The shackles of history and modern life in the fast lane: Estonia's experience in the migration crisis (10)

Iraqi Kurds in the Grand-Synthe refugee camp in Northern France. Oct. 4, 2016. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Scanpix)
By Greete Palmiste
10/6/2016 9:03 PM
Category: Opinion

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.

Every time someone in Estonia asks me a question which includes the word refugee, I fill my lungs up with air and hold my breath for one anxious second.

The crisis that unraveled at Europe's southern borders sent shockwaves through Estonian society and delivered important lessons. Despite the polarization of the opinions of different groups of society, Estonia has accepted 60 refugees since March of this year. Incidentally, Germany plays a pretty big role in opinions spreading in Estonia.

Europe's migration crisis has reached Estonia with its population of 1.3 million primarily via news and photos: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's invitation to refugees; masses of people at the European border; children with tearful brown eyes; a "guard" of orange life jackets on the shores of Grecian islands. Last summer it reached Estonia directly via the EU's quota policy, which Estonia did initially want to refuse, but then decided that it would accept 550 refugees over the course of two years. Teams of Estonian police have gone to help refugees at the border of Southern Europe.

At the same time, the spread of racist and ultranationalistic, downright xenophobic has unexpectedly and shockingly increased, and primarily in social media. Suddenly it seems wrong to tell jokes whose focus is a feature of an ethnicity or religious group as we don't want to appear to be like those who shamelessly sport "This is Not Africa" stickers on their cars.

Last summer, Estonia was shaken by the news that the exterior wall of an apartment building for asylum-seekers was set on fire. Journalists who have dared to write articles expressing solidarity on the subject of refugees receive harsh hate mail. This is an ugly picture of Estonia and it is embarrassing for me to describe it. Naturally this is only one side of the situation. But this is a situation which society must handle as the refugee issue will not be resolved so soon and the migration of peoples is invitable.

Conservative asylum policy

During the past 25 years, i.e. since the regaining of independence, Estonia's asylum policy has been very conservative. Estonia has become a refuge for approximately half a thousand people. We have primarily been engaged in rebuilding society, taking Nordic countries as a role model. This means that neither the Estonian people nor its citizens have much experience with helping foreigners in our home or even seeing a hijab in the streets.

Of course there are laws, international agreements and systems for those who have received asylum — such as compulsory language classes or state support in paying rent. But unexpectedly we are asked for help by people whose linguistic and cultural space are entirely different frm our own. We do not yet have textbooks for refugees or a conception of how Arabic-speaking children will get along in kindergarten.

During a time when Bremen opened its doors to the first refugees during the 1960s, Estonia was staring down a different sort of wave of migration. During World War II, both German and Soviet forces rolled through Estonia. Ultimately Soviet power occupied Estonia for the next 50 years. From 1959 until 1989, a large number of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians were relocated or migrated to Estonia. The share of Estonians in the population fell from 75 percent to 61 percent in that time. Today Estonians make up 69 percent of the population; one in four Estonian residents has Russian citizenship.

It can be generalized that 25 years ago, upon the restoration of Estonia's independence, a large number of Russians were essentially trapped in Estonia. Disappointment in fate has carried into today. To this day we have a large number of people who do not even want to learn Estonian and have not integrated. These circumstances — the decrease in the percentage of Estonians and problems with integration — are two of the arguments used by opponents of immigration: how can we talk about the integration of Syrians if we have not managed to do this with our compatriots in 25 years?

Politicians' uncertain communication

When my family heard that I would be coming to work in Germany for a month, they immediately added following their congratulations that I be sure to avoid going to people's gatherings. To hedge my risks in case someone should organize a terrorist attack. My family's warning surely did not come from research done on Bremen, rather they have been shocked by images of refugee centers being set on fire in Germany or news about machete attacks on trains and attacks in Cologne.

On a side note, all incidents occurring in Bremen that I have heard about over the past two weeks seem to have been directed at minorities specifically, not the other way around, whether it has been the setting on fire of a house intended for refugees or the looting of an LGBT center.

When Merkel publicly said that she welcomed everyone who was escaping from the terrors of war, some Estonians considered this to be madness. Others, however, recognized Merkel for her solidarity and courage to act. Speaking of the behavior of Estonian politicians in a crisis, however, it must be noted that the Estonian public was given two kinds of signals regarding how we would be affected by the mitigation of the crisis.

As already mentioned, Estonia did not initially agree to accepting refugees on the basis of a quota. Politicians communicated thus as well. It was later understood, however, that showing solidarity was the only right step. Signs of sites constructed with EU grants can be seen in every city in Estonia. This means that it would be hypocritical for us not to work as a team during difficult times. But the number of refugees remained unclear for quite some time.

Politicians' uncertain performances before journalists and poor explanatory work were to blame for a considerable increase in public distrust. The media was also bothered by the fact that nobody seemed to be able to provide straight answers. However, the media was a loser in last summer's confusion as well. Citizens' firey debates moved to social media instead and it became clear that neither the media nor Government Communications could handle the spreading of false facts or respond to populistic reasoning in online forums.

"One must be prepared for risks"

"We also didn't know what would begin to happen," Bremen Minister of Social Affairs spokesman Bernd Schneider told me. As Germany appears to Estonia to be one of the focuses of the migration crisis, I took advantage, in writing this article, of the opportunity to ask for comments from someone who has been involved very directly in the solving the crisis, albeit to a tiny degree on a European scale — Bremen accepted 10,000 refugees last fall.

It is understandable that journalists want answers and so they constantly ask questions. Politicians feel that that they must say something in response, but reality is very quick to change. "In dynamic situations, politicians likewise don't understand how situations may evolve," commented Schneider. He found that German media, which according to journalism logic loves extremes, has not always helped understand processes occurring in society. "Media is often black and white; gray area is found more seldom. But it is precisely that gray area that there should be more of," he said.

Similarly, we can never be entirely certain that someone who has been granted asylum would not end up in a life of crime, found the ministry spokesman. But crime would exist without refugees as well; it cannot ever be precluded. In Schneider's opinion, one must always be prepared for risks, but not at the cost of withdrawing from helping. On that note, locals with whom the refugees can communicate also play a big role, in his opinion.

"Everything is connected with everything; the entire world is a network," said Schneider, adding that no one country can isolate itself from the rest of the world, even just looking at the economic plane.


Greete Palmiste participated in the Goethe Institute's journalist exchange program Nahaufnahme in September, in which she spent three weeks in Germany working on the editorial staff of newspaper taz.die's Tageszeitung Bremen. In mid-October, journalist Benno Schirrmeister will be coming to work for ERR News' editorial staff via the same program.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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