2020 has seen the number of asylum applications in Estonia fall to the lowest level in several years, largely the result of the coronavirus pandemic, but also part of a trend for a decline since the peak year of 2015.
Kristiina Raidla-Puhm, Head of the Police and Border Guard Board's (PPA) citizenship and international protection service, told ERR that 59 asylum applications had been received in 2020, a little over half the figure for recent years and placing Estonia as one of the lowest recipients of applications in the EU.
Raidla-Puhm said: "This extraordinary year certainly has a strong influence on applicants for international protection."
"We can also see that, certainly when talking to applicants, it emerges that Estonia as a country of destination is not seen as being very appealing, especially for people who have come from Africa or the Middle East," she went on.
More applications from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia
"[Estonia] is an unknown quantity, and they still aim at a so-called transit country through which to move to countries with a larger communities [of the same nationality or ethnic group] awaiting them, such as in Finland or Sweden," Raidla-Puhm added.
On the other hand, applicants from countries where Russian is widely spoken, such as Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the Russian Federation itself, consciously apply for international protection from Estonia, first and foremost, Raidla-Puhm continued.
Raidla-Puhm said that: "This is because they can communicate with their communities here, they understand the [Russian] language, its cultural space, and they know that here, for example, children can still receive a Russian-language education ... they do not have any obstacles in doing business [either.]"
At the same time, intransigence on the part of the current government has been claimed by some as the reason why larger numbers of Belarusian citizens have not been granted asylum in Estonia following the August reelection of Alexander Lukashenka and the subsequent violent crackdown on dissent.
59 applications compared with 226 in peak year of 2015
Following the peak year of 2015, during the European migrant crisis sparked by conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as in Afghanistan, when Estonia received a record number of 226 asylum applications, the number dropped off to around 100 per annum, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year as noted the figure is under 60, though around a third of the total has come in the last month-and-a-half of 2020.
As of November this year, a total of 315 people with international protection status were resident in Estonia, together with family members.
The interior ministry says there are two categories of international protection: Refugees, and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. The first group cannot return home due to the threat of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or social group. The second would see their life endangered were they to return to their country of origin, for instance due to conflict, the ministry says.
More than half of applications rejected
The PPA decides which type of protection applies on a case-by-case basis; Anneli Viks, qdviser to the Department of Citizenship and Migration Policy at the Ministry of the Interior, told ERR that not everyone who applies for international protection is guaranteed of receiving it – in fact the majority do not.
Viks said that: "It could be estimated that only about 30-40 percent of applicants get a positive decision, I.e. well below half."
The number of people staying at Estonia's two refugee centers, at Vao, Lääne-Viru County and Vägeva, Jõgeva County, had already halved on year to early October, when the number totaled 28 individuals.
Editor: Andrew Whyte