Two months after ERR News first reported about increasing numbers of refugees from Ukraine arriving in Estonia from Russia, and nearly three weeks after the Social Insurance Board (SKA) was supposed to open an info point for incoming refugees in Narva, the agency finally did open one — 50 kilometers away, in Jõhvi.
Following the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, which triggered a significant wave of war refugees to begin arriving in Estonia shortly thereafter, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) on March 11 implemented the emergency response plan for mass immigration and established the Joint Command Center for Emergency Management.
The Joint Command included representatives from the PPA, SKA, the Rescue Board, the IT and Development Center of the Ministry of the Interior (SMIT), the Estonian Defense League (KL), the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (MTA), the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Health Board, among others.
At the time, nearly 13,000 war refugees per week were arriving in Estonia. In the weeks to come, the Joint Command responded to changes in refugee flows as well as the massive influx of refugees converging on the capital city of Tallinn by closing down initially established refugee reception centers in Tallinn and Rakvere and opening centers in Tartu and Pärnu, which could serve northbound refugees arriving in Estonia via border checkpoints in Valga and Ikla, respectively.
On April 1, ERR News first reported that war refugees from southern and eastern Ukraine had begun arriving in Estonia by bus via Russia the previous week, as confirmed by the PPA, NGOs and transport companies, including passenger bus operator LuxExpress, which operates a route from St. Petersburg to Tallinn via Narva — one of few transport connections left between Russia and Estonia.
According to Estonian Refugee Council director Eero Janson, among these incoming refugees were people who had been deported from Mariupol, but also those who had left the occupied Crimea or Donbas on their own.
Narva Police Station director Indrek Püvi similarly confirmed that according to PPA info, most refugees arriving in Estonia via Narva were coming from southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, including from Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Sievierodonetsk and Melitopol, but also that "a smaller part of people have also come from Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, having transited through Russia."
"They are facing problems sometimes on the Russian side of the border, being interrogated, mobile content downloaded, etc.," Janson described at the time already.
Overwhelming number of arrivals
As April wore on, the refugees reaching Estonia via Russia kept coming, often arriving at Tallinn Bus Station at odd hours of the night and ending up stranded. Volunteers took it upon themselves to respond, but Tallinn Bus Station was still overwhelmed.
According to Mikhail, a TalTech doctoral student and Kyiv native working as a volunteer that spoke with ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera," SKA was handling those refugees who intend to remain in Estonia or at least stay here for a little longer, but it had been left up to volunteers to help refugees in transit either find a place to spend the night or continue on their journey elsewhere.
While Tallinn Bus Station welcomed refugees to spend the night at the bus station if necessary, as their numbers continued to grow, bus station employees tried to draw officials' attention to the matter. National news coverage led to a breakthrough, and refugees sleeping at the bus station were provided with cots and attended to by National Institute for Health Development (TAI) and Rescue Board employees.
By the third week of April, SKA set up an info point at the capital city's central bus station operating overnight each night, where staff and volunteers could help arrivals find a place to stay, refer them to a refugee reception center in the morning, help with onward travel plans and provide food.
On May 12, citing waning numbers of refugees arriving in Estonia and noting that more than half of them were in transit to other EU countries, SKA announced that the PPA was drawing the implementation of the mass immigration emergency response plan to a close the next day, following which SKA would be taking back over the leading role in accepting and providing aid to incoming war refugees in Estonia.
Info point announced for Narva
Compared with the emergency situation, the biggest practical changes this handover would entail would be in connection with the refugee reception centers currently operating in Tartu and Pärnu, which were to be be replaced with SKA-operated information desks at Tallinn Bus Station, at the sites of the current reception centers in Tartu and Pärnu, and in Narva.
According to SKA, these info points would distribute initial important information regarding both remaining in and traveling on from Estonia, and info point personnel could also help provide short-term housing to those arriving war refugees who need emergency aid, including refugees in transit via Estonia.
On May 13, however, no info point appeared in Narva. Nor has one since.
This Thursday, June 2, SKA instead announced that it had opened a new info point, which despite the name more closely resembles previously operated reception centers and including a room filled with cots, a crib and a playard, and a separate playroom.
The location? Viru 5a, Jõhvi — approximately 50 kilometers from the border checkpoint in Narva.
"By opening an info point in Jõhvi, we want to provide war refugees who have arrived in Estonia with more efficient help and support and reduce war refugees' need to remain in Narva," SKA crisis chief Kert Valdaru said in a press release on Thursday.
The Jõhvi info point provides arriving refugees with information regarding temporary accommodations as well as about how to obtain food and clothing aid, as well as determines whether they want or plan to travel onward from Estonia or remain in the country and apply for temporary protection, which must now be done at PPA service offices during regular hours of operation. The Jõhvi location is also equipped to sleep up to 20-30 refugees in need of emergency aid, and SKA noted that this included refugees in transit.
If a refugee who has received or applied for temporary protection, i.e. intends to remain in Estonia, needs temporary accommodations, they are then directed to SKA-organized short-term housing facilities.
SKA silent on who nixed Narva info point
Asked by ERR News this week why SKA had not opened an info point in Narva as still announced the day before the agency took back over Estonia's national refugee response efforts, and who had made the decision not to do so, a SKA spokesperson declined to respond.
Asked again, SKA crisis chief Kert Valdaru likewise declined to elaborate, instead simply noting that SKA coordinators with round the clock readiness are working at the border checkpoint in Narva, determining incoming refugees' emergency social and psychosocial crisis assistance needs and directing them if needed on to the new info point in Jõhvi, where they can receive more in-depth counseling.
Asked how SKA intends to ensure that the refugees from Ukraine can reach the info point in Jõhvi, as it is located 50 kilometers away, Valdaru said that the SKA coordinators have arranged for bus transport to Jõhvi. It takes approximately an hour to get from Narva to Jõhvi by bus.
"The main reason for opening an info point in Jõhvi was the need to reduce growing migratory pressure on Narva and support the city of Narva's ability to cope in this difficult situation as well as reduce the heavy burden on volunteers," Valdaru told ERR News on Thursday.
"In many countries facing migratory pressure, large refugee centers have been established; thus far, Estonia has tried to avoid this approach," he continued. "The Estonian state has decided not to open big refugee camps or centers in unused sports centers, but instead offer people housing opportunities in hotels, in local governments' municipal housing as well as volunteers' private housing, including to those who are in transit. The majority of people in transit travel onward from Narva on their own. Those who need help and support are offered as much by SKA."
Narva needs transit center, says NGO
The agency emphasized relieving pressure on Narva and easing the burden on volunteers there as one of the reasons it opted to open an info point in Jõhvi instead of right in the city where refugees continuing to arrive via Russia cross into Estonia.
It is precisely in Narva, however, that NGO Friends of Mariupol — an organization helping refugees from Ukraine escape via Russia and safely transit Estonia — has called on authorities to open a reception center, as hundreds of people passing through the border each day are in need of urgent help, ERR News reported Tuesday.
Friends of Mariupol spokesperson Aleksandra Averjanova said that for refugees in transit via Estonia, no state-governed or municipal reception or transit facilities are provided, despite their need for emergency shelter and assistance immediately upon arrival.
"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 amid escalating hostilities, enduring critical shortages of food, water and medicine, and since then, having been on the road for many days or even months," Averjanova said.
Estonian authorities including the Ministry of the Interior and the PPA confirmed this week that they were aware of the existence of camps on the Russian side of the border, however they noted that there were no indications of these being so-called "filtration" camps.
According to Averjanova, however, their NGO is aware of arriving refugees who had "experienced 'filtration' procedures — sometimes even twice."
Asked by ERR News whether the decision to open a new info point in Jõhvi instead of Narva had been discussed with volunteers operating in Narva, including Friends of Mariupol, beforehand, Valdaru avoided explicitly confirming or denying.
"SKA representatives have together with representatives City of Narva's Social Assistance Department met with volunteers on a regular basis to discuss in more detail how to offer war refugees the help they need together," he said.
At the beginning of April, a SKA representative met with Vaba Lava volunteers and explained what volunteers could do in general, he added, noting that SKA helped mediate city food aid to volunteers working at Vaba Lava as well.
"As a state we must help those who have the greatest need, and we must assess the needs and resources of war refugees from Ukraine, and be prepared to offer help in the long term as well. We want volunteers to contribute by distributing information via their networks that Estonia's border guard is friendly and there is no need to be afraid of them. We have also asked that refugees consider their longer-term plans for providing aid."
The crisis chief also emphasized that SKA has helped more than 600 people in Lääne- and Ida-Viru counties transition from hotel housing to independent living, in addition to which they are also receiving comprehensive counseling regarding all services offered in Estonia.
"Throughout Estonia, SKA has offered temporary housing to more than 11,000 people," Valdaru said. "Via the info point in Tallinn, we have offered housing to nearly 1,000 war refugees in transit via Narva, and nearly 700 war refugees who have applied for temporary protection who have likewise mostly come from the eastern border."
Transit refugees being helped too, agency says
In response to recently reported claims by a Friends of Mariupol spokesperson that the SKA staffer working at the info point at Tallinn Bus Station has a list of criteria for transiting refugees to qualify for help with short-term accommodations via the agency and that those who don't have tickets do not qualify for help, Valdaru said that this was not true.
"As each person and each case is different, then the need for help of each specific war refugee or their family is assessed by a SKA info point employee who, accordingly and taking the person's own wishes into account, directs them to either temporary accommodations and applying for temporary protection or helps them find opportunities for traveling onward from Estonia," the SKA official explained.
"All those in need also receive information regarding emergency social assistance, which consists of housing, clothing and food aid," he continued. "It's certainly incorrect to claim that someone will be left unassisted if they don't have a ticket for onward travel. Prior to directing them to housing, however, we do want to provide them with the maximum amount of info regarding their options in Estonia, including options for traveling onward, so that they can plan better accordingly."
Prior to May 13, SKA acting director Jakob Salla had also served in a high-ranking role in the Joint Command Center for Emergency Management tasked with Estonia's refugee response.
As the Estonian media had been reporting about the increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Estonia via Russia for two months now already, ERR News asked earlier this week whether Salla had personally visited Narva yet to see for himself the situation at the border and whether and how arriving war refugees were being provided help.
A SKA spokesperson declined to confirm, instead highlighting the fact that a dedicated crisis staff had been appointed at the agency that remained in daily touch with all regions and info points operating throughout Estonia. They also added that SKA crisis chief Kert Valdaru would be visiting the new info point in Jõhvi as well as Narva this week.
Valdaru, in turn, likewise emphasized the crisis staff's daily exchange of information with the country's various regions, including Ida-Viru County, and the fact that SKA staff are also visiting Ida-Viru County in person as part of the normal work process.
"SKA acting director Jakob Salla likewise visits the regions, including in Ida-Viru County, in person," the crisis chief told ERR News on Thursday. "He is also planning on visiting both the Jõhvi info point as well as Narva in the near future."
Between May 23-29, a total of 2,672 war refugees from Ukraine arrived in Estonia, 1,657 of whom were considered to be in transit, i.e. not intending to remain in Estonia, the PPA reported on May 30 (link in Estonian).
Since February 27, Estonia had received a total of 40,601 war refugees from Ukraine. This number does not reflect refugees in transit.
Currently, around 400 refugees from Ukraine are crossing the Russian-Estonian border each day.
Editor: Aili Vahtla