Minister of Internal Affairs Kristian Jaani (Center Party) said that even though Estonia has recorded just three illegal border crossings this year, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) stands ready for mass border crossings. The border guard is entitled to use force against people crossing the border illegally.
"Even though there is no illegal immigration pressure on Estonia right now, we have made a lot of preparations to anticipate it," Jaani told the "Uudis+" radio news program.
"Estonia is obligated to block all manner of illegal border crossing and detain persons who cross the border illegally," Jaani said.
The minister explained that crossing the border is only allowed using border stations and that violators are looking at a prison sentence of up to one year. At the same time, international law does not allow returning people to where their life might be in danger.
"That is a situation where the person asks for international protection. Such applications need to be reviewed. "A decision is then made of whether to send the person back to where they came from or grant international protection."
Jaani said that people spotted approaching the border are warned and told they are breaking the law.
"If the person does not heed verbal warnings, we have the right to use force and coercion."
The interior minister added that border guard officers can use special equipment, such as firearms, batons or tasers the use of which is regulated in the Law Enforcement Act. Border guard operatives must not set foot on the other side of the border.
"If the person clearly asks for international protection, international law obligates us to process the request. If not, we have the right to return the person to where they came from, using force if necessary."
The boundary line is five kilometers wide from where a person can be sent back. "Returning people is possible in practice, our legal environment makes it possible."
Jaani pointed out that a person usually leaves behind tracks when crossing the border illegally. When the person is caught in Estonia, a meeting with the border representative of the other country is held and the location of the illegal crossing recorded. If so, the neighboring county is obligated to take the person back.
"It is often impossible to find the place where the person crossed the border or the other country can claim that the border has not been crossed where we say it was," Jaani said. "Then, we have no choice but to receive the person."
"Should a larger number of illegal immigrants cross, we have a corresponding emergency plan in place," the interior minister said when asked what would happen if Estonia found itself in a situation like the one on the Lithuania-Belarus border today.
The plan covers different agencies' efforts with immigrants. "Every agency has different and very specific tasks in a mass immigration emergency."
The minister said that several amendments were passed last year for rapid processing of mass immigration. Illegal immigrants can be detained for longer with a court permit, international protection applications can be processed at the same time using lists and immigrants can be housed at temporary detention stations.
Jaani said that 115 kilometers of the land border will be developed with 63 kilometers currently under construction. Actual construction work is taking place on 23 kilometers, with preparation work underway elsewhere.
"Developing border infrastructure is extremely important, and what is happening on Lithuania's border with Belarus shows how important physical border infrastructure really is," Jaani said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski