This summer, a small village even most Estonians had never heard of, suddenly became the epicenter of public discourse. There are a lot of stories about Vao – where the country's largest refugee center is based – and most of them are untrue.
Although Estonia ratified the UN 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1997, thereby assuming an obligation to provide protection to people fleeing wars, conflicts and persecution, very few people actually ended up on the shores of this tiny Nordic country, itself picking up pieces from the long Soviet occupation.
Estonia's strict and conservative immigration laws didn't send out a favorable message either. In fact, in 18 years since Estonia joined the convention designed to help refugees, it has granted international protection to less than 150 people.
Until this summer, when the European refugee crisis suddenly hit home and Estonia woke up to a knowledge that it would also need to provide safe haven for a number of people, asylum seekers were hidden from the public eye – hardly anyone knew that they do exist right here, right now.
The first asylum seekers in the late 1990s were housed in the temporary establishments across Estonia – a former infectious diseases clinic, a school, and a hotel. In May 2000, the only reception center for asylum seekers in Estonia opened its doors in the rural municipality of Illuka, Ida-Viru County. In January 2014, the accommodation center for asylum seekers was moved to Vao, a village near Väike-Maarja in Lääne-Viru County.
When the news broke this spring that the European Commission wants to impose refugee quotas on all member states, the Estonian far-right became more visible than ever before. Pictures downloaded straight from the European neo-nazi websites, depicting all the immigrants and refugees as scroungers – or worse, potential terrorists – became a daily feature on the social media. The otherwise peaceful and cosy country woke up to the fact that there is a numerous nasty hate group in the society that incites hatred against anyone who comes from a different cultural or religious background.
The nasty public discourse got so bad that step-by-step, opinion leaders started to react. President Ilves famously said that fear – even of something strange – is a bad leader and anger is an even worse strategy. In the Victory Day speech he reminded people that we ought to want Estonia where people are judged for their values, skills and attitudes, not their origins, religion or native language, and refrain from classifying our own Estonians into the right kind and the second-rate kind, and those with different worldviews into enemies or worthless.
Ilves's speech didn't fix it, sadly. Suddenly the public became aware of the fact that albeit few, Estonia already has asylum seekers – and they live in Vao. Local channel, Kanal 2, decided to visit Vao, but instead of speaking to residents of the refugee center, dedicated its resources on finding negative. The channel returned with a story of alleged rape of a local woman by one of the asylum seekers.
The next day, a fake rape story was circling around the media waves and shared on the social media in thousands. The far-right Conservative People's Party (EKRE), fiercely against refugees and immigration, saw an opportunity to increase its popularity and started spinning the story too.
It took two months for another media outlet, daily Postimees, to pick up a phone to police, and determine that no rape has taken place and a local, slightly drunk woman, had been engaged in a chat with one of the asylum seekers – a year ago.
Another story said that children of the asylum seekers are not following local customs and one of them had trespassed local villager's home. It turned out later that indeed, a two-year old Arabic-speaking boy got lost and ended up at the local doorstep by mistake – since he hadn't learned Estonian yet, he didn't understand when barked not to enter.
Then, it got worse still. In the early hours, on September 3, the external wall of the Vao center was set on fire. Luckily, no one was hurt in the incident.
This time, it caused a widespread condemnation from left and right, with a notable exception of EKRE. "For over 20 years we have tried to build a humane society in Estonia and an image of a welcoming country. Actions like this, put all that in danger," said Urmas Paet, a former foreign minister, now MEP. "I'm ashamed and embarrassed to read about the fire at the refugee center in Vao, which at the time housed over 50 people, including 13 children. I expect every parliamentary party to take a public and official stand, from which our citizens can understand who values the rule of law, human life and the constitution,“ President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in a statement.
Since then, only a handful of die-hard racists dare to mention Vao, at least in public. ERR News decided to check out whether the life has normalized in the village.
Vao refugee center
It is easy to spot the immigration center from the rows of soviet apartment blocks. It’s the one that has been given a fresh coat of yellow pain making it stand out from the other brown peeling – sometimes empty – buildings.
Despite the headlines about immigrants taking over the country, in the last 10 years Estonia has granted asylum to only 119 people in total – it is one of the least popular destinations for people to claim asylum in Europe.
Most of those asylum seekers since last year will have passed through these walls at some point and currently the center is home to men, women and children from 23 different countries. Most are happy to be here, but some are less so.
But why do asylum seekers come to Estonia in the first place?
Inside the center there are two common rooms, one with sofas, chairs, tables and a computer and one with four exercise bikes lined up against the windows and with rows of French, English, Russian, Arabic and Estonian books stacked on the shelves.
Upstairs, the building is split it to separate living apartments. Nobody has much. Walls are bare and possessions sparse.
The first person ERR News spoke to was Ahmed, a tall boy in his mid twenties who had fled political unrest in the Middle East, but asked for his country of origin not to be named.
Sitting on the sofa in the common room with five or six other young men tapping away on smart phones and laptops and several shy children he spoke about how he had come to be living in Estonia.
He said one of the main reasons he had sought asylum in here is because no-one knows where it is. “I like Estonia and I am hoping to continue my life here,” Ahmed said. “It is nice, quiet country and I think that it has a great future.”
But he added that one of the things that upset him most was Estonians' views of immigration and how some of the press printed stories with an “agenda”.
He said: “I wish that Estonian people would come and visit us and recognize us and get to know about us in the right way. I wish people would realize we are just like them and see how we live here.”
The atmosphere at the center and in the village is mostly very peaceful and calm, says manager Jana Selesneva, sitting in her office at a desk cluttered with papers and colored post-it note. She also blamed the media for “causing problems” and spreading misinformation.
One such incident was when a newspaper reported an asylum seeker had gone into a villagers home without permission. However it turns out this “intruder” was a two-year-old boy who spoke only Arabic.
Currently 78 people are living in the accommodation block: 25 children, 15 women and 38 men. Jana told ERR News the building is very over crowded: “It was build for only 35 people, we didn’t think anyone would come here.”
But people have come here and they have come from all over; nations include Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Nigeria, Albania and Georgia to name but a few. English is the most commonly spoken language.
At the moment the majority of refugees have come from Ukraine, fleeing fighting in the east, seeking asylum in Estonia because of the shared Russian language.
Claims take around six months to be processed but often even longer, and if a claim is rejected a person can appeal the decision three times. Most people spend around a year at the center and under law can apply for work after six months.
Most people want to get a job and earn some money – the 99 euro benefit they receive from the government goes nowhere, they say – and about 20 asylum seekers are currently working in construction or retirement homes. Children attend local schools and pick the language up easily after several months. Most of the adults ERR News spoke to were also learning Estonian.
Jana said it is not the staff's place to decide if someone is a genuine asylum seeker fleeing persecution or an economic migrant hoping to find work.
“Some people here specifically picked Estonia but some people randomly pick it because it is an EU country. We don’t rule out that some people are economic migrants but it is up to the Police and Border Guard to decide. We treat everyone equally here.”
Sonya and Ilya from Dagestan came to Estonia with their four children because they felt they had no other choice. In doing so they left behind their jobs, house and garden full of apple trees for two rooms in the immigration center. Estonia was their first choice because as native Russian speakers they felt they could get by until they had learnt Estonian and could get visas quickly to leave Dagestan.
The pair greets ERR News by saying “Tere” and then speak Russian through a translator.
Ilya laughs: “Estonia is cool. The nature is beautiful and it is very calm and peaceful and the children are very excited for winter and to see snow and for a proper white Christmas.”
Their three eldest children currently go to school but the youngest, who is kindergarten age, has to stay at home as the government does not provide free places for refugee children. The couple deny they came to Estonia because it is a richer country – rather, they cite two reasons: first of all, they can get by with Russian, since Estonia has a large Russian minority; and second, they remember Estonia since it was occupied by Soviet Union and had a very positive image already back then.
However not everyone ERR News spoke to was happy to be in the country. Abdul – not his real name – is originally from West Africa and having been at the center for less than a month, he said in fluent English with a British accent that he was unhappy with not being able to work sooner.
“I am a grown man and I like to have the ability to care for myself. I cannot survive like this [on 90 euros a month] – nobody can. I am a Muslim and I don’t even have enough money to go to the Islamic Center in Tallinn every week for Friday prayers. I’m so pissed, Estonia is the last place I want to be,” he said, adding that he was once declined a seat on a bus by a driver – in his opinion, due to racism.
Currently, the Muslims have to use one of the rooms – also used as a mini-gym – for praying. A special extension for a new prayer room is planned.
But most people spoke positively about the center and Estonia.
Jana said that the media never bothered with the immigration center before it was announced migrants from the refugee crisis in southern Europe would be coming to the country.
The center in Vao village will not be receiving any of the 500 EU quota migrants from Italy. The center only takes people who plead for asylum at Estonia’s borders.
She said she now spends a large part of her time dealing with the press.
“Everyone’s culture starts in their own home,” she says. “Lots of people are concerned about Muslims, but no one here has ever said their religion is more important than anyone else's. We need to dedicate time to integrating the new people, if you isolate people that is when the problems start.”