expected.

Foreign-language population will continue strong growth in Helsinki

The basic scenario of the projection suggests that, by 2030, the number of foreign-language speakers will increase from the current 88,000 to nearly 164,000, and their share of the total population will climb to 23 per cent. The entire population of Helsinki is predicted to increase by 81,000 people by 2030, and foreign- language speakers would constitute 76,000 of this number, equalling 90 per cent of the growth.

These figures can be compared to the zero-alternative scenario, which was calculated based on asylum seeker numbers in 2010–2014, without the rapid increase in asylum seekers that began in the summer of 2015. As per this scenario, the number of foreign language speakers in Helsinki and the share of the population in 2030 would stand at approximately 156,000 and 22 per cent. This proportion – 22 per cent –  is only one percentage point lower than under the basic growth alternative.

In other words, the number of asylum seekers would seem to have little effect on the total number of incoming foreign-language speakers. There are many reasons for this. First, a relatively small proportion of asylum seekers ultimately gain asylum or receive a residence permit for Finland. As mentioned above, it is estimated that about one fourth of those who receive a residence permit in all of Finland eventually settle in Helsinki. In relation to the number of foreign-language speakers already living in Helsinki, this number is fairly low. Even for those arriving from outside the European Union, the reasons for immigration are mostly connected to family (for example, marriage with a Finn or a permanent resident of Finland), studies and work. The grounds for granting a resident permit have to do with family-related reasons in one third of the cases, studies for one third, and work in every fourth case. The division is likely to be similar in Helsinki. Moreover, immigration is expected to increase from geographical areas that people typically leave for the above reasons. This means that the increase in asylum seekers that we have witnessed so far would not be very significant. The third reason is related to the structure of the foreign-language population. In the future, an increasing number of foreign language speakers will be Finnish-born and not first generation immigrants. The number of foreign-language speakers is then, in part, increased by young people who have been born in Finland and who have, for instance, gone through Finnish education system.

Asylum seekers will have significant impact only on one language group

Based on the above, it can be concluded that the impact of asylum seekers on the future total size of Helsinki’s foreign-language population is likely to remain low. When looking at the projected proportions of different language groups, we may observe that the effect mainly concerns people speaking Middle Eastern and North African languages.

By 2030, the numbers of people speaking all the languages listed in Figure 3 will be greater than now. For example, the number of Russian-speakers, who constitute the largest group of people with a foreign mother tongue, will increase by more than 10,000, and the increase in speakers of Western European languages will be more than 9,000. As regards the countries in the left-hand panel of Figure 3 (Western Europe, Russia and the Baltic States), the zero alternative is virtually identical with the basic growth scenario – very few asylum seekers come from these countries.

The differences between the basic growth and the zero alternative of the projection are the most pronounced regarding those who speak Middle Eastern and North African languages. The basic growth scenario postulates that the speakers of these languages (a total of 10,000 people in 2015) would increase by over 21,000; as per the zero alternative, the growth would be over 6,000 people smaller. The number of people speaking Asian and African languages will increase by approximately 15,000 and 13,000 people, respectively, but the difference between the basic growth and the zero alternative of the projection is no more than slightly over 500 people.

The relative proportions of the language groups will change, but this is the outcome in both the basic growth and the zero scenario in the projection (Figure 4). The share of Russian, Baltic languages and Western European languages among all foreign languages will be lower than it currently is. For example, the proportion of Russian-speakers will drop from slightly less than 22 per cent to approximately 17 per cent, while the number of people speaking Baltic languages will decrease from 15 per cent to 11.6. In the zero scenario (that is, where immigrants would have arrived in accordance with the 2010–2014 trend), the proportions of all these language groups would be about half a percentage point higher.

According to the basic scenario, the proportion of people who speak other Asian languages than Middle Eastern will increase slightly less than two per cent from the current level of approximately 15 per cent. Meanwhile, the zero alternative puts this growth at half a percentage point higher. Regarding the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, the basic alternative postulates that the proportion of people speaking these languages would climb from 13 to 14.7 per cent, while the zero alternative assumes that it will end up at 15 per cent. The largest change is predicted to occur in the proportion of people speaking Middle Eastern and North African languages. The basic scenario projects that the proportion will increase from approximately 13 per cent to 19.6 per cent. Even in the zero alternative, the share would increase to 16.6 per cent.

Concluding remarks

The number of foreign language speakers will increase rapidly in Helsinki. This will occur even if the rapid growth of asylum seekers that began late in the summer of 2015 is only temporary. The reasons for immigration are largely related to other factors than refugees. In addition, an increasing number of foreign-language speakers will be persons who were born in Finland and who have, for instance, completed an education in Finland. As a result, the population speaking a foreign mother tongue will be at least somewhat different in 2030 compared to the present.

It is also worth bearing in mind that immigrants are primarily working-age people. The number of working-age citizens has turned to a decline in Finland in the 2010s, and the drop would be even steeper without the migration gain from abroad. In Helsinki and the Helsinki Region labour market area, the development has been similar, although domestic migration has slowed down the decrease of working-age people among the native population. In 2015, the demographic dependency ratio (the ratio of 014-year-old dependants and over 65-year-olds to working-age people 1564 years of age) stood at 0.46 dependants for each working-age person among the native population. The same ratio was 0.26 among foreign-language speakers. In 2030, the dependency ratio is expected to be 0.53 for the entire population and 0.60 for speakers of domestic languages. The demographic dependency ratio calculated for foreign-language speakers is predicted to be as low as 0.32 in 2030. In other words, the younger age structure of the foreign-language population will counteract the negative development in the overall dependency ratio. From the perspective of future labour markets, it is therefore absolutely essential to secure sufficient resources for integrating the foreign-born population.

Netta Mäki, DSocSc, is Researcher at City of Helsinki Urban Facts.


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