The Social Insurance Board (SKA), the City of Narva and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) opened a new information center for war refugees on Monday, expanding on assistance arriving refugees are being offered right at the Estonian border checkpoint.
Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in late February, nearly 22,000 war refugees from Ukraine have come through Narva, Estonia's third largest city located on its northeastern border with Russia. As the majority of these refugees have been in transit to other parts of Europe, and despite volunteers' pleas otherwise, various Estonian leaders and officials initially believed that the information arriving refugees were being offered at the border checkpoint on the Estonian side of the Narva River would suffice and that no refugee reception center was needed there.
Now, five months in, Estonian state agencies finally understood that transit refugees — not just those planning on remaining in the country — need additional care and assistance as well.
"If you've first come through the Russian border checkpoint and had to answer questions there, and then end up [speaking with] another set of officials here, you may not remember everything you should be asking about," SKA director general Maret Maripuu told ERR. "But then once you've already left the border checkpoint, then you feel as though you've been left on your own. I think what's most important is that we've learned from our mistakes, and it's good working with the City of Narva and volunteers."
Refugees arriving across Estonia's eastern border in Narva will continue to receive initial assistance and advice right at the border, provided by both Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and SKA employees.
A temporary info point set up in Peetri Square (Peetri plats) by volunteers in early July proved, however, that refugees who have already been in the country for a few days already still need help as well.
"It's actually because of the volunteers nudging us that we reached this conclusion," Narva Mayor Katri Raik (SDE) admitted. "But now one can safely share their troubles on this blue sofa here, outside of the border checkpoint. That much is clear, that it's our collective responsibility to help people here, at the beginning of the EU."
Located at Peetri plats 3, in the same building as various city government offices and Narva Visitor Center, the new war refugee info center will initially be open 24/7.
Special care will be paid to arriving refugees who are sick, injured, accompanied by young children as well as those with financial difficulties.
The center will likewise provide as much support as possible to local volunteers, who have long since been overwhelmed by the tide of refugees arriving from Russia.
The City of Narva has provided space in the same building for the nonprofit Ukrainian Compatriots of Narva (MTÜ Narva linna Ukraina kaasmaalaskond) as well, where the volunteers helping arriving war refugees can work.
IOM to tap into extensive network, experience
In addition to SKA, the City of Narva and IOM — a UN agency — will also be on site at the center to provide arrivals with information regarding services available to them.
Among others, the team hopes to be able to advise refugees whose plans going forward are unclear or who don't have any prior contacts with local volunteers, friends or loved ones in Estonia.
"In cooperation with SKA, IOM on its part is trying first and foremost to support vulnerable refugees who want to reach their family members or relatives in some other country," explained Anneli Vares, head of office at IOM's Estonian representation.
"As an international organization, IOM has a broad global network of representations and long-term experience in ensuring the safe movement of people, and we're prepared to utilize this in Estonia to support refugees from Ukraine," Vares said.
Jekaterina Romanova, who previously helped refugees in Narva as a volunteer, will now be counseling transit refugees at the center as IOM coordinator.
Despite the fact that the Narva center is only just now being opened, she nonetheless believes it came at the right time, as the number of refugees arriving via the border checkpoint there could end up on the rise again this fall.
"As winter arrives, people will be moving more again, since no one knows what might await people in Ukraine this winter," Romanova said. "There are a lot of war refugees from Ukraine in Russia as well, who likewise might start moving as fall arrives. I believe this info center can still provide a lot of help to people crossing the border."
According to the city's data, approximately 100 war refugees from Ukraine arrive in Narva each day. Early this spring, the number of refugees arriving in the Estonian border city daily reached as high as 300.
Other centers in Tallinn, Tartu, Jõhvi, Pärnu
SKA also currently continues to operate refugee information centers in Tallinn (Tallinn Bus Station, Lastekodu 46), Tartu (Riia 179A), Pärnu (Pikk 18) and Jõhvi (Viru 5A) as well.
Located 50 kilometers west of Narva toward Tallinn, the agency's bigger info center in Jõhvi can offer arriving war refugees psychosocial crisis help, food aid as well as emergency accommodations.
The new refugee info center opened in Narva on Monday is located at Peetri plats 3. It can be contacted in Estonian, English or Russian via the Estonian state helpline at 1247 (+372 600 1247 from abroad) or via email at [email protected]
Editor: Aili Vahtla