Proposals to significantly lessen social benefits for refugees have won approval in the Constitutional Committee of the Parliament in Estonia; among other changes, an allowance decidated to the furnishing of municipal housing will be elmininated. Estonian language studies will be made mandatory for refugees as well.
In the first stage, social benefits to refugees will be reduced, reported ERR's radio news. For example, monetary support from the state government for the renovation and furnishing of municipal housing will be abolished.
Constitutional Committee chairman Kalle Laanet stated that there will also be a change in how rent is paid as well. According to the new law, expenditures will be taken into account per family. Currently, housing-related costs are covered in relative to the financial subsistence level, i.e. the bare minimum needed to get by. Under current law, rent costs can amount to up to 30,888€ per person over two years. Under new regulations, however, the support will come in the form of one single, one-time grant of up to 780€ per family.
The state currently also provides a one-time allowance of up to 13 times the limit of the subsistence level per person for the furnishing of a dwelling; in 2016, the limit is 130€ per person, which makes the maximum total for furnishing assistance is 1,690€. Renovation costs are also currently covered nationally (i.e. with the help of local government or a legal entity) up to 4,455€. These allowances would be eliminated.
State support for finding accommodations will not be eliminated entirely, however. "There is a huge difference in numbers, of course," said Laanet, "But it remains clear that we must help people find a place to live."
Kristiina Kallas, acting director of the University of Tartu Narva College and former director of the Estonian Refugee Council (MTÜ Pagulasabi), remained skeptical about such a drastic reduction in the rent allowance offered to refugees. "This could lead to a situation where people spend months looking for an apartment that would fit this budget. This is very difficult to do, and results in them just sitting at the refugee center in Vao for even longer," explained Kallas. According to her, this in turn negatively affects their job hunt, which in turn again hampers all other aspects of getting one's life in order.
Estonian language studies will also be made mandatory for refugees. In addition to this, they will also be required to sign a document stating that they will follow Estonian cultural and societal norms. In response to this, Kristiina Kallas asked where and when said norms were even put into writing. "If by this they mean the fact that in Estonia you cannot walk around the streets naked or spit into another person's face because those things are not acceptable in our society, nobody should be required to sign such a document. This is the type of thing that should be discussed in cultural introduction classes," said Kallas.
Kalle Laanet clarified that the Constitutional Committe is not trying to accomodate those who believe that life in Estonia should be made as miserable as possible for refugees. He explained that neither he nor other members of the Constitutional Committee are of the opinion that those who have fled their home countries should be forced to live in worse conditions than locals.
Residency permit renewal to become annual
One important change has been made regarding residency permits—in the future, these permits will only be able to be renewed for one calendar year at a time. Kristiina Kallas insists that a refugee may only be asked to return to his or her home country if there no longer exists a threat to his or her life, e.g. if a war in their home country has ended. She said that residency permits and international protection may not be stripped from anyone solely because they have not learned Estonian or been able to secure employment in their new country of residence. She added, "I do not consider this just, as in Estonia you are allowed to be unemployed."
The Constitutional Committee has submitted the bill regarding changes to refugee social welfare to be read during the March 9th session of parliament.
Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik