Emigration in the Nordics: an overview since 1800s

Emigration has been a part of population mobility in the Nordic region for centuries. The numbers were generally very small until the mid-nineteenth century when a wide variety of 'push factors', such as limited farming opportunities, and 'pull factors', such as the promise of cheap or free land, led to mass migration from Norden. In the twenty-first century there has been relatively little out-migration, and it has been confined largely to specific groups such as those moving to other Nordic countries, the EU, or abroad to work.

Old water colour painting of people in a harbour area with ships in the background
Picture: Emigrants in Larsen's Square. Edvard Petersen, Public Domain (ARoS Aarhus Art Museum).

Emigration has been a part of population mobility in the Nordic region for centuries. However, until the mid-nineteenth century the numbers were generally very small. Typical emigrants included those who left their homelands to settle in one of the Nordic kingdoms’ colonial outposts such as the Danish West Indies or, between 1638 and about 1650, New Sweden in North America. Also, there has long been a trickle of sailors who jumped ship in foreign ports such as New York every year.

Mass emigration in 19th century

A period of mass emigration began around 1830 and continued at varying rates until the Second World War. During this time almost 300,000 Danes and a similar number of Finns, over 15,000 Icelanders, some 800,000 Norwegians, and about 1.3 million Swedes emigrated to Europe, North America, South America, Australia and elsewhere. Estimates vary, but approximately one-fifth or more of these emigrants eventually returned to their homelands.

The causes of this exodus are often arranged around a push-pull' model in which the specific factors or the weight given to them, as well as the profile of the typical emigrant, changes with place and time. Push factors included limited rural farming opportunities, complex pressures created by unprecedented population growth, relatively slow growth of non-farm job options, low wages, limits on religious freedom, discontent with the hierarchical societies of the times, discontent with relatively undemocratic political systems, military service obligations, religious intolerance, desire for adventure, and a host of personal problems. Pull factors included cheap or free land, jobs, higher wages, better social or political situations, religious freedom, and, once the process became established, settlements of countrymen/women that attracted new emigrants. Facilitating the process was information (contained in letters home from emigrants, books, pamphlets, and newspapers about the new land), government and business recruitment efforts, and relatively cheap transportation.

In the early decades of this mass migration, the emigrants tended to leave in groups, as was the case with the 1825 “sloopers” who left Norway to settle in New York state or the followers of Erik Jansson who left Sweden to found the Bishop Hill colony in Illinois. It is this kind of emigration that was captured in the four-volume fictional series by Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg. Later emigration tended to be by individuals, many of whom settled in urban areas. Many of these emigrants were probably actually “labour migrants” who had little intention of remaining in a new homeland permanently.

At least four factors contributed to the end this period of mass emigration including the improvement of conditions in the Nordic countries (industrial development, urbanization, and democratization), the enactment of restrictive immigration legislation in receiving countries, The Depression, and World War II.

Post-war emigration from the Nordics

After 1945, the emigration-immigration picture changed significantly in the Nordic countries. The area became a region of net in-migration, while emigration rates fell and remained relatively low until about 1970.  In the late twentieth century emigration rates rebounded, especially during the economic slowdowns of the early 1970s, early 1980s, and mid-1990s.

Post-1945 emigration has been similar to that of earlier periods in terms of causation and composition of the emigrant populations. Push-pull factors remain important. The largest emigrant cohorts in the post-war period have been made up of individuals moving from one Nordic country to another often as participants in the region's open labour market, or moving to another EU or EEA country to work or pursue educational opportunities. An important example of the first is the nearly half million Finns who emigrated to Sweden in this period. This outflow was driven primarily by employment and wage opportunities in Sweden and peaked especially in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Illustrating the second are the roughly 38,000 Swedish-born residents of the UK according to a 2017 estimate or the 80,000-plus in Norway.

There is also still extensive emigration to non-European destinations, with the USA as the most common. Some of this emigration also involves so-called ‘brain drain’ – the emigration of university-educated professionals attracted by the higher salaries offered elsewhere. Interestingly, the statistics seem to show that much of the emigration by native Scandinavians is short-term, a kind of career migration, and that re-migration rates are very high.

A fourth group of emigrants is made up of individuals and families who came to the Nordic region in a series of migration waves in the post-1945 period as immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. Among these are, for example, people from the Baltic states. Here, the key pull factors are improved economic and political situations in their native countries. Among the push factors are the xenophobia that is common in some areas in the Nordic countries, especially pronounced during economic downturns, and the difficulties accompanying integration. Even the most open of the Nordic countries, Denmark and Sweden, have become less welcoming than they were during the boom of the 1960s or the recovery of the 1990s. In this regard, it is worth noting the strongly anti-immigration political parties have developed throughout Scandinavia. Notably, the Sweden Democrats, who advocate an end to immigration and the deportation of many of Sweden's recent in-migrants. This party won nearly 20% of the vote in the September 2018 national elections.

Emigration from the Nordic region, as percentage of the total population, from 1990
1990 2000 2010 2018
Denmark 0,63% 0,81% 0,94% 1,19%
Faroe Islands 4,40% 3,04% 3,62% 2,53%
Greenland N/A 5,15% 4,70% 4,60%
Finland 0,13% 0,28% 0,22% 0,35%
Iceland 1,52% 1,25% 2,44% 2,25%
Norway 0,56% 0,60% 0,65% 0,70%
Sweden 0,30% 0,38% 0,52% 0,46%

Source: https://www.nordicstatistics.org

Further reading:

  • Å. Nilsson, Efterkrigstidens invandring och utvandring [Postwar immigration and emigration] (Stockholm: Statistiska centralbyrån, 2004).