FAQ: Estonia and migration crisis (15)

Moonika Oll
10/15/2015 5:10 PM
Category: Features

Everything you need to know about where Estonia currently stands on the migration issue.

What is Estonia's official stance in regard to migration crisis?

The Estonian government believes that the country has to contribute to the solution of the large-scale migration crisis that has hit the European Union, both for humanitarian reasons and to carry its weight as an EU and NATO ally.

Estonia has agreed to accept around 500 people over the next two years.

It is, at the same time, pushing for more help to Syria's neighboring countries, which currently host millions of people in refugee camps, stronger control of EU's external borders, more attention to root causes of unwanted migration, and a better return policy of failed asylum seekers.

How many refugees is Estonia ready to relocate?

For the time being, the government has agreed to relocate and resettle 500 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, and Turkey. An agreement for 150 people was reached in July. That was extended by another 349 a few months later.

Estonia was firmly against the quota system proposed by the European Commission and is in favor, claiming it does not take into account the country's actual ability to handle and assimilate refugees. Ministers insist that coercion is not a solution and the only way to successfully relocate refugees is on voluntary basis. It stands in favor of the countries having a say in the permanent relocation mechanism, which can be triggered any time by the EC to help any EU-Member State experiencing a crisis situation and extreme pressure on its asylum system as a result of a large and disproportionate inflow of third country nationals.

According to the EC's distribution key, Estonia should have welcomed several thousand refugees. Estonia's share in those schemes was high due to fact that it has so far granted international protection to a very small number of people.

How many people have received asylum in Estonia in the past?

Not many. Estonia has a very conservative asylum policy. For example, in 2013, only seven out of 97 applicants were granted refugee status.

In addition, Estonia receives about ten times fewer asylum applications per annum than EU countries on average. According to Eurostat, Estonia's share in the 210,000 applications filed in the EU in the second quarter of 2015 was 0.03 percent, or just 65 request.

Between 2010-2014 Estonia received 425 asylum applications and resettled zero refugees. Divided over five years, this is an average of 85 people per year, or 64 refugees per million inhabitants over five years. Majority of these applications were rejected. According to minister of internal affairs, Hanno Pevkur, Estonia still rejects up to 85 percent of the applications it receives, and outside of the resettlement scheme, this trend is unlikely to be reversed.

Hence, one of the main causes for concern has been how the system is ready to cope with the pressure of having to handle and assimilate so many new arrivals at once. However, concrete steps have been taken to address this issue (see below).

Who will Estonia grant protection to?

On October 2, Estonia and Italy signed a cooperation agreement, which outlines the principles of relocating asylum seekers from Italy to Estonia. It stipulates that Estonia has the right to refuse entry to those who might pose a security risk, and that it gives preference to:

  • Vulnerable people – single parent families and a small number of orphans or unaccompanied minors
  • Whole family units – parents and their children
  • People who volunteer to be resettled in Estonia

For the time being, Estonia will not accept people who have been victims of torture or other forms of direct physical violence simply for the lack of necessary support system to help them.

A similar agreements with Greece, and one with the UN Refugee Agency for the resettlement of people from Turkish refugee camps, will be signed in January 2016.

Only refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq will be resettled.

The Estonian Minister of Internal Affiars Hanno Pevkur has repeatedly said that all economic migrants, whose need for protection is not established, will be deported.

Estonia will first send an ILO immigration liaison officer, followed by a group of social and security workers to Italy, to cooperate with local agencies and conduct interviews with potential arrivals. Their aim, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is to make sure that people actually want to come to Estonia and won't just use it as a transit route to other, more desirable countries.

The main prerequisite for consideration is that people who wish to be relocated to Estonia, can be identified – they are able to provide precise, detailed, verifiable information. Family members can be identified using DNA tests if necessary.

How will refugees be relocated?

The officers sent to refugee accommodation centers in Italy and Greece will determine if those wishing to come to Estonia are actually eligible for international protection. This means that protection status and temporary residency permits can be issued immediately upon their arrival in Estonia. Money for the transport from Italy and Greece to Estonia will come from the European Commission.

Once the refugees arrive in Estonia, they will first be subjected to a health check. They will then be provided with accommodation, and put in contact with support workers, local authorities, schools, medical establishments and the unemployment fund.

People will be settled all over Estonia. The Ministry of Social Affairs is actively searching for suitable accommodation but many local governments have not been very forthcoming. The church, civil society groups and businesses have helped out and the ministry currently has around 30 properties listed.

Because the number of asylum seekers coming straight to Estonia is also increasing, the ministry is considering opening another accommodation center that offers accommodation on a provisional basis only, to complement the one in Vao. It's location has not yet been decided.

After they have settled in, all adults and children will get free Estonian language tuition. Social Protection Minister Margus Tsahkna said that Estonian classes will probably be made mandatory to speed up integration and increase people's chances of finding a job. Moreover, those who wish to become permanent residents, must achieve at least a B1 proficiency level in Estonian.

Resettlement of people from refugee camps in Turkey will not start until 2016.

What has Estonia done so far to achieve its goals?

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Education and Research have jointly put together an action plan for the reception of up to 550 asylum seekers in 48 months. The plan (in Estonian) was presented to the Cabinet on October 8.

It details procedural rules for deciding who to relocate to and resettle in Estonia, their transport, reception and accommodation arrangements, healthcare, education and employment issues, social support system, and assimilation program, including language tuition. There is also a section on how unaccompanied minors will be handled and cared for.

The plan foresees that all asylum seekers must take part in a cultural orientation program. As part of the effort to help them settle into their new life in Estonia, the International Organizations for Migration has already published a new information booklet, which includes general facts about Estonia, its legislation, social system, transport network, nature and culture among its many topics.

On behalf of the state, NGOs have also started training new refugee support workers, who would help refugees with administrative procedures, job and house hunting, childcare arrangements, study opportunities etc. According to estimations, there should be 102 support workers, either paid or volunteers, available by the middle of 2016.

The first four to six families should arrive by the end of 2015. The Ministry of Social Affairs said that these first arrivals will allow them to test new systems and strategies, and see which services need further improvement.

What rights do refugees have in Estonia?

Once granted asylum, refugees have the right for social housing for up to two years if they are unable to pay for it themselves, free Estonian language tuition and translation services. They also get the same unemployment and retraining services as citizens and permanent residents.

Refugees are also provided with a cultural orientation program (see above), a support worker, pre- and primary education if applicable, and a range of integration services, as well as counseling, if this is required. Funds for these services come from the EU and state budget.

In terms of financial support, refugees have the right to receive benefits and allowances, including state pension, maternal salary, and jobseekers allowance, on the same grounds as permanent residents.

The subsistence threshold for a single adult or first member of the family is currently 90 euros per month. Additional household income for every respective member must be 72 euros. In 2016, these numbers are set to rise to 130 and 104 euros respectively. Subsistence allowance will be provided if those figures are not met.

There are no additional financial benefits for refugees and those who are granted international protection (meaning everyone relocated from Italy and Greece) will not qualify for the asylum seeker's 100-euros-a-month allowance.

What rights does Estonia reserve for itself?

The Justice Ministry has said that it reserves the right to prohibit some extreme cultural practices, such as forced marriages and circumcision.

There has also been a debate over a burqa ban but it has recently died down and no decision has been reached.

Where do people stand on migration issue?

Like in many other countries, views tend to be split. According to a poll from June 2015, 32 percent of Estonian residents would agree to admit refugees in the country, 42 percent are against and 26 percent remain either neutral or undecided in this matter.

There have been several anti-immigration rallies over the past months, organized by ultra-conservative parties, but these have never been reportedly attended by more than a few hundred people at once. An opposing event that called for more tolerance and acceptance was held in September.

Vigorous debate on the issue continues both in public and social media.

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