Estonian NGOs: Ukrainians' journey to safety stalls at eastern border

Anu Viltrop and Uljana Ponomarjova.
Anu Viltrop and Uljana Ponomarjova. Source: The Estonian Refugee Council private archive

The Temporary Protection Directive is clear: anyone who left Ukraine after February 24 and has been on the move for months for various reasons is eligible for temporary protection in the EU, write in their commentary Anu Viltrop, the head of support services at the Estonian Refugee Council, and Uljana Ponomarjova, an asylum lawyer at the Estonian Human Rights Center.

Ukraine has been the target of a full-scale Russian attack for the past seven months. It is estimated that about 7.5 million people have fled the war to neighboring countries, while nearly 7 million have sought refuge within Ukraine. This is a large number of people, from whom only a small portion have reached Estonia. Nonetheless, Estonia displays signs of fatigue and weariness, as well as a desire to reduce the number of refugees.

Already on February 24, a decree went into effect allowing Ukrainian citizens and their family members residing in Estonia at the time to remain here until further notice, even if their right to stay was about to expire. This ruling has now been incorporated into the Aliens Act.

Everyone was allowed to cross the Estonian border in the spring, regardless of the document they were carrying, be it a domestic passport, an international biometric passport or a birth certificate in the case of a child. The Temporary Protection Directive, which went into effect in mid-March, states unequivocally that we must welcome Ukrainian nationals and their family members regardless of the documents they possess.

While most migrants crossed Estonia's southern border in February and March, Ukrainian nationals also began arriving in Estonia by crossing the eastern border in early April, at first in small numbers and later in larger influx. Some arrived from outside of the war zone, while others -- from the areas most affected by the conflict.

The majority of Ukrainians now enter Estonia through the eastern border. For many the only route to escape the war has been an perilous journey through Russia. According to the figures, roughly half of those crossing the eastern border are actually in transit, either from Estonia to another EU country or, in some cases, back to Ukraine.

Despite the fact that some areas of Ukraine have been liberated from occupying forces, they are largely uninhabitable: infrastructure is in ruins, homes may have been shelled to the ground, and water, heating and power are often out of service. However, winter is on its way and because of the difficult conditions, the number of people leaving the country may be increasing.

The Estonian government, on the other hand, is not as prepared as it once was. We are receiving distressing reports in recent months that Ukrainians are unable to enter Estonia.

The PPA cited several reasons, including insufficient documentation or proof, an extended stay in Russia, a Russian resident permit, dual citizenship and so on. Ukrainians arriving in Estonia via Russia face more stringent screenings, including an investigation into how they left Ukraine and how they reached the Estonian border via Russia.

Contrary to what was agreed upon in the Directive, the country's proposal to tighten controls on Ukrainian men and prohibit men with only an internal Ukrainian passport from crossing the border is in direct violation of this agreement.

Also unsatisfactory is the argument that someone has been in Russia for too long and thus is not eligible for temporary protection.

The Council of Europe's decision to activate the Temporary Protection Directive is clear: if a person left Ukraine after February 24 and has been on the move for months for various reasons (such as the need to wait for family members, to treat war injuries or to collect money for the journey), they are entitled to temporary protection in the EU. This holds true for Ukrainians who arrived in Estonia on the day the war began, as well as those who are entering the country via Russia only now.

Dual-nationality individuals cannot be denied temporary protection. Under the Temporary Protection Directive, the EU rules make it clear that dual nationals must be handled similarly to Ukrainian nationals. For instance, many individuals who have resided in the seized Ukrainian territory since 2014 have been coerced to gain Russian citizenship or their parents have made this decision for them.

The circumstance is appalling and callous. The PPA has previously guaranteed that all persons in need will receive aid and that those who do not qualify for temporary protection may apply for international protection through the usual procedure. As a state, Estonia is responsible to receive requests for international protection and to investigate the particular circumstances of each applicant for protection, verifying or denying their need for international protection.

However, it is now clear that such applications are not always accepted at the border and that violates both Estonian and international law. The Estonian people have done a great deal to aid Ukrainians over the past seven months, but it is still too early for us to get weary. More determination on our part is needed, as we are still and will continue to be in the back-line of this war.


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Editor: Kristina kersa

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