Speaking on ETV show "Esimene stuudio," politicians said, that Estonia has so far dealt well with the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. However, if a major new wave arrives as a result of Russia's continuing destruction of Ukrainian energy infrastructure, it may no longer be possible to offer such good conditions for those already in Estonia.
Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform), Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE), Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), Jaak Valge (EKRE) and Erki Savisaar (Center) discussed the issue on ETV show "Esimene stuudio."
According to Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), due to the difficult situation the Ukrainian people are currently in, it is likely that there will be a new wave of refugees and that Estonia is well prepared.
"We are ready, we have been preparing for a long time. But we have no certainty about whether people will come to Europe or go to Russia," Reinsalu said.
However, Erki Savisaar (Center) said, that there is a limit to Estonia's capacity to assist, while Jaak Valge (EKRE) suggested that it would make sense to discuss changes to Estonia's refugee policy.
"The are many ways that Ukrainians can be helped. The current policy means things are at a standstill. We need to negotiate with other countries, and we should not give temporary protection to Ukrainian men, who are banned from leaving Ukraine," said Valge.
"We also must not sustain refugees, by teaching them Estonian, and putting them in Estonian schools. Ukrainian refugees should be assisted in the countries neighboring Ukraine or in safe areas of Ukraine," Valge said.
Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform pointed out, that 81 percent of Ukrainians who are currently in Estonia want to return home to Ukraine after the war. However, this will take some time.
"Estonia is doing extremely well, 40 percent of those who have come here are working, compared to 28 percent elsewhere in Europe. They are also paying taxes in our country. The Ukrainian women (who are here) have explained that, people need the first few months to come to terms with the trauma. They cannot be expected to get straight to work on the first day (of arrival in Estonia). We have accommodated 22,000 refugees and have done very well," Riisalo said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Reinsalu added, that, it is Ukraine, which is dealing with the biggest burden when it comes to refugees. "We have to help the Ukrainians and we need to have a clear program to help them return. It would be inhumane if we were to say that we do not accept Ukrainians and that we will send them away. We won't do that," Reinsalu said.
"We are offering them temporary protection. It is now estimated that there could be an additional 5,000 people arriving per month. So, we will have to start reviewing the standards of certain services," Reinsalu said.
Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE) also said, that Estonia is facing several challenges and that standards may have to be adjusted in some areas. "We are teaching Estonian to more than 20,000 people, but our capacity is 10,000. We need to rethink our standards," she said.
Number of Ukrainians in Estonia causing confusion
Savisaar expressed concern, that there is no overview of the precise number of Ukrainians, who have come to Estonia as refugees. "We should invest in finding out who they are and how many there are. We now have fewer people at the border. More resources are needed for border guards. The number of jobs available is also decreasing: the state should help Ukrainians to find work," Savisaar said.
Valge argued, that if the number of people arriving in Estonia increases by tens of thousands, it would have a significant impact on the overall composition of the population.
"If we believe that there are (now) 62,000 Ukrainian refugees in Estonia, then we are the forefront in Europe. We cannot provide the conditions (for them) that larger countries can. Our education system is starting to collapse. On Saaremaa, people are protesting against accepting refugees according to the current conditions. We are also not distinguishing between those in need and those who are adventurers," said Valge.
According to Riisalo, Estonia is only assisting people who have been granted temporary protection status, the number of whom is known.
"Those who we don't know anything about, have to fend for themselves. When it comes to those benefitting from temporary protection, we know where they are in Estonia. We also keep track of those who leave Estonia. A person who wants to get help from Estonia is on all the registers. A person who is a security risk, does not come to say 'I am here,'" Riisalo said.
The Minister of Social Protection added, that Estonia will not refuse to accept people, but may reduce the quality of services it can offer. "We can probably no longer afford such a personal approach. We will provide temporary childcare and schools, and we will not refuse to accept people," Riisalo said.
Riisalo explained, that Finland has set up a parallel system for refugees, while Latvia has placed all the responsibility on its municipalities. "A lot of countries, such as the Czech Republic, set up separate support systems. We integrated refugees from the beginning, and only now is the rest of Europe addressing this need," Riisalo said.
Urmas Reinsalu said, that he prosed the introduction of stricter border controls. "The problem is growing, seven Schengen countries have essentially introduced border controls. We need to have clarity about the foreign citizens staying in Estonia, in other words, (there should be) an obligation to inform. This is a question of security and the provision of public services. In the coalition negotiations, we agreed on the obligation to provide information, however, far this has not happened," Reinsalu said.
Piret Hartman said, that Estonia's eastern border is secure and anyone who arrives in the country that way will be registered.
"Checking the southern border doesn't provide information about the people we already have here. It would cost €7 million a month to secure the border. That's not reasonable (just) to get those statistics," she said.
However, in Savisaar's view, €7 million would be a small price to pay for obtaining that information. "We have to help everyone who comes, but we must not lower the standards, because then they will be lowered for everyone. We should make as much effort as possible so that they can manage in their own country," Savisaar said.
Reinsalu stressed that European countries have agreed to provide temporary protection to Ukrainians. "After the end of the war, their status will change and (then) they will go back (to Ukraine). Refugees have taken less than one per cent - 0.4 percent - of the benefits. Poland has opted for a re-housing system - maybe we (too) will get there," Reinsalu said.
Reinsalu acknowledged, that it may not be possible to integrate Ukrainians permanently into Estonian society. "It would be much worse if they formed an enclave and did not interact with the rest of the population. This would be bad for our internal security," he said.
Editor: Michael Cole