Estonia far off from needing to build refugee camps, says ministry official

Ukrainian war refugees arriving in Tallinn in March 2022.
Ukrainian war refugees arriving in Tallinn in March 2022. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia is currently capable of offering dignified accommodations to up to 30,000 war refugees from Ukraine, according to Ministry of Social Affairs Secretary General Maarjo Mändmaa. As of Friday, some 6,000 people have needed housing offered by the state.

"30,000 refugees have arrived in Estonia, 22,000 of whom have remained here," Mändma told Vikerraadio on Friday. "Of these, 6,100 people have needed housing assistance from the state. As more than 40 percent of the refugees are children, then there are fewer households needing housing. Estonia was one of the first countries to begin helping the refugees, but other countries have started to get involved in that as well, and thus the flow of refugees [into Estonia] has decreased somewhat."

The state has had an invaluable resource in the NGO Estonian Refugee Council, which has collected information regarding vacant housing options — some 4,000 thus far — into a central database. While not all of them have proven suitable to offer the refugees, approximately 1,000 people have found housing thanks to this centralized info.

"Our first wish is that people find themselves long-term housing within one month's time at the latest," Mändmaa explained. "If they don't, then according to the rules, the state should guarantee them housing for a period of at least four months. After that, they need to find the money to rent their own place to live."

There is a chance that short-term housing in hotels, an option currently being used for many refugees, will no longer be possible either.

"We knew from the start that hotels would be a temporary measure," the secretary general said. "But we hadn't been rehearsing for such high refugee numbers arriving with such momentum, so now in addition to the hotels option we are also looking at the offers provided by the state, local governments and private individuals who could offer housing. Hotels don't want to offer friendly discounts anymore; their rooms are booked for the upcoming summer season."

While the state had initially calculated a cost per day of €30-50 per refugee, they are now looking at cheaper options as well.

Standards must be lowered, official warns

There should be sufficient affordable spaces for some 10,000 people, Mändmaa said.

"This would be taking into consideration schools' unused dormitories, state agency apartments, care homes," he listed, noting that some of these places will need some renovations and for conditions for accommodating people to be established. "For example, if we start using empty dorms owned by the state, that resource needs to be established there. This is an ongoing cost-benefit calculation."

Conditions, however, will be on the meager side. "We're talking about basic hygienic conditions: water, a mattress, a blanket, a pillow," the secretary general said. "The standard must be lowered."

Nonetheless, none of the refugees have yet to actually be housed in such conditions, as a buffer was built into the accommodations procurements with hotels.

A much-discussed plan to provide housing to refugees on a cruise ship is still just in the planning stages. "We're keeping the ship in our back pocket; those negotiations are ongoing," he said.

Also in the process of being mapped out are housing options that the state itself could rent out to refugees long-term.

"We will ensure safe housing, but that life is what it is," Mändmaa said. "All refugees will receive shelter, nobody will go unhelped, but once four months is up from when they received temporary protection, they will have to start paying the state for housing themselves."

There are no plans to build refugee camps in Estonia at this time, however other countries' experiences indicate that they may become necessary at some point.

"We can offer dignified accommodations to 25,000-30,000 people without refugee camps," the ministry official said. "Beyond that, we would have to start building camps already."

Estonia has faced worse times than this, and he hopes that it will manage now, he added.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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