Britain leaving the European Union in the middle of a global pandemic has prompted some people to make big decisions. For Claire Bates, it meant moving to Finland almost by accident. The big move came about when she did not return from a holiday in July.
"It was a life-changing decision, but I felt I had to make it right there and then," she says.
She came to Finland in July, under the assumption she was coming for a two-week holiday - but she ended up staying and never going back to the UK.
She says the coronavirus pandemic played a big part in her decision to move to Finland, despite only having known her Finnish boyfriend for a short time.
"I am very reliant on my partner as I do not have a job yet and I don’t speak Finnish. Things are uncertain for me also in Finland, but I feel like there’s no future for me in the UK," she says. Bates has made plans to start studying, and does not regret her decision to move to Finland.
In mid-March, the Finnish government suggested Finnish expats should consider whether to stay abroad or return to Finland.
The call was primarily answered by older people who had retired in warmer climates, but it also struck a chord with some younger people living in less stable countries that struggled to contain Covid.
The government call-out worked. Although overall immigration to Finland has slowed down during the coronavirus crisis, the number of Finnish citizens returning to their home country from abroad has increased, according to the Finnish Immigration Service, Migri.
In the UK, the looming Brexit transition period deadline was causing confusion and an uncertain future.
According to Tuomas Hovi, Senior Researcher at the Migration Institute of Finland, Brexit has brought a level of uncertainty to Finns in the United Kingdom. "For many, the uncertainty has been too much to bear, and many people are considering returning to Finland."
Hovi is currently conducting a study titled ‘The Changing Nature of Being an Expatriate Finn’, which examines who today’s expatriate Finns are, and how they have been affected by the coronavirus and Brexit, for example.
The results of the study will be published in the spring, but Hovi said he can already reveal Brexit has played a big part in people’s future plans. One-third of respondents said Brexit has meant they are more likely to consider moving away from the UK.
"From the responses, it is evident that the prospect of long-term uncertainty is proving too much for many people. In addition, many respondents describe feeling like they no longer belong in the UK, or that they do not feel welcome," Hovi explains.
That's certainly the case for Rasmus Almqvist, who had been living in London since 2015. His aim was to settle down in the country and live there for the foreseeable future. The Brexit vote came as a complete shock to him.
"Suddenly, it felt much more personal. Statistically, just over half of my colleagues had voted for change, and for restrictions to limit freedom of movement, for example. This sparked a level of unease and distrust in my mind," he says.
Almqvist felt his liberties – and his kids’ chance to succeed in the United Kingdom – became increasingly limited.
"Quite frankly, it felt as if we were second-class citizens," he states. He wanted to be the maker of his own future, and so the family started planning a return to Finland. "It felt like a silent protest. I had no say in the Brexit vote, so the only way to get my voice heard was to vote with my feet and leave the country with my family."
Almqvist has been back in Finland for over a year, and feels sad for his friends and colleagues still in the United Kingdom. He feels there are more opportunities to grow a career in Finland – although in the UK, the bar for how far the career can go would be set a lot higher.
Jenni Råback’s story is very similar: she had moved to the United Kingdom in 2011 and had decided to settle there for a long time – if not forever. The Brexit referendum result took her by surprise, as she felt she had been living in her own little bubble in London.
"I had not realised people felt so strongly about certain issues. All of a sudden, people were shouting derogatory things to me on the street, calling me a Polish whore, for example. This new development, along with the last general election result, felt like the last straw," she says.
In her opinion, politically, the United Kingdom turned inward and became more insular, and Råback started to make plans to move to Finland. As she tried to register her Settled Status, the å-letter in her surname caused a mix-up with the registration, and the process was drawn out and complicated.
"It felt very symbolic: the foreign character in my name was not recognised by the Home Office’s computer system, and it caused a lot of issues," she recounts.
Along with Finns returning home, some Brits are also looking to secure EU residency before the door closes at the end of the transition period.
In total, there are about 5,000 British citizens currently living in Finland and they have been urged to apply for a right of residence under the withdrawal agreement, which secures their residence, employment and social security in Finland for life.
The Finnish Immigration Service stated EU-registrations by British citizens had doubled in 2019 compared to the previous year, and the figure is expected to be even higher this year.
Finnish citizenship has been granted to more British people since the Brexit vote than in the previous 20 years combined.
Matthew Campbell arrived in Finland from the UK at the end of October with his Finnish wife. However, as an Irish citizen, his right to live and work in Finland is secure.
Even so, both the pandemic and Brexit played a part in their decision to leave the UK.
"We both had good jobs in the UK, but wanted to try out life in Finland, as there seems to be a better work-life balance here," he says.
Brexit brought along a lot of insecurity about the future, and the couple decided they wanted to leave the country before the end of the Brexit transition period. Even though his wife had already applied for Settled Status to secure her right to remain in the UK, the couple felt their life would improve – especially with the added stress of the pandemic – by moving. The couple have now settled in Kajaani, in northern Finland.
Despite the best-laid plans, not everyone has managed to get to Finland before Brexit takes full effect.
Dual Finnish-British citizen Anna* and her young family had made plans to try and beat the Brexit transition period deadline of 31 December 2020, and booked flights from London to Helsinki for 30 December. However, the new flight-ban from the UK to Finland has now hampered her plans.
"I had hoped arriving in Finland just before the Brexit deadline would make the registration process easier for my partner who is a British citizen – but alas, it looks like we will be stuck in the UK for a bit longer than we thought," she says.
* We are only using Anna's first name as she has not yet made the move.