The head of the Estonian Human Rights Center, Kari Käsper, says that Estonia's refugee policy sends a clear, "slightly xenophobic" signal to the international community and speaks louder than any pro-human rights statement from the Foreign Ministry.
Käsper told uudised.err.ee that the Omar case raises the larger issue of Estonia's conservative refugee policy, especially in light of the country's appointment to the UN Human Rights Council this year.
He pointed to Interior Minister Ken-Marti Vaher of the conservative IRL party, who Käsper said has shown a sense of pride in the fact that Estonia attracts the lowest number of refugee seekers in the EU, with 75 applications submitted last year.
The minister has attributed the low number to the efficient work of the border patrol, but Käsper noted a negative societal attitude toward refugees prompted by the fear - which he called absurd - that forgoing conservative policies would invite a flood of migrants to the country.
"The substance of this message, which comes off as stingy and slightly xenophobic, is simple: Estonia does not want to contribute to resolving international problems and conflicts in a form that means giving refuge to more victims of persecution, despite the fact that we ourselves have historically needed such assistance," Käsper said.
"Estonia's asylum policy sends a message to the world about our country's and society's values that speaks louder than our foreign minister's declarations about human rights as a priority."
The few migrants who have managed to persuade border guards to admit them to the refugee center, where applicants can spend months and sometimes years in mediocre conditions, and finally receive a positive judgement, do not have a good life to look forward to in Estonia, due to intolerance, lack of support, joblessness and the language barrier, according to Käsper's account.
Whether Estonia is meeting international requirements is another question, Käsper said, citing the UN refugee commissioner's call for implementation of a neutral monitoring program at the Estonian border.
Considering the potentially inflammatory nature of Human Rights Center's director's comments, ERR News turned to the Interior Ministry for input. The ministry's response, however, was brief and apparently did not see reason to address the accusations. Ly Pärn, a ministry adviser on migration, said simply that Estonia's asylum procedures are transparent, neutral and in accordance with EU laws. She added that refugee status is given on a case-by-case basis. The Foreign Ministry did not comment.
The Omar Case
Government members have been tight-lipped about Omar, an Afghan interpreter who for years worked for the Estonian military in Afghanistan and was declined asylum in Estonia last week. It is the only publicly known case of its type in Estonia.
Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said the judgement call was not a political one. Käsper said he agreed that it couldn't have been a political decision, adding that it is not standard practice for asylum seekers to submit applications from abroad.
The undisclosed facts of the case aside, the government's laconic commentary in a case that has roused considerable public interest and involved the foreign, defense and interior ministries has stirred skepticism in the media.
In one of the few comments that was given, Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu implied, without further explanation, that the case could have set a precedent for at least 60 other Afghan civilians who have assisted the Estonian military. Critics said Omar was betrayed and that the government's conservative, nationalist interests were to blame.
In one instance of criticism, a foreign desk editor for Postimees, Evelyn Kaldoja, recently ran an opinion piece entitled "60 Spooks" in which she parodied the insinuation that giving asylum to two classrooms full of Afghans could pose a threat to the nation, establishing Dari as an official language and turning Estonia into a desert. "Over 70,000 Estonians escaped to Sweden and Germany after the Second World War," Kaldoja said. "Remember that number."
Although the details of the case at hand are not open to the public, thereby limiting the scope of analysis, the Human Rights Center has asserted that civilians who have assisted coalition forces in Afghanistan are certainly at risk from the Taliban, and that interpreters have the added factor of potentially carrying intelligence information.