Suletud uksed: Eesti Vabariigi sisserändepoliitika 1920. aastatel [Abstract: Closing doors: the immigration policy of the Republic of Estonia in the 1920s]


  • Helen Rohtmets



Keywords: immigration, labor migration, Estonia, 1920s. This article studies the Estonian immigration policy of the 1920s in comparison with immigration policies implemented in other European states at that time. The aim of the article is to determine the principles influencing decisions made regarding the immigration of foreigners – that is, citizens of other states as well as persons without citizenship as a result of the First World War. In brief, the implementation of immigration controls in Europe after the end of the First World War can be explained both by economic and political factors. First, most European countries faced an economic breakdown leading to increasing unemployment rates and shortages of consumables. Thus European authorities did not welcome newcomers, who would most likely face unemployment in the receiving countries and become an additional burden to already overloaded welfare systems. However, the introduction of strict immigration restrictions for foreigners searching for jobs or residence after the end of the war has also been associated with the Great War itself, in that it inflamed nationalistic hatred among belligerents and thus had an influence on the general rise of nationalism and xenophobia in the post-war years. As this study has shown, the Estonian immigration policy did not differ much from the practice implemented in other European nation-states at that time. Like the majority of other “new” states that were established in Europe as a result of the First World War, Estonia was heavily suffering from economic breakdown in the early 1920s. The influence of rising unemployment and food shortages can be seen in the restrictive immigration policy. The desire of the Estonian authorities to control and stop the inflow of foreign citizens seeking jobs in Estonia can be seen both in limitations set for the issuance of entry permits as well as permissions to reside within the state’s territory. A direct correlation between the worsening of the economic situation and the introduction of restrictions on the immigration of foreigners can be distinguished. The most strenuous attempts to restrict the immigration of foreign citizens to Estonia were made during the years directly following the proclamation of independence, and again in 1923 when the economy was hit with a new depression. However, the influence of ethnic relations in Estonia on the formation of the immigration policy cannot be neglected. Although Estonia is known for its liberal minority policy, the loyalty of minorities – and especially of those who had belonged to the former power elites – was doubted in Estonian administrative circles in the early 1920s. Thus, the restrictions set on the immigration of persons belonging to certain ethnic groups (i.e. Russians or Germans) could also be associated with the unwillingness of the Estonian authorities to increase their numbers in Estonia. However, the restrictive policy could also be explained by attempts to stand against “nepotism” in the industrial and banking sectors (e.g., to avoid the recruitment of German rather than Estonian citizens to businesses run by the local Baltic-Germans). Several problems were also associated with the immigration of Russian refugees, whose number in Estonia has been estimated to exceed 20,000 in the early 1920s. Similarly to loyalty risks associated with the influx of communists, the loyalty of White Russians who had fought for the re-establishment of the Russian empire was seriously doubted in Estonian political circles, leading to strict surveillance of their activities in Estonia by the local police authorities as well as to restrictions set for their entry. Although refugees already residing in the state’s territory were treated differently from other persons who were not holding Estonian citizenship (e.g., they were not expelled from Estonia and were given limited unemployment benefits), their further influx was nearly banned in 1923. In all, it can be said that Estonia, similarly to other “new” European states, was suffering immense economic hardships after the end of the First World War, and the economic and security interests of the state were kept in mind by the Estonian political circles when forming the immigration policy in the 1920s. As a result, restrictions on the immigration of foreigners were introduced in order to favor the recruitment of Estonian citizens in the local labor market. Helen Rohtmets (b. 1977) is a Ph.D. student at the Institute of History and Archaeology, University of Tartu.


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