Estonian cities struggling to find accommodation for Ukrainian refugees

The refugee reception center in Tallinn's Kalamaja.
The refugee reception center in Tallinn's Kalamaja. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Refugee organizations and local governments are quickly running out of accommodation for Ukrainian refugees and are dissatisfied with the level of state support. The government said one solution is to stop large numbers of refugees being brought privately to Estonia.

As of Thursday, 12,488 Ukrainians have arrived in Estonia and 4,000 of that number have been children. Of the total number, 3,002 were people transiting on to other countries.

NGO's Eesti Pagulasabi, Mondo and the Center for Human Rights are now demanding a plan from the government for when Estonia has reached the 10,000 refugee limit.

Earlier this week, Minister of Social Security Signe Riisalo (Reform) said this is the maximum number of people that can be accepted so normal life can continue for the rest of the country.

"However, the reality is that the Estonian border is open to all Ukrainian citizens and that we offer them and their family members temporary protection for one year until they can return to their homeland," Riisalo told ERR.

The minister said one solution is now to limit large number of refugees brought to Estonia by private individuals. She also said more could be done to direct people to different cities at the country's border.

Aid organizations are concerned the majority of evacuations from the Polish border to Estonia have been privately funded and organized by the Refugee Council. NGOs expect the government to finance and organize the process.

Riisalo confirmed, up until now, this has been the case. She said the focus must now be on helping people who have arrived and on finding permanent accommodation, jobs and accessing social services.

Cities struggling to manage

Local governments are also feeling the strain as there is a shortage of accommodation.

Reception centers have been opened in Tallinn, Tartu, Rakvere and Pärnu and each city has initially purchased space for reception centers in hotels for a month. After that, local governments will process the new arrivals.

Deputy Mayor of Tallinn Vladimir Svet (Center) said the situation is difficult but the council has managed so far. He said hotel places provided by the Social Insurance Board ran out on Wednesday but additional accommodation was found in Anija parish.

Svet said the council was given more rooms by the agency this morning and accommodation is not yet exhausted in the capital "People will stay in Tallinn. Other municipalities will also have to take in refugees," he said.

The official said long-term accommodation and jobs also need to be found for the new arrivals but this task cannot be left to cities.

"Without the state, things cannot be organized in such a way that people are guaranteed a dignified life and work," he said.

In Tartu, refugees are being housed in three hotels. Two are already full but there are still a few spaces in Raadimõisa Hotel, where a reception center has been opened.

Deputy Mayor of Tartu Mihkel Lees (Reform) predicted another hotel will be needed by Friday morning. There is also room to accommodate 200 people in Turu sports center.

"But it can only be a temporary shelter. So far we have been able to send everyone to a hotel with more pleasant conditions," he said.

Lees also said central planning is needed. "Central coordination and a wider view are needed to accommodate people in hotels in other parts of Estonia," said Lees. If 1,000 people arrive in Tartu it will be difficult for people to find housing and access social services, he said.

On Thursday, the Social Insurance Board said it will change its policy and try to accommodate refugees across Estonia not only in larger cities. "Information is changing every day and we have to be flexible," said Kaisa Üprus-Tali.

As of Thursday, 2.3 million people have fled Ukraine. Poland has taken in 1.4 million people so far.

Estonia has a total population of 1.3 million, if it accepts 10,000 refugees that will be almost 1 percent of the population.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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