Friends of Mariupol volunteers call for transit refugee center in Estonia

A refugee child on a cot at Tallinn Bus Station. April 2022.
A refugee child on a cot at Tallinn Bus Station. April 2022. Source: ERR

An NGO assisting Ukrainian transit refugees in Estonia is calling on authorities to open a reception center in Narva as hundreds of people passing through the border every day are in need of urgent help.

Since the start of Russia's full-scale war with Ukraine in February, Estonia has become one of the biggest transit countries for Ukrainians entering the EU who were either deported to Russia or fled there, as it is the only escape route available to them.

Daily about 400 people cross the Estonian border from Russia, three-quarters of them on their way to other destinations.

Aleksandra Averjanova, spokesperson for Friends of Mariupol (Друзья Мариуполя в Эстонии / Mariupoli Sõbrad), an organization that helps Ukrainians escape via Russia and safely transit Estonia in order to join their family members or relatives elsewhere, told ERR News that for refugees who transit Estonia on the way to their destination, no state-governed or municipal reception or transit facility is provided.

At the same time, Averjanova said, refugees who escape from eastern or southern Ukraine via Russia, the country that attacked their cities and destroyed their homes, need emergency shelter and assistance upon their arrival in Estonia.

"Many people fleeing from the war via Russia arrive in Estonia without fixed plans and are extremely exhausted emotionally and physically, often after having been trapped for months amidst escalating hostilities, enduring critical shortages of food, water and medicine, and since then, having been on the road for many days or even months," she said.

After the end of the emergency situation on May 12 in Estonia, the refugee reception points have been changed to information points of the Social Insurance Board (SKA), which are located at the Tallinn bus station, Tartu and Pärnu, says Kert Valdaru, head of the crisis committee at the National Social Insurance Board.

He added: "We hope to provide more emergency social assistance in cooperation with the city of Tallinn."

Averjanova said the SKA employee working at the refugee information desk at the main bus station in Tallinn has a list of criteria for those transiting refugees who qualify for help with short-term accommodation through them. "Women accompanied by children and the elderly who have tickets get help. It happens regularly that people arrive without any money all. Many younger people and all those who don't have tickets at hand do not qualify for help with accommodation from SKA."

"They need shelter and guidance in the same place for at least two days. That is enough for them to catch their breath and arrange their travel plans or decide to stay in Estonia", she added.

Averjanova said that their interaction with the authorities on behalf of transit refugees in Estonia has stalled.

Valdaru told ERR News that last month alone, about 1,000 refugees received assistance with temporary accommodation through the information desk at the main bus station, and 700 of them have moved on from Estonia. No additional details were provided

Friends of Mariupol register about 70 refugees daily that need emergency housing and psychological care from their volunteers, and while they strive to help all of them.

"Providing such support and assistance should not be solely the responsibility of volunteers," Averjanova said.

The war in southeastern Ukraine continues to escalate and the number of Ukrainian civilians reported to have been either deported or fled to Russia has already been estimated between 500,000 and a million. It is likely a large portion of these people will try and leave Russia and enter Europe.

Free EU-wide travel for refugees ends on June 1, which puts additional financial strain on volunteers and makes the need for a government-organized reception facility more pressing.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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