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Article |  12/29/2020Pasi Saukkonen

Immigration to and integration in Helsinki

Because of international mobility, Helsinki, the capital of Finland, has become increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Therefore, the integration of immigrants and their descendants has also grown in importance. While Finnish integration policy has been lauded as one of the best in its class, in actual life it is rarely what it looks like on paper.

Helsinki as a destination of international migration

In terms of post-war immigration, Finland is similar to no other country. When the other Nordic countries started recruiting foreign labour to remedy labour shortage, Finland still was a country people left in search of a better life, mostly to the neighbouring Sweden. Immigration started to increase in the late 1980s, in connection with the transformation and eventually collapse of the Soviet Union. The change from a country of emigration to a country of immigration took place at the same time in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. However, whereas many newcomers in those countries came to work, in Finland the largest groups to arrive were Ingrian remigrants [1], Somali asylum seekers, and spouses and family members from Estonia and the Soviet Union, later Russia. Labour migration to Finland only started to significantly increase after Estonia joined the European Union, in 2004. (OECDa 2018; Saukkonen 2016a.)

In many countries, immigrants have largely concentrated in the big cities. In this case, Finland makes no exception. From the very beginning, the share of newcomers of the whole population was higher in Helsinki and the larger capital region than elsewhere, and the difference between the metropolitan area and the rest of Finland has only grown during the last three decades. Many foreigners who arrive in Finland and first settle in other parts of the country finally move to Helsinki or to the neighbouring two larger cities, Espoo and Vantaa. In 2019, the population share of those born abroad was 14.6% in Helsinki and 7.3% in Finland as a whole. In Helsinki, the number of foreign-born population was 87,551, in Espoo 42,685 and in Vantaa 38,347. Roughly half of all those born abroad lived in the capital region. (Statistics Finland.)  [2]

People with background in the Soviet Union or Russia still make the largest group, and Russian-speakers are by far the largest new language minority [3].  The number of Estonians and Estonian-speakers has increased considerably during the last fifteen years but the situation has recently stabilized. Some Estonians already settled in Finland have actually moved back to their original home country where the standard of living has gradually improved. The Somali community is also noteworthy, especially taking into account the children born in Finland to parents born abroad. The number of those with an Iraqi background increased after 2015-2016 when Finland received what was one of Europe’s largest numbers of asylum seekers in relation to country size. There are people from almost all of the world’s countries in contemporary Helsinki, but many of these groups are quite small.

Finnish integration policy development

Finnish response to increasing immigration was relatively swift, while many countries in Western Europe had waited for decades to recognize the changing demographic structures and the needs of immigrants for support in the early phases of settling in. The first national Act on the Integration of Immigrants and Reception of Asylum Seekers came into force in 1999 but some local communities, the City of Helsinki among them, had already started their own efforts to smooth the settlement. The early practices were often based on the experiences gathered during the small-scale arrival of Chilean and Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the 1980s, and on examples provided by other northern European countries. The Act was revised in 2010 without major changes in the guiding principles. Since then, integration services have been, in theory, available for all newcomers irrespective of the reason for migration. The reception of asylum seekers is now regulated in a separate act. (OECDa 2018; Saukkonen 2016a.)

The Finnish integration policy is in harmony with the basic principles for immigrant integration accepted in the European Union in 2004 [4].  Integration is understood as a two-way process that requires adaptation from both those that arrive and from the native population and Finnish national and local social institutions and welfare services. Integration in Finland also includes the right to maintain own language, culture and identity while participating in the host society. Employment is in the core of the integration process but incorporation to the Finnish society is also perceived as a multidimensional, long-term development.

In some countries, there have been clear differences between the national and the local level approach to immigrant integration (cf., Bosswick & Heckmann 2006; Caponio & Borkert 2010; Scholten 2015). In Germany, many cities recognized the consequences of immigration much earlier than the federal level which only very reluctantly admitted the transformation of the country to ein Einwanderungsland. In France, many local communities had been much less strict than the nation to require of newcomers one-way assimilation to the French society. In Denmark, differences between the national and also nationalist Danish policy and the more liberal and tolerant Copenhagen policy have often been obvious.

In Finland, the municipalities enjoy of a large degree of autonomy, and the integration legislation leaves much leeway for local communities to decide upon their approach. Nevertheless, despite some nuances, the three cities of the capital region have a relatively similar approach that also coincides with the main objectives of the national level. This congruence probably is a result of a shared understanding of the situation and of the challenges involved. The main actors in the field work in close interaction, and there has been, at least so far, little politicisation of integration issues with the exception of the right-wing populists represented by the Finns Party. (Saukkonen 2017.)

Immigrant integration in Helsinki and Finland

In recent years, international debate on integration has strongly emphasised that integration above all takes place at the local level (OECD 2018b). Recent studies give us an opportunity to examine the state of immigrant integration in the City of Helsinki at the moment. By integration, we here mean finding one’s place and active participation in society and the local community, the feeling of being included and having a sense of belonging. Integration thus takes place at different spheres of life that can be clustered, for example, as structural, cultural, social and identificational dimensions of securing one’s place in society. (Cf., Heckmann 2005; Garcés-Mascareñas & Penninx 2016; Saukkonen 2016b.)

The picture of immigrant integration reveals both good news and some causes for worry. Helsinki’s foreign-background population is also very diverse. For almost anything that can be said about them, the opposite argument can also be made. In the light of statistics, a large proportion of those with a foreign background do well in most fields of life. Indeed, much positive development has taken place in pace with, for example, the duration of stay in Finland. Employment rate has become higher, language skills have improved, social relations have been established, identification with Finland has increased. (Nieminen, Sutela & Hannula 2015; Saukkonen & Peltonen 2018.)

Nonetheless, Helsinki resembles many other cities of immigration in the world in the sense that some immigrants – and their children – have difficulties in finding their place in society. This shortcoming is most visible in their struggling to enter the job market. Those with a refugee background, in particular, but also many family migrants, belong to the labour force less often, and their unemployment rate is higher. Unwanted low economic activity is lamentable for immigrants and their families, but it also has negative consequences for the City of Hel¬sinki and Finnish society. Having a job that does not correspond to one’s qualifications is also worryingly common among immigrants. (Saukkonen 2018; Saukkonen & Peltonen 2018, Jasmin & Luukko 2018.)

Finding a job is often the key to successful integration in other arenas of life, too. But not always. In some cases, immigrants have to have their life otherwise in order before even trying to find a job. The total picture is more complicated than often imagined. Many immigrants who go to work may simultaneously have problems with the social, cultural and identity-related part of integration. At the same time, some of those who are unemployed or outside working life may have learned Finnish or Swedish well, for example. They can also have a large social network and a close relationship to Helsinki and Finland. (Kazi, Kaihovaara & Alitolppa-Niitamo 2019.)

Active citizenship is also important. Especially those who have moved to Finland from other EU member states do not always have an interest in acquiring Finnish nationality. Although most public services are at the disposal of foreign nationals, participation in decision-making tends to be limited among them. This said, a positive trend can be seen at local elections in terms of both voting and of running as a candidate. At the latest elections, particularly Helsinki Somalis participated actively. But as a rule, those with a for-eign background are still clearly under-represented in politics. (Sipinen & Wass 2018; Sipinen 2020.)

Compared with the rest of the population, those with a foreign background often live in crowded homes. Many of them cannot afford buying a home of their own, and those in particular who belong to refugee groups often live in social housing. A growing proportion of the homeless in Helsinki have been born abroad. The consequences of international migration can nowadays be observed in a growing number of neighbourhoods in Helsinki, and ethnic-cultural differentiation between neighbourhoods has also continued. In comparison with corresponding Nordic cities, segregation in Helsinki is still moderate. (Hirvonen 2019)

A large proportion of those residents in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area who have a foreign background feel they are part of the Finnish society. The level of trust in public authorities and social institutions is, as a rule, high. Identification with Finnish culture and nationality is, however, more difficult. Even among those born in Finland, some do not feel they are Finnish. Feeling of affinity with one’s own background country or ethnic-cultural community is often easier. Those, in particular, who do not come from other Western countries, often lack the kind of social ties that reach all the way to those with a Finnish background. (Pitkänen, Saukkonen & Westinen 2020.)

Of those with a foreign background but born in Finland, a large proportion are still children or adolescents. In countries and cities with a longer history of immigration it is a known fact that children of immigrants often have more problems at school and with achieving a degree, or with finding a job, than do the rest of the population (cf. OECD & European Union 2018). Signs of such difficulties appear in Finland as well. For example, school performance of pupils belonging to this so-called second generation lags behind their peers without the foreign background (Harju-Luukkainen, Tarnanen, Nissinen & Vettenranta 2017). Many of them also suffer from discrimination and even racism.

Opportunities abound, challenges ahead

According to the newest population forecast for the Helsinki Region, the foreign-background proportion of the population would more than double by 2035. Their number would reach 437,000 by then, and they would make up one-quarter of the region’s entire population. Of all residents with a foreign background in the region, the share of Helsinki would be about 45 per cent. The proportion of those with a foreign mother tongue in the city’s population growth would be 83 per cent, corresponding to around 100,000. Today, a large proportion of Helsinki’s immigrant population consists of people with a European background. By 2035, however, the number of those with a background in Africa, the Middle East or the rest of Asia would have increased substantially. (City of Helsinki Executive Office, City of Espoo & City of Vantaa 2019.)

Thus, fifteen years from now, the City of Helsinki will be increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and otherwise multi-cultural. Many immigrants will have lived in Finland for decades, whereas others have arrived only recently. Many children of immigrants are already young adults in the process of finishing their studies and entering working life, and their share of city residents belonging to their age group has grown remarkably. New minorities have taken root, and many of them have consolidated their collective activities. Much of cultural diversity can be observed only in the private sphere but a lot is also publicly visible.

This development entails new challenges for Helsinki, but it also provides the city with many opportunities. Through the roots and networks of newcomers and their descendants, the city becomes increasingly connected to the rest of the world. The rest of the world is also continuously present in Helsinki city life, and this can be an asset in Finnish science, culture and business. Creativity flourishes in circumstances of diversity. A peripheral geographical situation does not matter much if there is a broad and solid knowledge basis about developments elsewhere around the globe and if information flows smoothly back and forth.

At the same time, however, increasing pluralism makes it necessary for Helsinki, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and the whole of Finland to learn what it takes to live side by side in conditions of ethnic and cultural diversity. Shared rules and common identity are needed to guarantee peaceful living together while respecting the liberties and cultural rights of individuals. Providers of public services will have to consider how best to safeguard the accessibility of services and the equal treatment of all.

There are also obvious risks related to demographic and local segregation. Poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, political passivity, poor health, are all problematic individually. The situation is much more serious if these disadvantages are intertwined and form multi-dimensional social deprivation. If these difficulties are finally linked with certain geographical areas within the city, this phenomenon can become a wicked problem that the city has to struggle hard to get rid of.

Towards proper implementation

As mentioned, Finland and the City of Helsinki reacted swiftly to increased immigration in the 1990s. Furthermore, the international comparison of integration policies, MIPEX, has evaluated the Finnish policy as one of the best in its class [5].  In recent years, the City of Helsinki has also increased its efforts to support integration and enhance the realization of equity and equality. The most recent local integration programme for 2017–2021 includes ambitious goals regarding competitiveness through immigration, fighting social disparity, active participation of all, and effective education and learning. The Education Division of the City also prepared it first Development Plan for Immigrant Education in 2017 [6]

However, I am personally of the opinion that the main shortcoming in Finnish integration policy for a long time has been its insufficient, otherwise limited, or too fragmented implementation. This issue can be divided into two parts. Firstly, even though the original point of departure conceives integration as a two-way, two-track policy aiming at long-term improvement and development, in reality the approach is much narrower. Policy practices are mainly targeted at immigrants only, not the whole of society. Little attention has been paid to the maintenance of language or culture that makes the policy more assimilationist than it might seem at first glance. Employment as soon as possible after settling in in Finland has been prioritized high above other issues.

From basic principles to concrete realization, Finnish integration policy is pressed through a funnel, as it were, and it has become almost unrecognizable by the narrow end.

Secondly, integration measures have often been implemented half-heartedly, otherwise inadequately or without sufficient funding. The initial assessments that are used to determine whether somebody needs integration services should be available for all irrespective of the reason for moving to Finland. In fact, these mappings of skills and competences mainly been carried out only for the registered job seekers and those that receive basic income support. These assessments and the following personal or family integration plans guiding to integration services are also usually too short and sketchy to truly build a path forward. Waiting times for language courses and other education have, at times, been much too long, and the groups of students too heterogeneous to fulfil their tasks. Many activities are run on a project-basis, often forcing the organizers to invent something else when the funding period ends. Evaluations are scarce, and discussion about the results of evaluations almost non-existent.

In order to improve the situation both at the national and the local level, some suggestions can be made, based on international experiences and relevant literature. In order to bring clarity to the discussion regarding the matter, there should be a clear conceptual distinction between integration as a broad phenomenon and the activities aiming at supporting newcomers during their first years of stay. There should also be a more explicit vision about the most important areas of integration public authorities should concentrate their efforts on. Policy objectives should be formulated so as to enable proper evaluation of the results and effectiveness of integration policy measures. To avoid half-hearted and therefore inefficient realization, the implementation of integration policy must be sufficiently resourced.

Pasi Saukkonen is Senior Researcher at the City of Helsinki Executive Office. He holds adjunct professorships in the University of Helsinki and the University of Jyväskylä.

This article is based on Saukkonen’s recent publications in Finnish (Pitkänen, Saukkonen & Westinen 2019a; 2019b; Saukkonen 2020a; 2020b; 2020c). See also the website Population with Foreign Background in Helsinki:

[1] The concept of an Ingrian remigrant refers to citizens in the former Soviet Union that are of Finnish origin. Based on their Finnish descent, they were in the early 1990s given the right to move to Finland.

[2] Statistics Finland has a specific website for immigrants and integration:

[3] In fact, Russian speakers are also a traditional language minority in Finland. Their number was, however, relatively small before the increase in immigration in the 1990s.

The Common Basic Principles for Immigrant Integration Policy in the EU can be downloaded from here:

The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) is a tool for measuring policies to integrate migrants in all EU Member countries, other European countries, and countries in Asia, North America, South America, and Oceania.

These programmes in English can be downloaded at,


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