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Veiko Kommusaar: Not every person crossing the border is a refugee

Veiko Kommusaar.
Veiko Kommusaar. Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs

Estonia is there for Ukraine and is helping refugees every way we can. Therefore, it is difficult to read thinly veiled suggestions according to which the Estonian border guard has taken Ukrainian refugees under scrutiny and is trying to block their arrival from Russia. There is nothing of the sort, and Estonia is helping all refugees, Veiko Kommusaar says.

Our border guard officers are fully dedicated and follow all regulations and international law. Our border control is effective and we are constantly updating our tactics based on the situation and threats on the border.

We make certain of the motives of people who wish to enter the country and ascertain through conversation whether they are escaping war or have other aims. If we have reason to suspect people are using Russia's aggression in Ukraine as an excuse to enter Estonia, they will be turned back.

The excellent work of our border guards is keeping Estonia safe and helping determine motives people have for coming to the country.

For example, border guards blocked a man and woman from entering Estonia last week after they presented false data. They claimed to have left Mariupol on August 15. They had a Russian migration card with the aforementioned date stamped in.

However, further checks revealed receipts for purchases made in Russia before August 15. The pair failed to explain the discrepancy.

They later claimed they left Mariupol sooner and were ordered by the Russian border guard to note down the wrong date. It was also claimed a border guard stamped the card with the wrong date. They could not give any reason for why it would have been necessary to falsify the document. The man and woman had no other proof of having been in Mariupol.

The travelers were unable to dissipate border guards' justified doubts and their entry into Estonia was initially blocked.

Checking the travel papers of a Ukrainian citizen who arrived at the Luhamaa border point in early September, border guards found they had not legal basis for entering Schengen territory. The person gave unclear explanations as to the purpose of their trip and could not produce relevant documentation. They were handed an entry ban.

Purely on safety considerations

No one arriving on our eastern border is made any concession. We check travelers carefully and always have.

It is common that our officers pay more attention to checking people whose travel documents are not in order. Purely following safety considerations. I admit that border checks might be faster for some, in cases where people have valid travel documents.

I would emphasize that everyone who qualifies for international protection can enter Estonia. Since the start of Vladimir Putin's aggression, Estonia has received around 53,000 Ukrainian citizens of whom 35,000 have been granted temporary protection. Not everyone needs temporary protection or wants it, while there are other ways to help. We support and house those who need help. We instruct people and stay in touch so refugees would not feel unwanted and know which doors to knock on. We want to help Ukrainians who really need it.

For example, a family of 21 from Ukraine that arrived on the border said they want to move on to Germany and receive financial aid there. The group gave false statements and hid the fact they had a temporary residence permit in Russia and had received benefits there.

Because the people gave false statements, the border guard officers doubted the validity of their migration card. The family did not ask for temporary or international protection in Estonia and said everything was fine in Russia and that they want to move on to Germany. They were not allowed to cross.

These are example of just a few exceptional cases. We do out best to ascertain the truth when processing such complicated cases.

In a situation where we have received 53,000 Ukrainians, close to 100,000 people if we include those passing through, we have turned away just 800. While that is not many, it is enough to prove the need for border checks. In most cases where people are turned back, the evidence is clear and border guards have little choice in the matter.

Who do our officers really see?

We cannot be sure that everyone looking to enter Estonia has good intentions. We often need to take a closer look to determine who is really standing in front of our officers. We bar entry to those who have lived and worked in Russia in recent years, have a Russian residence permit or citizenship and are not coming from a conflict area.

For example, a Ukrainian citizen without necessary travel documents and looking to work in Poland arrived at the Luhamaa border point in early September. They did not come from Ukraine nor were they a refugee but were officially living and working in Russia. The person was handed an entry ban and turned away at the border. Such cases make up the lion's share of removals.

Not all Ukrainians might oppose Russia's aggression. We have an obligation to Ukraine to remove false players in what is a difficult security situation. A Ukrainian woman arrived at the Luhamaa border point on foot in early September without legal grounds for being in Schengen territory or a valid travel ID. She also claimed that Donetsk was a part of the Russian Federation and was handed an entry ban.

Estonia supports and will continue to support Ukraine in all ways possible. We were prepared to see a large number of refugees starting from February 24 and that is what happened. Miscommunication, reluctance and bitterness are a given when dealing with so many people. There are no handbooks for handling such crises.

Our border guards are working to keep our country safe and looked after. I assure you that all decisions made on the border follow best intentions. We have been diligently guarding our border and checking people who arrive here and will continue to do so for the sake of our security and that of the whole of Europe.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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