Aleksei Boris: A case of improving refugee policy frameworks in Estonia (14)

Aleksei Boris
Aleksei Boris
8/6/2015 11:37 AM
Category: Opinion

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.

Case Consideration

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 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.

S. Tambur

The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters

Message forwarded to the editor

This Ip-address has limited access

See also

There are no comments yet. Be the first!

Reply to comment

Reply to comment

Laadi juurde ({{take2}})
The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters
Add new comment
  • foto
    Opinion digest: Open Enterprise Estonia’s consultation services and assessments to competition

    Enterprise Estonia handed out advice to companies, and assessed whether or not they should receive public support, without being economically accountable, lawyer Taivo Ruus wrote in a Postimees opinion piece on Monday. This needed to change, and these activities delegated to professionals.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: The Reform Party’s new role

    After 17 years in government, Reform needed to find to a new role, and instead of being the manager of the Estonian state become a debater. How the party would get used to its new position, no longer able to dictate the political agenda, remained to be seen, said political scientist Mari-Liis Jakobson in a comment on Vikerraadio on Friday.

  • foto
    Andrus Karnau: Minister of Rural Affairs likely to be replaced

    Speaking on Sunday’s Raadio 2 broadcast of "State of the Union," radio show host Andrus Karnau found that the scandal to break out last week involving Martin Repinski’s goat farm was likely to culminate on Monday in his replacement as a minister of the newly-installed Estonian government.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Baltic states on front line of new Cold War

    While the Baltic states would prefer full defensive capability, NATO is emphasizing its reinforcements’ function as a deterrent. The alliance would have to round off its military presence in the area with diplomacy, and political stability and dedication to liberal democratic values would play an important role maintaining the West’s solidarity, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Putting Rail Baltica in its strategic context

    In an opinion piece in daily Postimees, former EU commissioner Siim Kallas points out that Rail Baltica goes far beyond considerations of its route on Estonian soil, and the money the government will have to invest. On the contrary, there is a broader European meaning that includes considering the strategic situation of Estonia.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Dynasties and democracy don't go well together

    Speaking about the recent US presidential elections on Vikerraadio’s Sunday broadcast of "Samost and Rumm," hosts Anvar Samost and Hannes Rumm recognized that Donald Trump’s election win is being considered as the destruction of two political dynasties there, however democracy and dynasties don’t go well together anyway.

  • foto
    Opinion: Estonia’s lasting isolation

    The fact that too many foreign journalists do not understand the Estonian language, and that they have no access to the local political culture and its players, has distorted reports abroad of what happened this week, writes ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

  • foto
    Alo Lõhmus: Left turns and ‘silent submission’

    The embarrassing conflation of the Reform Party’s self-image with the Estonian state is proof that it is high time they are sent into opposition, says journalist Alo Lõhmus.

  • foto
    Opinion: Getting rid of ruling party's privileges doesn't damage Estonia's reputation

    On Friday, the ministers of the Social Democrats (SDE) and the Pro Patra and Res Publica Union (IRL) began calling back Reform Party members from the boards of state-owned companies and funds. The Reform Party’s reaction was an announcement published on Sunday — a rather strange one, finds ERR News editor Dario Cavegn.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Ärma is more than just numbers

    Ärma Farm’s funding scandal was overshadowing the achievements of Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ presidency, including the fact that Estonia had benefited from state visits that Ilves hosted in Ärma, Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas (Reform) said to ERR on Thursday.

  • foto
    Benno Schirrmeister: Do Estonians dream of electric sheep?

    On a journalist exchange in Estonia, Benno Schirrmeister of Bremen’s TAZ is highly informed, yet a blank slate as far as a foreigner’s experience of Estonia is concerned. In his first op-ed about Tallinn, he spots something beyond IT that Estonia could advertise — but doesn’t.

  • foto
    Erkki Bahovski: Was 1940 approach better than modern journalism's 'war hysteria'?

    Linguist Urmas Sutrop has claimed that Estonian journalism is scaring people with the specter of war. Editor-in-Chief of monthly magazine Diplomaatia Erkki Bahovski, however, doesn’t agree.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Kremlin in danger of losing sense of reality

    According to Ingo Mannteufel, head of the Department for Russia and Europe at Deutsche Welle, there is a possibility of the Kremlin starting to believe its own propaganda, which could lead to dangerous decisions both domestically and internationally.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Estonia’s stagnating politics

    Estonia’s largest political parties had been going through the most serious crisis in their existence, and on top of that they had lost their most important function, namely to formulate a vision of the country’s future, daily Postimees wrote in its Friday editorial.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Putin exploiting power vacuum created by U.S. presidential elections

    According to director of Tallinn’s International Centre for Defence and Security and former ambassador to Russia, Jüri Luik, the increased tensions over the past few weeks between Russia and the West indicate Putin’s wish to exploit the ambiguous mood before the U.S. presidential elections as much as possible.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Time to return to discussing serious issues

    In a stinging opinion piece in published in the daily Eesti Päevaleht, member of the Riigikogu Eerik-Niiles Kross (Reform) condemned the Estonian media as well as the country’s elites for their obsession with what he sees as pointless topics, while disregarding the last few weeks’ unsettling developments concerning Russia.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Legally speaking, everything is proper

    After Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ decade in office, and after he promoted Estonia like no other president did before him, his legacy is now tainted by the fact that he seems to have gone for a substantial state grant in 2006 that he never put to use — and of which he will now pay back just a tenth.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Closer to Warsaw, farther away from Estonia

    In a recent opinion piece in daily Postimees, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote that one way to look at Rail Baltic was as a step towards the level other countries had already reached in terms of speed and comfort of their railway connections. The main weakness of this point of view was the fact that in Estonia, it lacked the necessary social context.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Leadership change in Reform needed for potential coalition with Center Party

    For a potential future coalition with the Center Party, the Reform Party needed to change its leader as well, Social Democratic MP and chairman of the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee Sven Mikser wrote in a comment on social media on Friday.

  • foto
    Matthew Crandall: President Ilves’ global impact

    The greatest accomplishment of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is that he branded Estonia as a modern and innovative 21st century country, and brought it out of post-Soviet obscurity, writes Tallinn University’s Matthew Crandall.

  • foto
    The shackles of history and modern life in the fast lane: Estonia's experience in the migration crisis

    The uncertain public performances of Estonian politicians and poor explanatory work were to blame for a considerable increase in public distrust during the migration crisis, found ERR journalist Greete Palmiste, working in Bremen on an international journalists' exchange, in an opinion piece written for German publication taz.die Tageszeitung.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Kersti Kaljulaid on the concepts of ethical nationalism and confident Estonians

    On Friday, Aug. 12, Estonian representative to the European Court of Auditors Kersti Kaljulaid delivered a patriotic speech on the Postimees Stage at the 2016 Opinion Festival in Paide in which she expanded on two words and two respective ideas she found important for her country that were represented by the two letter Es in its native-language name Eesti: eetiline (ethical) and enesekindel (confident).

  • foto
    This mess we're in: Picking up the pieces after Saturday's elections

    From Saturday’s election fiasco to Tuesday’s sudden emergence of a likely cross-party candidate: ERR News editor Dario Cavegn makes an attempt at explaining Estonia’s seemingly chaotic quest to find its next president.

  • foto
    Opinion: The decline of Estonian as a language of science starts abroad

    The Estonian language as a language of science is only sustainable in those subject areas that offer undergraduate courses in Estonian, and with which students begin their university education, finds ERR science portal editor Marju Himma.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Current approach to reform won't help municipalities

    The Center Party’s presidential candidate, Mailis Reps, wrote in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees on Sunday that the Administrative Reform Act was a disappointment to Estonia’s municipalities, and that relations between local and central government were in a crisis.

  • foto
    Opinion: Jüri Nikolajev in response to the Ida-Viru secret memo

    Describing himself as "wearily spiteful" instead of angry, ERR's Narva correspondent Jüri Nikolajev responded to the top secret memo on Ida-Viru County that leaked recently, calling Estonians to figuratively not leave their property laying around if they did not want anyone else to take it for themselves.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Sulev Vedler on the secret memo on Ida-Viru County

    In 2015, the Government Security Committee received a secret memo containing a dark assessment of the future of Ida-Viru County, Estonia's most northeastern and predominantly Russian-speaking county, which was compiled by Ilmar Raag, who worked as a strategic communicatins advisor at the Stenbock House at the time. Estonian journalist Sulev Vedler responded to the memo by compiling various reactions to issues it addressed.

  • foto
    Opinion: Alo Lõhmus on the definition of Estonian citizen by blood

    Journalist Alo Lõhmus explored the right to Estonian citizenship by "jus sanguinis," Latin for right of blood, as it relates to one's eligibility to run for president — an issue which has had particular attention drawn to it recently after members of a competing political party attempted to cast doubt on the status of presidential candidate Marina Kaljurand's Estonian citizenship.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Erkki Bahovski on Finland and the alleged Baltic scheming

    Columnist Erkki Bahovski commented on the curious, decidedly defensive turn that seemed to be taken by Finland's Social Democrats following the release of a lengthy report by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (UPI) which suggested that Russia, in its own self-interest, is attempting to hamper Finland's total integration with the West.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Siim Kallas thinks real estate tax effective way to finance local government

    The Reform Party’s presidential candidate, Siim Kallas, said in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees that an estate tax, more precisely a tax levied on real estate, could be considered to finance local government.