Estonia Not Ready for Rising Numbers of Refugees, says the National Audit Office ({{commentsTotal}})

A report published earlier today says Estonia is not ready for an increase in applications for protection as well as asylum. The Government ignored the changing global reality for too long, and there is no long-term policy in place to deal with the issue.

Based on the EU’s quota system for the distribution of refugees, Estonia can expect to receive about 550 people in 2016, significantly more than the 231 arrivals of last year. While the Police and Border Guard say they will be able to cope with larger numbers, the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) have a different opinion.

The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) expect roughly 300 arrivals in 2016 and say that they are ready, provided they receive the necessary funds. They are currently training 180 additional officials to process applications, of which 60 will be able to deal with international formalities as well. Estonian law does not offer the possibility to apply for protection or asylum from abroad. Riigikogu is working on a bill to change that. Currently in its second reading, the changed law was initially expected for early February, but has now been put off to a later time, with no new date set.

The Ministry of the Interior confirmed that they will be able to deal with 550 people this year, and that they are ready for a sudden increase in the number of arrivals should it occur.

Estonia Does Not Meet the Conditions of Its Own Law

The National Audit Office (Riigikontroll) is not quite as optimistic. It points out that although the Police and Border Guard may be able to process 550 applications, Estonia’s capability to receive refugees does not depend on this fact alone.

The report lists 17 conditions that need to be met just to offer the new arrivals the services specified in Estonia’s own Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. Three conditions are met, one is met but weak, and 13 conditions are met partially.

The three conditions met include the state’s readiness and ability to pay financial support and pensions. Also, local governments can make all their usual services available to the applicants. On top of that, there is Töötukassa, the state’s unemployment insurance fund, that stands ready to help them enter the labour market.

Another condition is the ability to keep track of an applicant’s status in the long-term. While the necessary infrastructure is available, there is no definitive procedure how to do this yet.

But while state and local governments are ready to provide all their usual services, there is no plan or policy in place to receive applicants and integrate them in the long term. This includes housing, and the fact that even though there is a welcoming program in place, the program is voluntary, generally only a few days long, and not always understandable to participants.

Improvements made over the past six months include better availability of support services as well as a bill currently in its second reading in Riigikogu that will make language instruction mandatory for all applicants for protection or asylum. Still, the National Audit Office stresses that there is no coherent policy and no action plan to deal with the situation.

The question whether or not Estonia could deal with a sudden surge in applications and arrivals is particularly interesting. The number of applications for protection in the second half of 2015 in Finland was ten times that of a year earlier, applications for asylum increased by 50% during the same period. A similar increase in Estonia would incapacitate the existing system.

The report sees Estonia as only partially ready to receive 550 new applicants this year, and expresses serious doubts that the current system is capable of handling significantly larger numbers should they occur. It recommends to assign the creation of a coherent policy and action plan to a single ministry, and to define specific tasks and responsibilities of different authorities as soon as possible.

The Government Underestimated the Issue

In the report, the National Audit Office says that the Government has failed to realise that the topics of international protection and asylum have become one of the EU’s most urgent political issues.

The position of the Government has been that the distribution of refugees across the EU based on quotas is unfair, and that Estonia won't participate. This has already had a negative effect, as the European Commission decided to take all those into account that have taken in refugees voluntarily and Estonia got a higher number for its previous lack of cooperation.

Yet the government continues to underestimate the problem, treating the arrival of this year’s 300-550 applicants as a one-off event instead of a permanent shift in the global reality of migration. Creating a coherent long-term policy, according to the National Audit Office, would mean a great step forward.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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