Foreign students' rights petition reaches Riigikogu

National coat of arms at Toompea, seat of the Riigikogu.
National coat of arms at Toompea, seat of the Riigikogu. Source: Siim Lõvi

The Riigikogu has received a petition signed by foreign students in Estonia, and their supporters, which aims to preserve their rights and opportunities for study in Estonia, regardless of their country of origin.

The petition, organized on the citizens' initiatives (Rahvaalgatus) website by musician Jana Levitina, was started on July 6 and now has been forwarded to the Riigikogu's constitutional committee after collecting over 1,000 online signatures, according to the Riigikogu's website.

The petition, entitled "Opportunities for Foreign Students and Workers to Study and Work in Estonia, also aims to ensure that the spouses and dependents of foreign students can get a residence permit, both in normal times and during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We want to remain a country where people are valued according to their skills and potential, not their origins, especially in the legal sense," Levitina said in a statement, ERR's online Estonian news reports.

The petition says that coronavirus restrictions of movement should only last as long as the pandemic does and not beyond, and only apply to countries with a high risk of coronavirus rather than as a blanket regulation for students from all "third countries", predominantly meaning non-EU/EEA, non-Schengen zone nations.

The petition's authors argue the interior ministry has not argued its case using factual arguments strongly enough.

The Riigikogu is currently on summer recess, meaning the constitutional committee are unlikely to look at the petition until early September, i.e. after the academic year has already begun.

Under the proposed government amendments to the relevant law, the Aliens Act, long-term visas would no longer be granted to international students' family members under the same conditions as to the foreign students who have come to study in Estonia, and students would only be able to invite their spouses to Estonia after they have been studying in the country for two years, though family members can apply for visas independently.

Some of the main countries in focus are Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, who all supply significant numbers of foreign students.

Critics of the amendments say they would grant too much power to the interior minister and to the police, as well as that the restrictions fall unfairly on third countries, including those with low current COVID-19 rates.

Education minister Mailis Reps said Thursday that foreign students coming from coronavirus-risk countries and who ignored the quarantine requirement, regardless of whether they were in the EU or outside it, would be stripped of their temporary residence permit.

International students numbered 5,528 in Estonia last year, according to data by the Ministry of Education and Research. Of these, 1,863 were from an EU/EEA member state and 3,446 from third countries.

Another petition launched last month followed the decision by Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) to bar entry to third country students.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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