The fact that is to be taken as a departing point for the whole of the analysis on the issue is that one of the key reasons why refugee flow has become a pending problem in Estonia is that it was not expected to become a problem in the recent preceding time period.
Indeed, being a periphery country adjacent to prosperous Nordic region which is considerably more attractive to all sorts of migrants, Estonian policies could have reasonably relied on a generally low inflow of asylum seekers in pursuing cost-cutting measures in this domain. However, with respect to specific negative dynamics in crisis zones close to greater EU region (first of all the Maghreb countries, the Middle East and Ukraine) one should have similarly expected that the rapid increase in migrants flow to particular border countries of the EU would become a heavy burden for them, especially in comparison with the lesser affected and more distant countries. Such imbalance of burden could not but become an issue for the EU policies of intervention where redistribution of migrants among the EU states would be one of the least unexpected measures.
The available information shows, at the same time, that Estonia has experienced dramatic increase of asylum seekers inflow since the previous year, but has still not managed to address the ongoing dynamics with proper policy measures. This incapability is demonstrated by the very figures of asylum seekers that have already become a problem for Estonia. The current number of such persons in Estonia is around 200, whereas the relevant infrastructure was created to accommodate 60-90. Thus, even the current number of asylum seekers exceeds the expectations of decision makers in the field concerned, despite the fact it is not too big as such, especially if we compare it with the number of asylum seekers in other countries - around 200,000 in Germany, for example, which makes the ratio of 1,000, hugely exceeding both the respective population and even economy ratios of the states concerned, not to mention the presumed arrival of up to 1,000 newcomers from Western Europe, transferred under the common EU decisions.
Consequently, unpreparedness to the already existing situation is observed as a fact. Are there any ways to amend or alleviate the ongoing and emerging difficulties? It largely depends on the availability of resources, but most importantly, on the willingness to invoke strong reformative steps stretching beyond purely migration policies and affecting also other spheres like taxation and employment laws.
There are several levels where challenges emerge and require their resolution:
1) Material maintenance of asylum seekers (accommodation, healthcare, social guarantees);
2) Formal process of review and evaluation of the application international protection, i.e. case analysis as such;
3) Integration stage where persons who have acquired the refugee or additional protection status are trying to undergo the successful adaptation to local society and life in it.
Even though some policies may relate to several stages at once (which are normal since complex problems require complex solutions) we should try to systematize them according to these key dimensions of the process.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the existing problem is related to the issues of material expenses connected to the presence of the great mass of asylum seekers in Estonia over sometimes quite lengthy periods of time before the eventual decision on their legal status is made. Even though it seems to be the most imminent problem to face, the existing policies unrealistically relied on the low rates of incoming asylum seeks of previous years contrary to existing facts. As a result, the existing scarce infrastructure is overloaded. The biggest center for allocation of persons seeking international protection in Estonia, located in Vao, being constructed to accommodate about 35 people at maximum already hosts almost 90, and this number does not seem to decrease. Quite expectedly, even basic needs may be impaired in such conditions: small aspects of daily life commonly disregarded by high officials and policy makers, including sanitation, personal privacy, premises conditions (that may require massive renovations), recreation and cooking, produce the overall output of life standards in the facilities like this. Not to mention that the official personnel responsible for running the place may be subject to extensive pressure and stress, eventually reducing the efficiency of the their work, associated with the extraordinary situation.
With the problem being an evident one, the solutions are required. Considering the unlikeliness of the reduction of the number of asylum seekers to former rates in the near future, the construction of additional facilities seems inevitable. Still, considering the time it may take, interim measures would be nonetheless required. What can be done in order to reduce the load on existing facilities?
It seems that so far one has few other options besides giving additional credit of trust to the people whose cases are being considered. The best system is always a self-regulating one and it could be an opportunity to allow asylum seekers explore the communities of Estonia independently. The options for the governmental policies on avoiding the overpopulation of the asylum centers would be to subsidize those willing to seek accommodation independently all over Estonia at least on minimal level. Besides the load-reduction effect, such a measure would contribute towards a pro-active approach to integration in the local society, which is a real problem during the stay in the abovementioned center since, most of the time, asylum seekers are able to only enjoy their direct environment and the company of each other, which makes the time spent there wasted for adaptation. The resources of the center may be able to satisfy basic material needs, but they are inherently unable to provide the living environment of Estonian society and properly teach how to find one’s place there. Language courses and occasional lectures on the topic are a poor substitute for a real-life experience a person may have once he or she is supported in the initiative to reside in a more lively urban area.
Another idea that may reinforce the one mentioned above may seem quite revolutionary for Estonia, but, nevertheless, anyone is unlikely to lose anything once it is made possible by officials. The state is able to encourage the wealthier strata of Estonian society to accommodate asylum seekers in their private premises in exchange for taxation discounts which would create public good for a state without the need for imminent investment.
The same people providing the accommodation may also perform another important function for asylum seekers being their immediate mentors on all aspects of life in Estonia if they have such a desire. Still, the same can be provided with the support of local communities and NGOs: alike to the social projects from the US and some other countries encouraging adult people to become friends and mentors for teenagers, local Estonians may be invited to make friends personally and become advisors to some of the people coming in search of international protection. This can be made through specially arranged entertainment events opened for both representatives of local community and the people concerned; alternatively, an NGO may serve as an intermediary having the general profiles of people interested in finding Estonian friends and offering those to the ones who would address to it in order to become one of the latter.
The long-term effect of such an approach is not to be underestimated: the moment the person is granted residence in Estonia, he or she would already be able to have useful local connections or even be completely integrated to the local community.
The reduction of the term upon which the person is legally allowed to be employed in Estonia to 6 months after the filing of application is also a positive step in this direction which, however, could be even more complete. Since the employment granted in such a manner does not affect the outcome of the case analysis, there are no real reasons to prevent the personal initiative and market needs from providing an asylum seeker with meaningful activity. In case there are concerns that the right to seek asylum may be abused in order to obtain such an employment, certain material subsidies provided to asylum seekers may be revoked in the case the person starts to work in the very first months after the reviewing process has started. Similarly, finding external employment would reduce the load on the existing facilities where asylum seekers are accommodated.
This stage is crucial in determining the very fate of every asylum seeker and thus has specific importance in this respect. Besides, the organization of the process may influence two other stages.
The current problem of case review is its lengthiness, which implies that, even without appeal instances, the very initial administrative process conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, may take up to a year. As fully expected, such lengthiness, along with the dramatic increase in the flow of migrants has a very direct impact on the overall cost of refugee proceedings.
Hence, facilitation of a faster yet effective review procedure should become one of the priorities in reforming the existing policies. However, partially it can be attained by administrative measures. The available data points first of all to the lack of professionals within the ministry with the profound knowledge of migration issues and international refugee law standards. At the same time, training and employment of new professionals of this type could significantly decrease the average case review period and, thus, reduce the load on the existing facilities for asylum seekers.
This improvement would also directly affect certain aspects of maintenance. With the ongoing overpopulation in the center in Vao, more and more asylum seekers face the situation of being sent and detained in Harku, penitentiary-like facility, even contrary to the real necessity of providing security in such a manner. The former may face a greater number of misconducts in its wall including unlawful detainment and depriving of basic accessories which in certain cases may qualify as inhuman or degrading treatment.
Another element of resolution would be to try to decrease the number of false refugees that inevitably grows with the overall dynamics and inhibits the promptness of case resolution for those who are indeed subject to specific forms of persecution in their state of origin. Accomplishing this objective would greatly improve cost-efficiency of the overall process, since, even insincere asylum seekers, for whom a negative decision would be issued, will have to undergo the same lengthy process, where lengthiness is in correlation with costs.
One of the means to deal with the problem would be to provide “minimal standards introduction” in the first place. Even though many people face preliminary interview of their case at the moment of filing an international protection application, few of them are actually inquired whether they are aware of who a refugee is under the existing framework of norm based on international law sources and, likewise, few of them are properly explained the contents of the notion. As a result, plenty of people, even already residing in Vao, have misconceptions and, as a result, false expectations on the outcome of the process they are involved in, due to the reason of their illiteracy in the fundamental legal issues related thereto. “Rights and Obligations” documents given for asylum seekers for signature also include only provisions related to formal review of the application, but none sufficient in regard to the explanations of qualification as a refugee or a person with additional protection.
With the growing number of asylum seekers from particular regions (Ukraine, Syria) and the limited number of interviewing professionals, regional specialization would facilitate the aggregation of data on the regional situation and background information that is likely to become common in reviewing the cases of persons coming from the given regions.
The last, but not the least important step deals with the issue of integration of people who are eventually granted the legal right to reside in Estonia as a result of asylum seeking procedures. The key issue in this respect is awareness embodied into a policy that integration has to start long before a positive decision on granting international protection is made.
Still, as mentioned above, the conditions of environment in which most of the asylum seekers have to exist in before the decision is made, rather inhibits integration than facilitates it in any manner. Most of the people currently in Vao do not have or have minimal contact with the local community or Estonian society as a whole. At the same, real life practice can be the only viable option for successful adaptation whereas it mostly does not exist in terms of employment opportunities and civic participation and is very limited in the area of education and cultural life. Occasional classes of Estonian language which are hardly enough to master this uneasy subject even in the given time are hardly a sufficient means or a full-fledged integration policy.
Similarly, integration process is also impaired by the shortcoming of the two previous stages. With only three (3) members of administrative personnel at Vao center having to deal with the widest range of problems the activities serving the function to prepare the soil for integration, like Estonian language classes, become almost non-existent due to overload with other daily tasks the officials face. Similarly, overpopulation impedes independent education in this respect since study materials are limited and the shared internet connection among almost 90 people becomes a feeble means to allow the usage of internet resources (which as such are quite good subsidiary assistance, like http://keeleklikk.ee/) that require stable and fast connection. This is surely the way how small details are able to undermine global goals.
Hence, largely the objectives may be met with the same measures suggested to improve the first stage of the process.
Another, more complex and far-reaching problem on the way to refugees’ integration is the popular reactions within Estonian society. Noticeable part of population within the state does not meet with sympathy the necessity to allocate and adapt the people from distant regions, first of all, the ones with distinctive culture, and sometimes religious or racial origin.
There is a number of reasons for such attitude, ranging from general mentality, formed by previous historic experience where greatest country’s evils (wars and periods of oppression and occupation) were associated with “outsiders” and social and geographical factors (location at the periphery of Europe and traditionally low density of population), to common lack of education and omnipresence of images manufactured and proliferated by media.
The most problematic about this part of the problem is that is has low “plasticity”. Managing the perception of the whole Estonian population is an incomparably bigger challenge than managing a small group of refugees. Being realistic, it is very unlikely to correct public opinion by targeted educational and cultural events, since those are shared by society as a whole and existing governmental and NGO structures are clearly incapable of re-educating every and even majority of persons holding prejudices based on culture, religion or race.
Partially, the approach may be amended though the influence on the media sources that are partially responsible for the formation of a particular negative image. Surely, due to the necessity to comply with freedom of press standards the approach has should be constructive rather than prohibitive: the media should be encouraged to explore the particular stories of refugees residing in Estonia and, whenever possible, disclosing their common human traits making them alike to any other dweller of Estonia. Another, more costly measures, that however found to be efficient in suppression of popular prejudices against certain groups, is putting those into narratives of popular culture works that may be enjoyed by broad audience (one may recall how “Star Trek” served the purpose of quenching racial tensions in the US).
Due to the comparably small size of Estonia as a country, personal involvement of migrants may also become a useful practice as it was mentioned above. Organization of social and cultural connecting migrants and local population in first-hand communication experience would be the best way to ruin false stereotypes that can be commonly met. Building of social networking with local Estonians is both means and indicator of integration: the acceptance of newcomers has to be built upon already existing positive experience of communication with migrants where building personal connections may be the best option.
Aleksei Boris, originally from Belarus, is a Project Manager of Tallinn-based Unitas Foundation.
Editor: S. Tambur