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Minister: Finding permanent lodging for refugees most burning issue

Signe Riisalo.
Signe Riisalo. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Minister of Social Affairs Signe Riisalo (Reform) said on the "Esimene stuudio" evening talk show that lack of permanent housing is the main concern when receiving refugees from Ukraine, while Estonia has done well in the big picture.

"In truth, no one really knows which scenarios we have to prepare for. People can act unpredictably in different migration crises, whether caused by war or natural disasters," Riisalo suggested.

Europe is bracing for a winter migration wave. Estonia has been offering around 3,500 people temporary lodging in recent months.

"We can at least double that – talking about temporary housing, which is used by 9 percent of people who have been granted temporary protection in Estonia. The remaining roughly 90 percent have managed to secure more permanent housing. Our biggest question today is if we have enough of the latter. If not, we will have to make do with temporary lodging. That would be somewhat more expensive for society," the minister said.

A Ministry of Internal Affairs forecast suggest Estonia could have 52,000 people with temporary protection by the end of January. Riisalo said the figure is already at over 38,000 to suggest the change would not be that great.

She remarked that 0.4 percent of the social benefits budget has been spent on people from Ukraine. "This needs to be seen from several different angles. The good news is that the longer the Ukrainians stay here and work, the more society will get back in tax revenue," she said.

A little under 40 percent of Ukrainian refugees in Estonia have found work, which Riisalo described as a stellar result. "Let us keep in mind new people are coming every day – they cannot go straight to work after an arduous journey and possibly facing very difficult ordeals. Finding a place to live, job, learning the language – it all takes time," she offered.

"Our nearly 40 percent is the very top. Estonia and Lithuania are among the best in Europe in those terms," Riisalo said, pointing out that the average refugee employment rate in Europe is 28 percent. She added that the fact Estonia had 30,000 Ukrainians working here before February 24 is one reason.

The profile of refugees arriving in Estonia has changed. While it was initially mainly women and children, more men have started to arrive via Russia.

The social protection minister said that the number of refugees who do not plan to stay in Estonia has also grown.

The minister is not in favor of proposals to restore control on EU borders but finds that a better overview of border crossings is still needed. "I do not hold restoring full border control to be sensible in terms of effectiveness. We are accepting Ukraine refugees based on the EU directive in any case. However, we are interested in having a comprehensive overview of movements on the border."

Riisalo said it is too soon to talk about refugee relocation inside Europe, while the sensible thing to do would be to guide people where they have family and friends waiting. "Estonia really has done well in terms of housing and otherwise assisting refugees," she said. "I believe that we will continue to do well."

The state's recent contract for temporary refugee lodging on board a Tallink ferry will expire in December. The minister said that the plan is to extend the contract as putting refugees up on ferries has been a success story. People usually spend 1.5 months in state-provided accommodation.

The larger problem is lack of available housing. "Here, only long-term solutions are possible, which are needed not just by Ukrainians but also our own people," Riisalo remarked.

Of Ukrainians who have arrived in Estonia, 81 percent have suggested they wish to return as soon as possible but not inside the next three months, Riisalo shared.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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