Interior minister: Estonia prepared for arrival of more refugees

The southern boarder in July, 2022.
The southern boarder in July, 2022. Source: Leevi Lillemäe/ERR

Estonia is preparing for more Ukrainian refugees to arrive at its borders in the coming weeks, Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) said on Tuesday, while visiting the southern border where hundreds of refugees are arriving every day. The country has also prepared for "illegal" mass crossings, he said.

Approximately 500-600 Ukrainian refugees are crossing into Estonia each day through Luhamaa and Koidula crossings. The refugees are currently waiting up to five days in the open, with minimal shelter and food, to leave Russia.

Estonia is now preparing for more refugees to arrive, Tuesday's "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported.

On Tuesday, the interior minister and representatives of law enforcement agencies inspected the situation at the Luhamaa crossing.

Border guards are prepared to accept more refugees but they are also ready if an event similar to the "hybrid attack" on the Belarusian-Polish border occurs.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) said on Tuesday Estonia needs to be prepared for such an event.

Luhamaa border checkpoint in Southeastern Estonia. Source: ERR

Läänemets told AK: "If we think of such a mass border crossing, an illegal one, then the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) has prepared for it together with the Defence League. Recently, a large-scale exercise was also conducted. In fact, the necessary changes to the law have been made that allow us to control the situation. I believe that we are ready for that."

The PPA's Egert Belitšev said the agency is assisting the newly arrived Ukrainian refugees.

"Regarding border control procedures, then we are ready to accept every person and provide help from our side," he said.

"It must be taken into account, that these people who arrive at the Luhamaa crossing, have spent days — sometimes four or five days — standing under the open sky on the Russian Federation's side, waiting for their turn to cross the border. They have children, families, and when they arrive in Estonia they are waiting for onward transport."

AK reported that several thousand Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war are queuing on the border waiting to leave Russia and enter Estonia.

Ukrainians queueing to enter Estonia at the Kunichina Gora/ Luhamaa crossing. Source: ERR

Considering the weather — last night, storm warnings were issued across the country — their journeys will not become easier and it is important to offer them help when they reach Estonia if it is required, the interior minister said.

"The main help that they need, is that they want to get warm, that they want to eat, that they want to get information about where to continue on to, if they don't know exactly where their bus is or if they have some other plan to go to Europe. And medical care if necessary," Läänemets said.

The minister said there is no need to send blankets or similar items to the border as the refugees are not planning to stay. The vast majority want to travel onwards to other EU countries.

"[But] for those who want [to stay], there is a bus that takes them to Tartu and they will be received and treated at the [refugee] center there. Others want to warm up and then carry on to Europe," Läänemets said.

British ambassador: Predictably dreadful treatment from Russia

British Ambassador Ross Allen accompanied the minister. on Tuesday's visit and spoke with the PPA, refugees and viewed Estonia's border infrastructure.

He called the treatment of refugees on the Russian side of the border "predictably dreadful".

"We heard how [Russian] border guards are making [Ukrainain] refugees wait up to five days with no help. Predictably dreadful treatment. As a dad, very hard to see kids in such difficulty. The authorities and many volunteers are helping people as much as they can once they are here," he wrote on social media after the trip.

Estonia has been a destination and transit country for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war since February. Thousands have passed through the country's eastern border, having no other choice but to first travel through occupied Ukrainian territory and then Russia, to reach Europe.


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Editor: Marko Tooming, Helen Wright

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