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Demography. 2009 August; 46(3): 575–587.
PMCID: PMC2831340

Forced Migration and Mortality in the Very Long Term: Did Perestroika Affect Death Rates Also in Finland?


In this article, we analyze mortality rates of Finns born in areas that were ceded to the Soviet Union after World War II and from which the entire population was evacuated. These internally displaced persons are observed during the period 1971–2004 and compared with people born in the same region but on the adjacent side of the new border. We find that in the 1970s and 1980s, the forced migrants had mortality rates that were on par with those of people in the comparison group. In the late 1980s, the mortality risk of internally displaced men increased by 20% in relation to the expected time trend. This deviation, which manifests particularly in cardiovascular mortality, coincides with perestroika and the demise of the Soviet Union, which were events that resulted in an intense debate in civil society about restitution of the ceded areas. Because state actors were reluctant to engage, the debate declined after some few years, and after the mid-1990s, the death risk again approached the long-term trend. Our findings indicate that when internally displaced persons must adjust to situations for which appropriate coping behaviors are unknown, psychosocial stress might arise several decades after their evacuation.

Large-scale population displacements often occur in relation to wars. This has been the case also for Finland. According to the Paris peace treaty after World War II, the country had to relinquish approximately 10% of its territory to the Soviet Union (see Figure 1). The population that was evacuated from this area during the period 1940–1945 could therefore not return home after the war and was relocated elsewhere in Finland. The internally displaced persons, who primarily were farmers, amounted to over 420,000 persons, or about 12% of the country’s total population. The settlement of these Karelians was a large economic burden for the entire postwar agrarian Finland, in addition to the substantial amount of war reparations the country had to pay to the Soviet Union. All families had the right to receive a new homestead, and were allocated new land in proportion to their former property (Pihkala 1952; Virtanen 2006). As they prepared themselves for permanent existence in new surroundings and were expected to engage in all facets of economic, social, and political life (Ahonen 2005), they seem to have adapted well in postwar Finnish society. In this article, we approach the issue of their integration by focusing on mortality.

Figure 1.
Map of Finland After World War II

Data from Finland provide an unusual opportunity to use high-quality and reliable information to study the interrelation between forced migration and mortality in the very long term. Available information, based on longitudinal population registers linked to mortality records, makes it possible to estimate death rates for people according to their region of birth for the entire period 1971–2004. Because the electronic population register goes back only to 1970, mortality during the first two to three decades after evacuation lies beyond our scope.

Conventional theory on migrants’ adaptation to stress suggests that moving, and particularly being forced to move, imposes stress on the individual because it disturbs the equilibrium between the migrant and the environment (Ben-Sira 1997). This compels the migrant to readjust, which may negatively affect health and raise subsequent mortality. These negative health consequences of migration are likely to become weaker over time (cf. Cornia 2000). After some decades, mortality rates of internally displaced persons might therefore be on par with those of nondisplaced persons, assuming that no additional circumstance disturbs the equilibrium. Considering that the Karelians seem to have adapted well after evacuation, there are no strong reasons to believe that they had elevated mortality levels in the 1970s and 1980s, more than 25 years after their evacuation. However, at the end of the 1980s, international political events took place that might have resulted in increased stress levels and thus elevated mortality rates of these persons.

After World War II, Finland was a neutral country with national sovereignty. It still practiced a foreign policy that avoided challenging its powerful Eastern neighbor. Thus, the issue of Ceded Karelia, and particularly the evacuation of the population during the 1940s, was not publicly discussed. People’s movements called for returning the ceded areas back to Finland, but were pressured to refrain from an aggressive public advocacy of territorial revisionism and governed to channel their energies into other domestic causes (Ahonen 2005; Finnish Karelian League 2005).

A shift in the public discussion came with perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev’s program for economic, political, and social restructuring of the Soviet Union. From very modest beginnings at the Party Congress in 1986, it became the unintended catalyst for dismantling the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist totalitarian state. Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, democratic governments overturned Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Germany was reunited, the Warsaw Pact withered away, and the Cold War came to an abrupt end as the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991.

Hence, a wave of revolutions swept the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s; this, of course, was witnessed by people in Finland. As it did in the former socialist countries in Eastern Europe, perestroika made it possible to discuss sensitive political issues in Finnish civil society. In Finland, the single most sensitive issue was no doubt the evacuation of Finnish Karelia. With the decomposition of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the restoring of independence to the Baltic republics, the Karelian question consequently came to life in the late 1980s, after having been dormant for decades. The discussion surrounding the issue assumed considerable intensity for some years, starting in the late 1980s, but thereafter declined because the state actors were reluctant to engage in talks on restitution of the ceded areas (Joenniemi 1998). The Karelian question was consequently of interest primarily to Finnish civil society, and specifically to the evacuated Karelians themselves.

In countries such as East Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania, perestroika was associated with increases in mortality rates, specifically among men. This rise in death rates has been explained by elevated levels of acute psychosocial stress arising from economic, cultural, and political changes faced by the individuals. Because acute psychosocial stress is a key factor in sudden deaths, it arises when individuals are suddenly called upon to adjust to new situations for which the appropriate coping behaviors are unknown, and for which established response mechanisms are no longer effectual (Cornia and Paniccià 2000). In East Germany, for instance, mortality rates among men aged 15–45 years increased by approximately 30% between 1989 and 1991 in the wake of reunification (Riphahn and Zimmermann 2000). For women, mortality increased substantially less.

In Finland, perestroika had no direct economic or cultural implications but had evident political ones. Persons who were evacuated during the war now had the possibility to debate the very delicate geopolitical matter of Ceded Karelia and its future. Being forced migrants, Karelians might have restrained stress symptoms that took effect when they must respond to the unanticipated external events induced by perestroika. In correspondence with findings from the former socialist countries in Eastern Europe, their mortality rate could consequently have increased during the years preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this article, we explore this possibility and also conduct a more general analysis of forced migrants’ long-term mortality rates.


The data we use come from the longitudinal census data file compiled by Statistics Finland. It consists of linked individual information for all Finnish residents from the censuses of 1970, 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, and 2000 (Statistics Finland 2008). The version used here is a 5% random sample. For each person, the data have been complemented with information about the event of death and, if the person died before 2005, the year of death.

There is no explicit information about who had been evacuated. However, because the data tell us whether a person was born in Ceded Karelia, birth region is a good proxy for distinguishing internally displaced persons. In practice, this means that we identify people restrained from moving back to their place of birth.

Regional mortality differences in Finland indicate that death risks tend to increase in a southwestern to northeastern direction. This pattern is also largely determined by region of birth (Saarela and Finnäs 2006). We therefore compare internally displaced persons (Karelians) with same-aged persons born on the adjacent side of the postwar border in Eastern Finland (see Figure 1), not with the total population.

In addition to birth region, the data contain information about each person’s sex, year of birth, current region of residence, marital status, educational level, and homeownership. The two latter reflect socioeconomic position (cf. Saarela and Finnäs 2008).

Our observational plan for the data is illustrated by the Lexis diagram in Figure 2. Under study are people born in 1895–1944 (i.e., those aged 0 to about 50 years at the time of evacuation), who were followed during the study period 1971–2004. Initially, we analyzed all age groups, but we focus on ages 55–79 years (illustrated by the shaded area) in the results reported here. These are the youngest ages we can observe over the entire study period, so approximately equal weight will be given to all ages analyzed. The age restriction also results in a relatively homogeneous population composition. Those under study were either retired or close to retirement, so they should be fairly insensitive to any changes in the macroeconomic environment.

Figure 2.
Lexis Diagram of the Observational Plan

In total, we have data on 39,407 persons, who contribute to 493,211 person-years and 12,800 deaths. Using SPSS 14.0, we estimate death risks at the single-year level, with focus on variation in the relative death risk between internally displaced and nondisplaced persons over calendar time.

In addition to analyses of mortality of all causes, we can perform separate analyses for death risks due to cardiovascular diseases, other diseases, and external causes, respectively. Persons with a mother tongue other than Finnish (less than 1% of all) are excluded. To allow for behavioral differences across sexes, we conduct separate estimations for men and women.


To illustrate the situation at the aggregate level, we first calculate age-standardized death rates for internally displaced persons (those born in Ceded Karelia) and nondisplaced persons (those born in Eastern Finland). Results of the calculations are reported in Figure 3. The curves are smoothed by a 5-point weighted moving average to eliminate random variation. As an illustration, we depict corresponding mortality rates also in the total Finnish population. The time trend for nondisplaced persons is practically the same as that for the total population, albeit at a somewhat higher level for men. In the subsequent analysis, we compare displaced and nondisplaced persons only.

Figure 3.
Age-Standardized Death Rates Among Those Aged 55–79, by Birth Region and Sex: 1971–2004

In the 1970s and 1980s, internally displaced and nondisplaced persons had almost identical death rates, and mortality rates were consistently falling in both groups. At the end of the 1980s, this favorable trend stopped only among the internally displaced men. They experienced an increase in the mortality rate of approximately 15%, which corresponds to an increase of approximately 20% as compared with the expected time trend (roughly 220 more annual deaths in the internally displaced male population). As shown by the confidence intervals in Figure 4, the deviation cannot be dismissed as a statistical artifact. After the mid-1990s, the death rates again started to approach the long-term trend. The pattern as observed here is basically the same at other ages and is unrelated to age at evacuation.

Figure 4.
Age-Standardized Death Rates Among Those Aged 55–79, With 95% Confidence Intervals: Men Born in Ceded Karelia and in Eastern Finland

At the single-year level, the largest death rate was found in 1989 (not shown). This year is, in an international perspective, historically notable for the wave of revolutions that swept the Eastern Bloc and concluded with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hence, the increased death rate of internally displaced men in Finland coincides with a series of international events that unexpectedly changed people’s view of the geopolitical world, as the Karelian question unexpectedly came to life.

There is practically no deviation from the time trend for internally displaced women (see Figure 3). This finding is consistent with studies of the former socialist countries, which suggest that men have been much more vulnerable to the structural changes than women. The finding also supports the common view that there are sex differences in coping with psychosocial stress. Men are generally believed to be more likely to confront problems head-on but also to deny problems that exist. Women, on the other hand, exhibit a more emotional response to problems and spend more time discussing them (Tamres, Janicki, and Helgeson 2002).

In terms of individual characteristics, persons in the displaced population are very similar to those in the nondisplaced one (Table 1). They are equally well educated and have a similar distribution on marital status and homeownership, suggesting that, at least in the long-term, the Karelians have integrated well into postwar society. People in the two groups naturally differ on spatial distribution. Internally displaced persons are concentrated in Southern and Western Finland, whereas those in the nondisplaced group to a greater extent live in Eastern Finland because they were born there.

Table 1.
Distribution of Individual Characteristics, by Birth Region and Sex (%)

Considering these similarities, one should not expect the observed time trend to change dramatically when personal characteristics are taken into account. We fitted models of risk ratios to explore this possibility. The results are summarized in Table 2 for men and in Table 3 for women. Differences between internally displaced and nondisplaced persons in mortality variation over time are captured by an interaction term; for simplicity, calendar time is categorized into four- and five-year intervals. Alternative model specifications do not alter the results.

Table 2.
Risk Ratios for Death in Models Adjusting for Individual Characteristics: Men
Table 3.
Risk Ratios for Death in Models Adjusting for Individual Characteristics: Women

We find practically no impact of the socioeconomic and demographic variables on the time trend for mortality differences between internally displaced and nondisplaced persons. Going from a model that controls for age only to a model that accounts for all observable personal characteristics even increases the deviation in the time trend of the death risk of internally displaced men, from 19% to 20%.

The estimated effects of the personal characteristics are very much as expected (cf. Saarela and Finnäs 2006, 2008). Mortality rates fall with educational level and are lower for homeowners than for renters. Married persons have the lowest relative death rates, whereas mortality levels of divorced and single persons are substantially higher. Coping with the loss of a partner differs across sexes: losing one’s partner affects the relative death rates of men more than those of women (cf. Stroebe, Stroebe, and Schut 2001). Variation in death risks by current region of residence is modest, which reflects the great importance of birth region on mortality risks because both groups under study here originate from the same area.

Table 2 also shows that the deviation in the early 1990s is particularly marked for cardiovascular mortality, which is known to be highly interrelated with stress (Everson-Rose and Lewis 2005). The mortality rate is almost 40% higher than that of the expected time trend. Relative death rates of other diseases and external causes peak somewhat later than for cardiovascular mortality, or around the mid-1990s. This suggests that stress also influences chronic disease and behavioral risk factors, but that the length of the effect differs from that for cardiovascular mortality (cf. Boscarino 2006; Paradies 2004). Standard errors for these parameters are relatively large, however.


Considering that there are currently at least 50 million persons around the world who have been forced to leave their homes because of real or perceived threat to life or well-being, research on the health situation of forced migrants is of utmost policy concern. Mortality rates constitute the single most important summary measure of the health status of such emergency-affected populations (Reed, Haaga, and Keely 1998; Reed and Keely 2001). Forced migration typically disrupts normal life to an extent that is beyond the means of typical coping mechanisms of a society. The unusual conditions brought on by the disruption of society may lead to negative health and elevated mortality rates for the populations affected.

Each crisis is a unique event that must be understood on the basis of its own special circumstances. In more developed regions, such as postwar Finland, internally displaced persons tend to suffer from high levels of social stress. Typical symptoms of this stress are psychosocial trauma and other stress disorders, and an increased incidence of different forms of chronic illnesses. In less developed regions, on the other hand, forced migrants experience a lack of basic services that leads to poorer health and elevated mortality risks.

From the researcher’s point of view, forced migration is very compelling as an instrument of identification. It reflects an exogenously determined migration decision and thus avoids the problem that migrants might be inherently different from nonmigrants because they have decided to migrate. Data constraints have still affected existing knowledge on the interrelation between forced migration and mortality, particularly in the long term. In most forced migrant situations, there is no vital registration system. Receiving access to adequate information on affected populations has therefore constituted tremendous challenges for normal data collection processes. The population register system in Finland, however, provides an opportunity to analyze mortality of internally displaced persons, as we have done in this article.


Internally displaced Finns have integrated well into Finnish society in the sense that their mortality rates in the 1970s and 1980s were similar to those of nondisplaced persons. In the late 1980s, however, the mortality risk of internally displaced men increased by more than 20% as compared with the expected time trend. This peak in death rates, which manifests in cardiovascular mortality, coincides with perestroika and the demise of the Soviet Union. Within the evacuated Karelian population, these international political events opened up the debate about the restitution of the ceded areas. State actors were still reluctant to engage, so an intensive discussion about the issue took place only for a few years, and after the mid-1990s, the death risk of internally displaced men again approached the long-term trend.

Our results illustrate that when forced migrants must adjust to situations for which appropriate coping behaviors are unknown, psychosocial stress might arise several decades after their evacuation. For internally displaced Finnish men, the Karelian question was obviously such an issue. Women appear not to have responded in the similar manner, which might be due to sex differences in coping with psychosocial stress.

No explanation for the mortality increase other than unanticipated external events seems reasonable. As an example, a deep economic recession occurred some years later in Finland, and it had no effect on the death rates of internally displaced persons. The phenomenon we have observed here can consequently be considered a reflection of a notable causal mechanism that stretches from the international to the individual level.


We are grateful for comments raised by anonymous referees and seminar participants at the Centre for Economic Demography at Lund University.

Contributor Information

JAN SAARELA, Åbo Akademi University, PO Box 311, FIN-65100 Vasa, Finland; e-mail:if.oba@aleraas.naj.

FJALAR FINNÄS, Åbo Akademi University, Finland.


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