Estonian state, Tallink sign contract to charter ship for refugee housing

MS Isabelle.
MS Isabelle. Source: Tallink

Tallink Grupp on Monday signed an agreement with the Social Insurance Board (SKA) to charter out the MS Isabelle from Thursday in order to provide temporary accommodation in Tallinn to war refugees from Ukraine. Refugees who have thus far been staying at hotels in Tallinn will be transferred to accommodations aboard the Isabelle.

The Tallink ship, which typically serves the company's Riga-Stockholm route, will be chartered out to SKA beginning Thursday, for an initial period of four months with an option to extend the charter by another two months and thereafter by a further two months in accordance with need, Tallink Grupp said in a press release.

As the tourist season approaches, refugees arriving in Estonia who have been provided temporary accommodations at hotels need to be relocated as hotels have already been booked in advance, Kert Valdaru, head of the Social Protection Group of the Emergency Solution Staff said according to a SKA press release.

"We have had very good cooperation with hotels, and their rapid response in accommodating war refugees has been a huge help to the state," Valdaru said. "As hotels can no longer ensure that we could house everyone there for a period of 30 days, we're both seeking longer-term housing as well as using a passenger ship to offer short-term accommodations."

The official stressed that refugees in Estonia can count on them being provided with housing by the state if needed, either in the capital of Tallinn or elsewhere, and while precise accommodations may vary, everyone will be ensured a warm room, washing facilities and somewhere to eat.

The process for contacting those refugees that will soon have to be relocated began on Monday, SKA announced. All affected people will be contacted personally and informed about where they will be provided housing, including information on nearby schools, kindergartens, employment opportunities, medical care and grocery stores. The refugees will also be given specifics regarding their replacement housing as well as when exactly they will need to be relocated.

"We have requested that, going forward, accommodation establishments warn SKA at least two weeks in advance of the need for any rooms to be vacated," Valdaru said. "We cannot rule out, however, that in some cases the advance warning may be shorter than that. But our goal is definitely to inform people as early in advance as possible."

SKA counselors are currently on site daily at bigger accommodation establishments to share info and answer any questions people may have; counselors likewise pay calls to smaller establishments at scheduled times as well.

The MS Isabelle can accommodate approximately 2,100 people and will remain in port in Tallinn, which will allow the people staying on board to more comfortably handle their affairs, including applying for temporary protection or registering with the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Board, as well as make it more convenient to provide them with various necessary services.

Reopening of Riga-Stockholm route delayed by charter

Late last month, Tallink, which had initially planned to reopen its Riga-Stockholm route on April 6, announced that the reopening would be delayed by two months due to the challenging geopolitical situation putting pressure on passenger numbers and prices, making the reopening of the route in April or May economically unviable. The Riga-Stockholm route, which has been suspended since March 2020, was then slated to be reopened on June 3.

As the MS Isabelle is now being chartered out to SKA, the reopening of the Riga-Stockholm route will now be delayed even further.

"Chartering out the Isabelle has not been an easy decision for us, as the Riga-Stockholm route that we have spent nearly 16 years building has been severely impacted first by the COVID crisis and now, on top of that, by uncertainties and price hikes resulting from the war in Ukraine," Tallink CEO Paavo Nõgene said.

As the company has endured difficult times for the past two years, they have had to be especially deliberate in making any decisions, including thoroughly calculating and assessing all possible risks involved. "Today's decision to charter out our vessel Isabelle to provide urgent accommodations to refugees from Ukraine is one such decision," he noted.

The CEO noted that the chartering of its ship to SKA means that the company can offer its support to Ukrainian refugees by offering not just accommodations, but also job opportunities to refugees on board. He also stressed that Tallink has nonetheless not given up the intention to relaunch its Riga-Stockholm route.

"We apologize wholeheartedly to all our Latvian customers who have been waiting a long time for the reopening of the Latvia-Sweden route, and to all those passengers whose travel plans this charter agreement will now impact," Nõgene said. "Our customer service team will work with all of you to reroute, refund or find other solutions for you." He added that all travelers are very much welcome aboard all other Tallink Silja vessels and the group's other routes.

Tallink is offering employment to the crew and employees currently working for the company's Latvian organization on board other Tallink vessels, including the Isabelle, during the coming months.

The company intends to announce updated plans for the relaunch of its Riga-Stockholm route as soon as any such decisions are made.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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