Refugees from Ukraine have often faced a long and bumpy road from crossing the border into Estonia at the Ikla border checkpoint to receiving temporary protection status and a work permit, but the opening of a new refugee reception center in Pärnu on Monday should help improve the overall situation.
The border checkpoint at Ikla, due south of Pärnu at the Latvian border, has seen the biggest numbers of incoming refugees from Ukraine. This also marks the first time that the refugees come in contact with Estonian authorities.
Up to 1,500 war refugees per day are entering Estonia via Ikla. Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) officers working at the checkpoint check people's passports and provide instructions regarding where to turn to seek help.
"All of them are let into the country in any case," said Eivo Evertsoo, field manager at the PPA's Pärnu police station. "Those who don't have their passports with them, who didn't have the chance to grab them, it just takes longer with them. But we haven't had any problems as such with them."
The border checkpoint is especially busy on weekends, but also in the mornings and evenings. It's a bit calmer during the day, with a minibus with Estonian or Ukrainian plates rolling in every ten minutes, and a coach bus full of refugees arriving every hour or so. Everyone to arrive has to fill out a form, children are given a stuffed toy to keep, and then they are welcomed into Estonia.
One incoming coach bus had come from the Ukrainian border carrying 45 people, most of them young women and children; the men remained in Ukraine.
"Everything went smoothly," said Andres Männart, the Estonian Refugee Council support person and chaperone accompanying them on the journey. "When they first got on the bus, people were anxious and a little stressed, but they rested on the journey."
Tamara left behind a husband, a house and a summer home in Ukraine; she and her grandchildren are heading to Pärnu, where they have a temporary place to stay with acquaintances waiting for them. She expressed gratitude toward Estonia and its people.
"You are a cultured, peaceful and hardworking people," Tamara said. "We traveled here on a fantastic and comfortable bus. Everyone has been so good and attentive toward us. Everything is clean and neat, and you can see that people here love their country. We also want peace and peaceful skies overhead. That nobody should have to suffer the way we have suffered. And for what? Why has this happened?"
Not everyone headed for Tallinn
The Estonian Refugee Council has chartered seven coach bus trips per week to the Polish-Ukrainian border and back from the bus company Lux Express.
"First we'll be reaching Pärnu with them, where 13 people will be getting off," said bus driver Toomas Johanson. "Then one family will be getting off in Sauga, and then the rest will be going to Tallinn."
According to current arrangements, all arriving refugees who don't have any relatives or other friends or acquaintances in Estonia are first taken to Tallinn, where the country's biggest distribution center is located. There they are tested for COVID, given food and clothing aid, and asked where they would like to live and work. While may do end up remaining in the country's capital, or continue on to Finland, it's nonetheless unrealistic to take all the refugees ultimately headed for Võru or Rakvere to Tallinn first.
"They all come on one bus, but their destinations are to different regions of Estonia," said Raimo Saadi, director of Tallinn's Welfare and Healthcare Department.
Refugees arriving at the department can book an appointment for applying for temporary protection at a PPA service office, but cannot apply directly for either temporary protection or a work permit.
Temporary protection application appointments are already booked out for a month or more at PPA offices, but refugees cannot access social aid services or start working without being issued temporary protection status. A new refugee reception center is opening in Pärnu on Monday, however, which should help alleviate the backlog.
"This means that all arrivals will go through one reception center," explained PPA Deputy Director General Egert Belitšev. "Various procedures will be conducted with them there: temporary protection procedures for those who want them, they are issued [Estonian] personal identification codes, and of course procedures related to social services are conducted as well. This reception center will give us the opportunity to distribute people across Estonia, meaning not everyone is taken to Tallinn, as well as ensure that one local government is not unduly burdened compared with the rest."
Editor: Aili Vahtla