Ukrainian war refugees deported to Russia from southern Ukraine are entering the European Union through Estonia by bus, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), NGOs and transport companies have said.
Russia has been deporting thousands of Ukrainian citizens from areas of active fighting, such as the besieged city of Mariupol, according to media reports.
Currently, the only way to enter Estonia from Russia is by bus and five companies are making the journey from St Petersburg to Tallinn: LuxExpress, EcoLines, Baltic Shuttle, Anniston and the Russian company PTK.
Member of the Management Board of LuxExpress Rait Remmel said recently 20 percent of passengers to Estonia are not Russians.
"For example, the number of Ukrainian war refugees has risen. They have arrived in Russia from Mariupol and are coming to Estonia via St. Petersburg," Remmel said.
Ukrainians have not experienced problems arriving in Estonia, he said, although some only have copies of identity documents rather than the originals.
"Then we communicate with the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) in advance and investigate if it is possible for them to get over the Estonian border," Remmel said.
A representative from Baltic Shuttle bus company said more than 50 percent of its customers on the line are Ukrainians leaving Russia. Departing buses are usually full.
"More than 50 percent of our passengers are Ukrainian war refugees who have arrived in Russia from Ukraine and are coming by bus to Estonia from St. Petersburg to stay here or travel onwards," a statement said.
Estonian Refugee Council: Arrivals from Mariupol, Crimea and Donbas
Head of the Estonian Refugee Council Eero Janson told ERR News that a number of deported people have arrived in Estonia.
"There are some who were deported from Mariupol, but also other ones who left Crimea or Donbas themselves," he said. Crimea and Donbas have been occupied by Russia since 2014.
"It's difficult to say any numbers," he said, when asked how many people had arrived from these three areas.
Describing the problems they face Janson said: "They are facing problems sometimes on the Russian side of the border, being interrogated, mobile contents downloaded, etc. On the Estonian side, there are no problems with entry, but there is a question of how they can prove that they left Ukraine after February 24, which is the eligibility period for getting temporary protection, since there was apparently no passport stamping when they entered Russia."
A representative of the Estonian Human Rights Council also confirmed the organization had been in contact with people who have been deported to Russia from Mariupol and subsequently fled to Estonia.
PPA speaking to arrivals
On Saturday, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) also confirmed it had been in contact with deported Ukrainians.
Head of the Narva Police Station Indrek Püvi told ERR News that border guards speak to people entering Estonia and try to determine their route of travel.
He said most people come from southern and eastern Ukraine, for example from Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Sievierodonetsk and Melitopol, "but a smaller part of people have also come from Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, having transited through Russia".
Some people entered Russia voluntarily because they were unable to leave the war zone and go to western Ukraine. "However, there have also been people, who were forcibly directed to Russia and allowed to leave on their own after arriving there," Püvi said.
He said that on Friday (April 1) over 200 Ukrainian war refugees arrived at the Narva Border Crossing Point from Russia and the same number of people have arrived every day last week. Most people have arrived on their own or as part of smaller groups.
"Most of the people enter Estonia in order to transit to other countries of the European Union, but there have also been people who plan to travel to Western Ukraine," Püvi said.
Ukraine has accused Russia of forcibly relocating thousands of civilians from Mariupol, the BBC reported earlier this week. Russia is housing an estimated 5,000 at a temporary camp in Bezimenne, east of Mariupol, seen in satellite images.
Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 40,000 had been moved from Ukraine to Russian-held territory without any coordination with Kyiv.
Editor's note: This article was updated on Saturday to add quotes from the Police and Border Guard Board.
Editor: Helen Wright