'Pealtnägija': Only a fifth of EU migrant quota has been fulfilled

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Shorok Alsulaiman, originally from Syria, will graduate from the Tallinn Old Town Adult Gymnasium (Tallinna Vanalinna Täiskasvanute Gümnaasium) this year. Source: ERR

Only around 20 percent of the original quota of displaced persons permitted to settle in Estonia in the wake of the European migrant crisis are still resident in Estonia, while the full limit was not reached at any time, ETV investigative show "Pealtnägija" reported Wednesday.

The show also took a look at why this might have been the case, and spoke to political leaders involved in the debate at the time, as well as a young person who fled the Syrian civil war with her family and who has successfully integrated into Estonian life.

The EU's original migration distribution plan subsequently foundered, while Estonia's quote was less than half-filled. The entry into office of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) in April 2019 meant the issue was finally dead and buried, "Pealtnägija" reported, and Estonia no longer participates in any variety of migrant redistribution, unlike Finland, for instance, which is due to receive over 1,000 people under a redistribution scheme this year.

Former EKRE leader and former interior minister Mart Helme however calls the current statistics – which report only around 100 people resident in Estonia who came here under the EU migration redistribution plan – misleading, saying that others have entered the country, including the relatives of those legitimately here, he says.

"These statistics are inaccurate and I recommend taking other data from the Ministry of the Interior or the Police and Border Guard Board, where we are also talking about second migration. This secondary migration has brought thousands of people to Estonia. These are people who have entered the EU via other countries, but come to us, for various reasons," he told "Pealtnägija".

Mart Helme however says that things are nonetheless under control in Estonia, and this is largely down to EKRE's focus on the issue.

Reform MEP and former prime minister Andrus Ansip takes a different view.

"Yes, I mean you take a look out of your home window and they (i.e. migrants – ed.) are all you can see, right?!"

"There is no rationale to these stories. This is not reflected anywhere other than in these horror stories of the time, in order to dodge having to admit that 'yes, we lied to the people. Yes, we tried to manipulate the people.'"

"This is the common behavior of the populists. First of all a bogey-man is painted on the wall, a straw man, which we then start fighting. The ultimately when this real 'danger' does not materialize, they can then say 'yes, that is because we fought it off'," Ansip went on.

"For this reason, I was not one of those at all; a sober person believing that we were threatened by tens of millions of Africans, and then only EKRE were the ones able to keep them out of Estonia. Well, I don't think common sense people can believe any of that," he added.

Nonetheless, those migrants who do arrive have to deal with acculturation, integration. This seems to have been easier for young people, "Pealtnägija" reported.

Shorok Alsulaiman is a 19-year-old Syrian girl who arrived in Estonia with her family in 2018 and, while she and her siblings, aged 12 and eight, have learned to speak Estonia, her father does not, and has not been able to get a full-time job as a result.

Shorok, who is due to graduate from upper-secondary school (Gümnaasium) this year, said that her plan was to study dentistry at university, and to stay in Estonia.

"Maybe when the war in Syria ends, I'll go to Syria, but just on a visit - I don't want to go back there," she said.

"I can well remember how the war started. It initially was a little further away from our town, but later on it was our city's turn, and of course bombs were being dropped by planes all the time. I was in seventh grade, I was in school and a plane flew over and our teacher told us not to be afraid, that the plane wouldn't attack. But a minute or two later it bombed the school. After that, there was nothing left everyone left school. Many students died and there was a lot of blood everywhere."

The Syrian civil war was one of the triggering events of the European migrant crisis from 2015 onwards, and the union came up with a migrant redistribution plan, in order to deal with those people fleeing that country and others, predominantly in the Middle East and Africa. At the same time, the human rights situations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia has also prompted people to apply for protection in, and move to, Estonia, while Ukraine in particular is a major source of labor in the construction sector and in agriculture.

In March 2016, the first family, from Iraq, placed on the basis of a migration plan arrived in Estonia and finally 213 people successfully passed the Estonian "test". 

Estonia's figure was initially set at well over 1,000 under the scheme, but this was revised downwards to a maximum of 550 people, which the country pledged to take on. In practice, only a little over 200 arrived, while only around 100 people are still resident in Estonia according to the statistics.

Estonia's two migrant processing residential centers at Vao, Lääne-Viru County and Vägeva, Jõgeva County, between them host fewer than 30 people, while the level of asylum applications in 2020, admittedly the first pandemic year was not much more than half that for 2019.

Each EU member state not only decided its quota but also the criteria for acceptance. In Estonia's case this entailed background checks, with officials being sent to migrant centers in Italy, Greece and Turky as part of this process.

In fact, a certain amount of promotion of the country was required, in addition to a search for a "super refugee", "Pealtnägija" reported.

This was somewhat the case, yes," Kaisa Üprus-Tali, service manager at the Social Insurance Board (Sotsiaalkindlustusamet) told "Pealtnägija".

Some migrants even turned Estonia down, she said.

"Since Estonia is not known at all well as a country for migration, there were also situations where people, such as children, teenagers, told us in an interview, please do not contact us," she added, noting there was no point over-selling the country and then the arrival being unhappy and, as a consequence, unwilling to adapt.

A 2017 edition of "Pealtnägija" had also reported on how around half the quota refugees had already left Estonia, many of them heading for Germany, where many of them had relatives or other contacts already resident and where benefits were perceived as being higher.

At the same time, Eero Janson, head of NGO Eesti Paigulasabi, an organization aimed at helping migrants, said that somewhere down the line, the focus was lost on what the aims of the program were meant to be.

"I think that to some extent such a humanitarian principle was lost at some point. Indeed, we were almost looking for a person or family who already, I don't know, knows Estonian and would be able to come to work the next day," Janson told "Pealtnägija".

The practice of dispersing migrants across the country was, in hindsight, called into question – something which Janson said his organization had opposed from the start, as it would mean weaker support and services for new arrivals even as the argument in favor of it had been to share the burden across local governments.

Those people who did arrive were not under any particular surveillance, "Pealtnägija" reported, which is an additional reason for not having no precise figure of how many of the original quota migrants still live in Estonia.

Andrus Ansip said that "If you've still made a commitment, you should at least try to fulfill that commitment. We tried, it didn't work very well, but we are richer for the experience."

Eero Janson pointed towards communities of displaced persons and their descendants who had come from Estonia, as a model, particularly in Toronto and other locations in North America.

"I myself have lived in Toronto, where you have Eesti Pank, the Estonian House, the Estonian newspaper and so on. In fact, the Estonian people themselves have built the communities they have migrated to, and we consider that very positive. And yet, when we talk about refugees [here], it's as if it' s somewhat considered negative if someone here wants to take this type of community approach to community work."

Mart Helme rejected this line.

"This is now such a sought-after and naive comparison that it is wholly inappropriate to bring it in. Estonians have, with their arrivals in handfuls in Canada, never threatened Canada's statehood, Canadian culture, nor even Canadian bilingualism – even among the French community, let alone the English-speaking community, with their handfuls arriving in Canada. What are we talking about," he told "Pealtnägija".

Shorok Alsulaiman says that things are going well here, however: "Yesterday I had a state exam in Estonian. I am studying at Tallinn Old Town Adult Gymnasium, in the twelfth grade, and this year I will graduate from school."

When asked how the Estonian language exam went, she answered that while the written part had been difficult, but the oral part went well.

The original "Pealtnägija" segment (in Estonian) is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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