It is wonderful that so many people in Estonia have taken initiative and have reached out to help the Ukrainian refugees without hesitation. However, in a communication born out of empathy and goodwill, the purpose and limits of such assistance should be agreed upon from the start in order to avoid hidden dangers and causing harm instead of good, writes Anu Viltrop from the Estonian Refugee Council.
The number of refugees in Estonia has been relatively low in the past. Estonia joined the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1997, and between then and 2021, only a little over 600 people have been granted protection in Estonia of which just 46 last year.
This year's Independence Day is likely to be vividly remembered in Estonia. The escalating crisis in Ukraine has caused a surge in the number of refugees in other countries. Estonia has accepted 42,257 Ukrainian refugees since February 27. Many of them lack a local support network and their future is uncertain. The new reality is putting to the test both society's willingness to help and the capacity of support services.
A refugee is a person who has fled their country of origin, because of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and is thus unable to return to his or her country of origin.
Support services offered today
Regardless of their country of origin, official status or the possibilities provided by the state, refugees should be doing their best to adjust to their new surroundings. In Estonia, a number of services have been introduced to aid in the adaptation of refugees. Examples include specialized adaption training in the individual's native language, free Estonian language instruction and support worker services. Excluding for a moment any possible visible barriers (e.g. language barriers) and invisible ones (e.g. stereotypes and prejudices of officials), in principle, beneficiaries of refugee protection in Estonia have access to public services and the labor market like any other Estonian resident.
Although a special temporary protection status has been activated for refugees who have left Ukraine since February 24, making the process easier and faster than usually, these people, however, do not have access to the above-mentioned services. Because the numbers of Ukrainian refugees are so high, none of the contracted volumes of services agreed upon by the state so far can cover this dramatic increase in need. While the state is busy mapping out new opportunities for those who have been granted temporary protection here, refugees require information and aid in adjusting to their new environment immediately.
It is fortunate that we have compassionate and hardworking people who have reached out without hesitation to people in need, and have taken the initiative to help them. However, in such a relationship the aim and the boundaries of aid must be established from the outset, as not every helper is a supporter and not every supporter is a friend.
Who is a support person?
The aim of the person who helps is to facilitate the refugee's initial adaption and ensure that he or she can swiftly continue to function independently in his or her new environment and in everyday life. The refugee support worker assists in identifying the person's needs, provides accurate information on rights, opportunities and responsibilities, facilitates the persons' access to the appropriate services, and supports the person in moving towards goals in their new living environment. This involves a mental and physical presence, professional preparation, a support network and willingness to take on a long-term commitment. It could be said that the support worker and a person in need of help are dancing together: an agreed framework of cooperation and a shared set of goals are important. There is also a clear beginning to the support service and, once the objectives are achieved, a clear end.
What are the dangers of unrestricted support?
The future life of the person who arrives depends on the actions or inactions of the caregiver. If the support worker is too invasive, they may impede the protected persons' independence and self-confidence. It is important to remember that every adult is the expert in their own life and understands what is best for them. In order to make decisions about their lives and the lives of their children, people require encouragement, accurate information and knowledge of available possibilities. Unprepared aid workers may push their own worldviews, ideas and solutions on refugees, or tend to make decisions for them. Unrestricted communication can also create an unhealthy relationship of dependence, which is antagonistic to autonomy and the support worker's working ethics. An untrained support worker, no matter how well intentioned, can cause harm. The dissemination of insufficient or misleading information will lead a person with a refugee background in the wrong direction and hinder their integration in Estonia. It is important that the support person is properly informed and only provides verified information.
Possible risks to a supporter
Due to the enormous number of refugees in the current situation, local authorities may lack the resources to assess the requirements and offer them support services. As a result, active members of the community have stepped up to provide assistance. However, the unstructured actions of volunteers might become overwhelming as it is difficult to assess the workload ahead without training and a full overview. They may also lose sight of their common goals, as it is quite simple for an untrained volunteer to become bogged down by responsibilities and emotional challenges.
Supporting people from difficult backgrounds is mentally taxing and demands consistent emotion-management skills. Volunteering alongside a full-time job, and a personal life, certainly requires the development of time management skills to prevent burnout, as a person who is fatigued cannot provide quality, long-term support.
To preserve the quality of the support service, it is important to make clear who the support worker is.
There is a growing need for a clearly directed, state-initiated, refugee assistance program, which would cover all aspects of migration, adaption and integration. We also expect that local governments will systematically evaluate the requirements of refugees. Surely there are committed people in every community who are willing to take on the role of support worker through a support system. Every person with refugee status wants to move on with their life with as much dignity as possible. Some of them, however, need the support of a trained and trusted person on the sidelines.
Editor: Kristina Kersa