Martin Aadamsoo: Were we ready to help refugees?
It will soon be three weeks since the start of the war in Ukraine. Martin Aadamsoo writes about Estonia's state of preparedness for helping Ukraine and receiving refugees.
I help organize coordination, collection and transport of humanitarian aid. Mostly for my employer Magnum that is sending to Ukraine a million euros worth of medicines, hospital equipment and veterinary medicines. But also for Estonian Students Society (EÜS) Tartu and Tallinn houses. I helped launch Apotheka pharmacies' charity collection for Ukraine. During that time, I have spoken to dozens of individuals, state agencies, NGOs etc.
Follows my subjective summary of Estonia's preparedness:
Estonia started crisis preparations last fall. This means we had sufficiently credible intelligence and other kinds of information. To the best of my knowledge, Estonia was preparing to receive 50,000 refugees as the worst-case scenario. That scenario is all but upon us in Ukraine and concerning refugees, and I would not be surprised to see this estimate exceeded.
Most people and civilian organizations held the war to be unlikely, myself included. Urgent preparations began a week or two before the Russian invasion, when the signs were already clear. A little too late.
The private sector and individuals were ready to act long before the state. Magnum released its statement of support two days after the war started and had compiled lists of medicines to be donated a day later. EÜS opened its collection points two days in.
By now, the state has formed national crisis headquarters, while it is clear that both tangible and procedural preparations came too late. Transport corridors for sending aid to Ukraine, including customs formalities and permits, had not been established etc.
Nevertheless, we need to tip our hats to politicians and officials who mobilized quickly and worked weekends once the war broke out. The bottlenecks are obvious: aid and refugee transport, reception and accommodation, legislation for refugees' status, organization of employment opportunities and healthcare, taxation of humanitarian aid etc.
These things need to be in place and ready to use in the future. Aid and a massive number of refugees cannot be managed based on enthusiasm alone. The Estonian Defense Forces and its NATO allies have been up to the task.
The state cannot delegate its tasks to the third and private sectors. NGOs can help, while they cannot perform vital functions. The latter are undermanned, underfunded and overloaded. While nonprofits have helped us weather the crisis so far, it will continue and become more complicated as time goes by.
The state needs to form a clear and fully authorized crisis structure that can, at the push of a button, override red tape that in no way contributes to protecting freedoms in Ukraine, Estonia, Europe or anywhere for that matter.
Estonians' preparedness and will to help is singular, from individuals to corporations and civil society. The information space I inhabit sees virtually no more daily squabbling, point-scoring and other superfluous elements. But the ordinary person's enthusiasm to get things done, offer help and generally remain active lasts for about two weeks, which is when fatigue sets in. These initial two weeks need to be capitalized on in a crisis, instead of wasting time on deciding who should do what, why and how.
The feared fifth column in Estonia is keeping silent. We have heard very little in terms of provocations against volunteers, while one cannot be expected to keep an eye on the whole of social media. It cannot be ruled out that the proponents of the war are somewhat worried about their livelihood and future on the green meadows of Europe.
The refugee tragedy is here to stay. Let us count on the majority of [Ukrainian] refugees deciding to stay in Estonia. It is okay. Let us help them, open doors, teach them our language, offer work and education. Just like Estonian refugees were accommodated in 1944. They were successful in their new land, kept their nationality and helped their country when the chance came.
In summary. Efforts to help Ukraine will continue, while work with refugees who have arrived in Estonia is piling up. We are all wiser for it and will be better prepared next time. This is a crisis we will not waste.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski