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Migration crisis polarizes opinions in Estonia

Since the announcement of the European Commission's (EC) plan to introduce migrant quotas for all member states, Estonian social media is rife with debate. The discussion has already been called “Cohabitation Act vol. 2”, in a reference to passed civil partnership bill which split the society last year.

It is fair to say that EC's quota plan, which proposed Estonia to provide safe haven for 326 displaced persons from Africa, came as an unexpected shock to many, including the government ministers.

Hanno Pevkur, the usually composed Minister of Interior, was caught staring in disbelief at his ipad screen by TV-cameras in Toompea when the news broke. He admitted in an interview that he didn't have a clue about EC's plan and was quick to announce that Estonia would be unable to accept that many people, with current facilities for asylum seekers hardly accommodating up to 100 people at the time.

Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas has confirmed that the government is clearly against the EC's plan as it stands and will put its case forward. Rõivas did not rule out admitting displaced persons, but claimed that the EC had made an error in its calculation and even if Estonia did welcome the refugees, its quota should be much less than 326. “I think that we cannot ignore the fact that there is a very serious crisis going on in the Mediterranean and the southern member states are affected. If we expect other EU members to understand our concerns, then we're ought to find strength to listen worries by other countries too, which means that we cannot be absent from solving the problems. The government is currently preparing a plan as to how Estonia can help with the migration crisis, but we have to reach to a reasonable number.”

In fact, no Estonian politician in the Parliament or government has come across in support of the plan – even the Social Democrats that are usually keen to portray at least some human empathy, have been unusually quiet on this issue.

There are few exceptions, however. Siim Kallas, the ex-Prime Minister and former EU Commissioner, has been straightforward and told ERR that considering the large amount of foreign population in the country – a reference to 100,000 Russian and other citizens who don't hold Estonian citizenship – adopting few hundred asylum seekers would not be a big deal at all.

“We cannot live in fear as to how do we feed few more people. We have 104,000 foreigners and one million Estonian citizens. What would be the percentage for few refugees?” Kallas asked rhetorically, adding that the Estonian political elite should reach to a consensus in this question and receive a certain number of displaced persons.

President Ilves also seemed to agree that Estonia should show more like-mindedness. While he discussed the migration crisis with President Gauck on his state visit to Germany, he said that Estonia must demonstrate cooperation. “We can hardly expect solidarity from others regarding our problems unless we take part in solving the problems that others are facing.”

However, Ilves also said that the decisions concerning the admittance of refugees by the European Commission must be more transparent and he emphasized the fact that Estonia already has accepted a large number of immigrants in the past – a reference to Soviet-era forced immigration when hundreds of thousands of workers were relocated to the country. But president concluded that as a son of refugees – he was born to Estonian parents who had fled the Soviet occupation in 1944 and found a safe haven in Sweden – he is empathetic to émigrés and cannot, in principle, be against.

Number of Estonian MEPs – Marju Lauristin, Indrek Tarand, Urmas Paet, Kaja Kallas – have also been sympathetic and trying to remind to public that 80,000 Estonian refugees emigrated in stormy September conditions in 1944 – in fear of advancing Soviet troops, and most of them by boats just like the African emigrants in the Mediterranean.

High-ranking Estonian EU officials also hint that being a member of the European Union means giving as well as taking – Estonia has received a lot of support from the union and if it wants solidarity from others in future, it needs to be a team-player itself.

Then there are those who fiercely voice their opposition to a single immigrant on the Estonian soil. The Parliament MPs of far-right conservative EKRE have so far kept relatively low profile on this matter, but the party has nevertheless warned with mass protests should the government decide to accept the quota. Their activists on the ground and in the social media have been more poisonous, however. Anti-immigration articles straight from the European extreme-right websites are pulled and widely shared – in which the refugees are either portrayed as disingenuous crooks or lazy social support seekers – or worse, Islamic terrorists who would destroy Estonian culture and identity.

Another interesting aspect was highlighted by a journalist Vahur Koorits who argued in an article for Eesti Päevaleht that Estonia is going through an American-style culture war – a conflict between traditionalist, conservative values and progressive, liberal values. He drew attention to the fact that Estonia has now its very own liberal class – people who are usually well educated, are relatively wealthy, have traveled a lot, and usually live in an urban bubble of Tallinn or Tartu. They are more likely to support the adoption of African migrants. And at the other end of the scale, there are 'rural people' – less educated, less traveled, and very protective of 'traditional Estonia', who would also form a core voter base for conservative EKRE, against any immigration. Koorits argued that it is up to liberals and more educated people to find a common ground, to avoid a large-scale confrontation in the society.

There hasn't been yet a professionally organized survey or poll on the migrant issue in the society, so it is hard to tell how large percentage of Estonian people are against or in favor of admitting African refugees. The extremist voices giving tone in the social media will paint a very negative picture, but in private conversations more common sense prevails.

What is certain is that Estonia is not yet ready to adopt a significant number of displaced persons for two reasons – first, the opinion leaders and NGOs need to do more to lessen prejudice against genuine migrants; and second, actually build more facilities to accommodate them, as integration into new society does take time.

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