Estonia planning to reinstate temporary controls on southern border

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PPA operative.
PPA operative. Source: PPA

Estonia plans to reinstate temporary controls on its southern border to help manage the flow of Ukrainian refugees and provide more accurate data, Minister of Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) said on Friday, having made a proposal to the government.

Additionally, the minister suggested that refugees should be given a time limit to register their arrival in Estonia.

Approximately 112,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Estonia since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February. Around half have been in transit.

The ministry believes some 61,000 refugees have chosen to stay in Estonia but only 38,000 have registered with the authorities so far.

Politicians have complained for some time that they need more accurate data.

On Thursday, the coalition discussed and agreed to prepare to temporarily restore additional checks on Estonia's southern border with Latvia.

Lauri Läänemets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"My proposal to the government was that I would like to carry out some police operations at the border. Maybe at certain periods just to make sure who is coming in, who is going out," Läänemets said.

"It would give us the opportunity to see whether all the people who say they want to go to, for example, Ukraine or another European country when they enter the country, end up leaving. And we can also be able to look at the movement of war refugees from other EU countries to Estonia," he added.

He said the issue will be discussed again with the Cabinet next week adding that this is a "costly measure". Yesterday the minister said it would cost €7.3 million a month and would mean sending an extra 150 police officials to the border.

The Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) will be required to check the vehicles and documents of those arriving at the border.

"We don't have a security problem today where we want to close the border on all sides so that no one can cross. We want to look at who the people crossing at the main points are," the minister said.

Ikla border point in south Estonia. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

Läänemets said the most important thing is to gather more accurate statistics so the state and municipalities can plan the provision of services.

However, better data collection is not the only reason. He said quite a few Russians fleeing mobilization have also managed to reach the EU. 

"We should also look at whether they happen to move through Estonia," said Läänemets.

Government wants to use Ukrainian tax data on eastern border

The government also discussed how they can improve checks on the Estonian-Russian border. Ideally, it would like to use Ukrainian tax data to check arrivals against. 

Narva border point. Source: PPA

"We're also trying to get a Ukrainian liaison officer on the border who will have [access to] databases and systems to look at who these people are, if we need to," Läänemets said.

Currently, the PPA can check the authenticity of arrivals' passports and identity but they must ask the Ukrainian Embassy in Estonia every time.

Stationing a liaison officer at the Narva border would speed up this work.

However, as Ukraine does not have a unified population register, the PPA requires different data.

"Each oblast has its own register, for example. They may not be compatible. There is no single national register or identity code. For example, a tax database is where you could find all the people," Läänemets said.

PPA: Checks not needed on all borders

Terminal D at the Port of Tallinn Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) suggested additional checks should be put on Estonia's borders with both Latvia and Finland for the foreseeable future, but the PPA's Janek Mägi said this is not necessary.

He said the agency has been monitoring the impact of the refugee's arrival and believes there is no need to worry.

Reinsalu's proposal is not unique and six other EU countries have notified the commission of reinstated border controls. However, they are not all related to Russia's war in Ukraine.

The Czech government's decision to start checks on its border with Slovakia is based on increased immigration.

"Many countries, such as France, Germany, Denmark and also Sweden, have had border controls since the 2015 migration crisis," said Mägi.

Norway's checks are related to the security of gas facilities and Denmark's to weapons smuggling.

Refugee registration changes

The reception center in Kajamaja. Source: Patrik Tamm / ERR

The interior ministry is also discussing limiting the timeframe refugees have to register in Estonia to 90 days, similar to the visa-free scheme Ukraine already has with the EU.

The minister said the details are still being finalized but refugees will likely be asked to tell local municipalities when they arrive and leave.

"So that when they come to Estonia, they have to say where they are, who they are. And when they leave this country, they must do the same." Läänemets said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include additional information and quotes from Lauri Läänemets and Janek Mägi.


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Editor: Barbara Oja, Helen Wright

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