Mayor: Otepää Municipality buckling under number of refugees

Refugees in Otepää.
Refugees in Otepää. Source: ERR

Tartu, Estonia's second-biggest city, is reaching the limit of its ability to house war refugees in either short or long term, which is why the state has begun housing refugees in other parts of Southern Estonia as well. According to municipal leaders, however, the number of refugees in Otepää is already too much for the local government to handle.

Of the couple of thousands of refugees from Ukraine currently in Tartu, 300 are living in hotels temporarily. Many hotel rooms had been booked far in advance in connection with the international Maamess rural fair, which concludes on Saturday, causing many refugees to rush to find themselves rental apartments in time for this week. About a dozen were unable to find themselves housing, and were relocated by the state to new temporary accommodations.

"It's clear that major summer events are going to make the continuous accommodating of refugees at hotels more difficult," said Tartu Deputy Mayor Mihkel Lees (Reform). "Hotels can't completely abandon previously booked events."

Similarly to Tartu hotels, various vacation homes and sports centers dotted around the forests of Otepää Municipality have already filled with war refugees as well.

Nearly 350 refugees have been sent to stay at guest houses and so-called tourist farms in Otepää. Jelena, for example, is currently living at Marguse Sports Center together with her child, but is constantly looking for a rental apartment for them.

"It's hard to find anything right now," Jelena admitted. "We want to be in the city — in Tartu. We were offered Elva and some other small towns as well. But we want the city."

8 percent of the local population

While the City of Tartu also offered refugee children staying at Tartu hotels spots in local schools as well, those in Otepää are stuck spending their days at their housing. According to Otepää Municipal Mayor Jaanus Barkala, the municipality just doesn't have spots in their local schools to offer them.

"Also actually missing is a bigger plan regarding what will become of [the refugees here] going forward," Barkala said. "Our rental apartment opportunities have been maxed out, our jobs have been maxed out, spots in schools and kindergartens have likewise been maxed out. What is really needed is for the state to figure out — it would probably make sense to distribute them to local governments where there aren't any [refugees] at all."

The municipal mayor stressed that Otepää has 6,500 residents, and the amount of refugees from Ukraine that have already been relocated there is clearly more than the municipality can handle, in terms of future plans.

"Considering our capacities and the number of our social workers," he added. "Our own people want to be served as well."

The number of war refugees in Otepää currently accounts for 8 percent of the local population. Compared with other municipalities, it simply has more temporary lodging available.

No one knows, however, where these refugees might find a place to settle more permanently.

"It's very expensive to rent a place to live here," said Nataliya, another refugee from Ukraine. "Everyone fled from the war, not from poverty, but most of the people who have arrived here don't have money. I don't have money to rent an apartment, for example, because you have to pay for two months' rent plus the real estate agent fee. There are quite a lot of refugees in Estonia already, so it's nearly impossible to find more or less decent work."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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