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Migration quota troubles politicians

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PHOTO: PantherMedia / Scanpix

Everyone admits that the quota system established back in the 1990s, according to which aliens are allowed to enter the country, is outdated. Officials of the Ministry of the Interior have offered solutions but since the subject is uncomfortable to politicians, Estonia is now facing a situation where the immigration quota has been met in the first half-year and nothing can be done to change it.

Social Democratic Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt admits that the law cannot be amended this year and no recommendation will allow labor from third countries enter Estonia. The immigration limit (0.1 percent of population or 1,317 individuals) will be reached any moment now and the Police and Border Guard Board will have to refuse granting residence permit, no matter how urgently needed the specialist may be. There is no place for them in Estonia.

That this is a likely outcome could be predicted already in 2016 when the quota was met for the first time before the end of the year.

But overcoming this impasse is politically complicated. Just like the implementation regulations of the cohabitation act, amending the outdated quota system has become stuck behind the absence of political will.

“Any issue of immigration is very sensitive before election. We have no agreement in the coalition”, Anvelt admitted. He considered even this an achievement that the coalition is actually discussing the issue. “Immigration is a strong card to play and an efficient weapon for some. It allows using the simple fear that aliens come and take your job away”, he added.

A working group formed of representatives of ministries, employers and trade unions as well as migration experts will convene in August to offer an alternative to the existing system.

No ideal option

The Ministry of the Interior submitted its own recommendations t the team last week.

According to the first one, the immigration quota could be dropped altogether. The government of the republic could have the right to limit the number of arriving aliens if needed. The other option would be to increase the quota to at least 0.3 percent of the population, which would mean that approximately 4,000 foreign workers could enter Estonia annually instead of 1,317.

“Considering the forecasts that the labor market is annually short of approximately 4,600 workers and that the immigration of economically active EU citizens remains at 1,100, the immigration of foreign labor from third countries, necessary for meeting the shortfall, is about 3,500 individuals per year”, the ministry’s analysis explains.

The government could also form a list of fields suffering from labor shortages, which could be then exempted from the quota. According to the Ministry of Economy and Communications, the current need mainly concerns motor vehicle drivers and top IT specialists. The latter were already exempted from the quota early this year.

Labor shortage also harasses natural and technical sciences, metalworking and engineering and health care. Aliens earning high salary, for instance double the national average could be exempted as well, the Ministry of the Interior recommends.

“Merely raising the quota would not work, since the construction business, for example, is constantly swinging up and down. Unemployment could emerge any moment there”, Anvelt said, adding that he cannot see an ideal solution among the above options.

The third option would be giving up the quota altogether and introducing an assessment system for labor from third countries. It would consider the immigrant’s age, education, qualification, command of languages, work experience and Estonia’s need for the profession. Such a system is used, for example, in Australia, in the USA and in Canada.

Estonia is currently using an “employer-based” system, which means that the employer has to make the first move. To start with, the employer has to seek for labor in Estonia or the EU. If this fails, the employer has to appeal to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for a permit to invite an alien with the required education and experience to the country.

The score system would mean that the first move would be made by the alien willing to move to Estonia. The individual would submit a residence permit application and would be assessed according to one’s qualities. The selected aliens could enter Estonia and seek for employment on their own.

In the opinion of the Ministry of the Interior, the score system should exist along side with the employer system. This would rule out cases where an alien considered necessary for the country would nevertheless go unemployed. This is what happened in Denmark, which used only the score system and gave it up last year.

The screen should not be too fine

Another touchstone for Estonia is that the screen may not be too fine; otherwise we would be stormed by unskilled labor from Ukraine instead of young and educated specialists. On the other hand, unskilled workers are needed as well.

Anvelt himself favors the score system, which should be finely tuned to Estonia’s needs with the help of sociologists. “That would increase the administrative effort, but we want these people to bring extra value to Estonia and therefore have to make our own investment to ensure as high quality of the immigrants as possible,” the minister says. He points out that the assessment of labor should not remain the business of the Police and Border Guard Board as it used to be.

“The Police and Border Guard Board should handle the security issues, check their background. There are security risks”, Anvelt admits. “Many come from the east, Russia or Ukraine. This is a significantly higher pressure for us than the Mediterranean refugee crisis.”

The new system could become a law only next spring at the earliest, the minister estimates. “There is no other way, it must be approved by the parliament and there must be a consensus, which satisfies the employers and is acceptable to the society”, he says.

According to predictions, the immigration quota will be met in 2018 by spring. Unless something changes, next years will begin with the met quota. “We have been prisoners to a single pattern for years. We have been deceiving ourselves for 25 years, exempting professions from the quota, but this has not relieved the problem”, Anvelt believes.

In the opinion of Toomas Tamsar, head of the Estonian Employers’ Confederation, the migration issue is of crucial importance. “The most serious problem of the Estonian economy in the coming years is the decline of available labor. The number of employees directly influences the financing of the health care, pension and social system. The shortage of workers also significantly influences the making of new investments in Estonia. It is therefore a matter of all Estonian residents’ welfare”, he stresses.

The quota system is in any case outdated, in his opinion. “Whether the score system would solve the problem is too early to say, but it is certainly positive that the minister is seeking for solutions”, Tamsar said.

The immigration quota was introduced in 1993 when it encompassed the majority of residence permits. The quota has been increased over years and most of the residence permits have been removed from under it. The limit currently concerns aliens seeking for residence permits for working, entrepreneurship or according to foreign contracts.

The quota has been 0.1 percent of Estonia’s permanent population during recent years. Last year saw it met for the first time. Just as last year, the 2017 quota is 1,317 individuals and according to it, 1,099 residence permits had been issued as of the end of past week; the rest are applications being processed.

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