Refugees continuing to arrive via Russia, Tallinn Bus Station overwhelmed

Tallinn Bus Station.
Tallinn Bus Station. Source: Sergei Mihhailov/ERR

As the number of war refugees from Ukraine arriving in Estonia via Russia continues to rise, and many are traveling directly to Tallinn via Narva, Tallinn Bus Station remains overwhelmed.

Of 30 refugees to arrive at the capital city's central bus station Wednesday night, 16 spent the night there as well; the rest were directed to accommodation establishments by the Social Insurance Board (SKA). Of these 30, nine intend to remain in Estonia for a longer period.

According to the bus schedule, a bus from St. Petersburg was supposed to arrive in Tallinn at 5 p.m., but didn't actually reach the bus station until around 9.30 p.m. Of the passengers on board, 25 were war refugees. The bus to Tallinn has become the only escape route for refugees from Ukraine who have been deported to Russia, many of whom are reaching Estonia with the help of a volunteer network operating in Russia.

"We left home on April 12," said Sergei, who had been living in Mariupol. "I was told that such an opportunity exists that I can travel to Ivangorod, cross the border and then travel to Warsaw via the Baltics and back to the homeland from there."

According to him, they weren't given any recommendations or directions by Estonian border guards in Narva.

"We were told there that there are volunteers somewhere, but where are they? 'Look for them yourselves, they might be at the bus station,'" Sergei described. "But thankfully we had a fantastic bus driver — my deepest gratitude to them. They told us that someone is coming to meet you. But at the border we were told 'Go look, maybe you'll find them.'"

According to Mikhail, a TalTech doctoral student and Kyiv native working as a volunteer, SKA is handling those refugees who intend to remain in Estonia or at least stay here for a little longer, but it has been left up to volunteers to help refugees in transit either find a place to spend the night or continue on their journey elsewhere.

"There's a grandmother who needs to buy a bus ticket to Warsaw," Mikhail said. "If she doesn't have a bank card, then how is she supposed to buy a ticket in Tallinn in the middle of the night? I bought her a ticket via app and she paid me back nearly to the cent."

He said that this particular woman wanted to reach relatives in Ukraine via Warsaw, but noted that there are those who don't know where to go from here either. While refugees traveling on to other points in Europe via Warsaw are arriving at the bus station at reasonable times of day, the issue has been arrivals from St. Petersburg.

"Buses coming in from St. Petersburg are stuck in Russian customs ⁠— emphasis Russian, not Estonian customs," said Tallinn Bus Station CEO Airika Aruksaar. "For more than five hours, depending on the number of refugees to end up on a bus. One bus, I calculated myself, was stuck for over eight hours as well."

While refugees are welcome to spend the night at the bus station, as their numbers have continued to grow, Tallinn Bus Station tried to draw officials' attention to the matter. Sunday's coverage of the issue on ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera" led to a breakthrough, and refugees sleeping at the bus station have since been provided with cots and attended to by National Institute for Health Development (TAI) and Rescue Board employees.

A record nearly 80 refugees arrived at Tallinn Bus Station on Tuesday, one in ten of which intend to remain in Estonia for a longer period.

Number of arrivals from Russia increasing

Last week also saw a significant increase in the number of refugees arriving in Estonia via Russia.

As of this Wednesday, a total of 2,746 Ukrainians had entered Estonia via checkpoints in the country's southeast since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, half of whom were in transit. Another 7,450 Ukrainians had entered the country via the border checkpoint in Narva, 6,086 of whom were in transit to other countries.

According to Police and Border Guard Board (PP) Deputy Director General Krista Aasa, everyone crossing the border is interviewed in order to determine their plans as well as any assistance needs.

Aas said, however, that there are also those who don't want to go anywhere as they wait for their chance to travel onward, and indeed want to wait for the early morning train to Riga at Valga Bus Station.

There have been isolated cases of refugees in transit being found sleeping on a park bench or in a car, in which case they are offered assistance. Some have refused this help as well.

"It's completely understandable that when these people finally get across the border, then they are mentally pretty exhausted and evidently physically pretty exhausted as well," Aas said, acknowledging that it's also evident that many arriving refugees themselves may not even know what they want to do next.

"We're giving everyone brochures and leaflets with all the info regarding their potential further plans," the deputy director general said. "It's of course another matter entirely to what extent these refugees are able to process this information, remember it and, perhaps after a time, also take action accordingly. We definitely cannot ultimately keep tabs on that."

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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