Estonia has enough space to house 2,000 refugees should Russia further invade Ukraine causing people to flee, Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform) said on Wednesday.
Last week, the Ministry of Defense said thousands of Ukrainians could flee to Estonia if the situation escalates.
Asked during a radio interview how many people Estonia could take in, Riisalo said: "While our usual readiness to receive applicants for international protection is 100, we have up to 2,000 places for emergencies."
She said it is not known how or where Ukrainians would go if war did break out or if Estonia would be viewed as a destination country. But the minister said the country is well prepared after the events of the migrant crisis on the Belarusian border last year and taking in people from Afghanistan.
Asked what would happen should 20,000 people arrive, Riisalo said it would depend if people were claiming asylum or arriving with visas. If it is the latter option, people may well be moving to live or stay with relatives who are already based in Estonia.
However, she said 20,000 people fleeing to Estonia is "unlikely". "But if they do, we will of course look for additional accommodation. And we are actively working on that," Riisalo said.
The minister said many people could arrive but not claim asylum. The EU and Ukraine also have a short-term visa waiver agreement in place.
There are already almost 30,000 Ukrainians living in Estonia and an additional 20,000 with temporary work visas, the minister said. Ukrainians are the biggest minority group after Russians.
If people arrive and claim asylum they will be taken to reception centers at Vao and Vägeva which can accommodate 100 people. The Ministry of Social Affairs has already mapped where other people could stay.
Riisalo said she would not say where this additional accommodation is or in which areas.
"There is a need to prepare communities. And that's why I'm not mentioning these locations on the radio right now," she said when pushed by the presenter. "I'm sorry to say that, but I have to stand firm."
The minister said communication needs to be held directly with local governments and announcements of this kind should not be made over the radio.
She emphasized again that it is still not known what will happen in Ukraine or what Ukrainians may choose to do.
"It is sensible to inform people about real-life situations and needs, rather than sowing fear that we will have a mass of people here tomorrow who need accommodation and housing as our neighbors," Riisalo said.
She said Poland and Finland both have bigger Ukrainian communities so it could be expected people will go to other countries first. Approximately 1 million Ukrainians now live in Poland, mostly as workers not asylum seekers, and the country has already said it is preparing for more people to arrive.
The minister said discussions would be held at the EU level should something happen and member states would act in solidarity with each other.
Asylum claims in Estonia
Data from the Estonian Refugee Council and Police and Border Guard Board show only 1,100 asylum applications were submitted in Estonia between 1997 and 2019. There was also a drop in numbers during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The ERC says "a relatively small number of asylum seekers actually receive asylum" in Estonia.
"In the period 1997–2019, Estonia granted international protection to 531 people (refugee status to 280 people and subsidiary protection to 251 people). The largest number of beneficiaries during these 20 years have come from Syria (192 people), Ukraine (93), Iraq (41) and Russia (40)."
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and Estonia did not see many people arrive afterward, data from Statistics Estonia shows. See the graph below.
Editor: Helen Wright