While there are currently no indications at Estonia's borders of an increase in the flow of war refugees arriving from Ukraine, as temperatures drop, larger numbers of people may end up on the move due to the widespread destruction of Ukraine's energy infrastructure, according to a Government Office press briefing.
Martin Kutti, adviser at the National Security and Defense Coordination Unit of the Government Office, said that there are no signs indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin's goals in Ukraine have changed: over the past few weeks, 50 percent of Ukraine's energy infrastructure has been destroyed.
"These attacks are planned with the help of technologists and their goal is to terrorize the civilian population," Kutti said, noting that Russia is trying to prompt a new wave of refugees.
"Unfortunately, the risk is quite high that people may start moving within and out of Ukraine," he continued. "Studies indicate that subsistence issues are an increasingly significant reason for leaving the country."
At the same time, the number of border crossings out of Ukraine as measured by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) hasn't significantly increased, he acknowledged.
"At present, 4.8 million Ukrainians have applied for temporary protection from the European Union, and the actual number of temporary protection recipients is around 4 million," the Government Office adviser said. "Estonia is around the EU average in terms of the number of applications, however as a percentage in relation to the number of permanent residents, Estonia is at the forefront. According to Kiel Institute data, in terms of GDP we are leading in terms of both aid to Ukraine and in accepting refugees."
Police Lt. Col. Egert Belitšev, deputy director general for border management at the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), said that Estonia must be prepared for a bigger wave of refugees again because Russia is intentionally destroying Ukraine's infrastructure.
"Russia wants to demoralize the EU so that we would no longer support Ukraine," Belitšev said. "If that were to happen, then we'll have lost and Russia will have won."
It's not terribly cold yet, but that will change once temperatures hit 14-16 degrees Celsius below zero, he continued, noting that that's a completely different situation to endure altogether.
"And it also depends on the period of time as well — if long-term suffering breeds discouragement, then that's what Russia is bearing down on," Belitšev added.
Finland will be Estonia's partner in accepting refugees. "It has been agreed to draw up an interagency cooperation plan regarding how we can better assist Ukrainians arriving in or in transit through Estonia," Ministry of the Interior Secretary General Tarmo Miilits said.
According to Belitšev, there had been an increasing trend since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine of Russian citizens passing through countries bordering Russia. "By now this has significantly decreased compared with this spring and summer," he said. "Sanctions have been working, and Russian tourists cannot enter the EU via the land border."
Nearly 118,000 Ukrainian citizens have entered Estonia
Since late February, the PPA has monitored offenses committed in Estonia that are linked to the war in Ukraine.
"The number of war-related incidents remains low and accounts for a marginal share of registered incidents," the deputy director general said, noting that the majority of offenses have been related to the use of banned symbols and incitement to hatred.
"Ukrainian citizens have also committed offenses which are indeed unfortunate, but are also common among Estonian citizens, such as domestic violence and drunk driving," he continued. "This doesn't stand out as a trend."
Since February 24, a total of 117,607 Ukrainian citizens have arrived in Estonia, 53,717 of whom were considered to be in transit, i.e. en route to another destination elsewhere.
"In recent weeks, a little over 100 people a day have been arriving [in the country]," Belitšev said. "While in the beginning it was women and children, during the following months of war, the majority of people to cross the Russian-Estonian border have been people to arrive from occupied Ukrainian territories. They can't cross the front to travel to western Ukraine, and among them are also people who were taken to Russia by force."
A total of 1,494 Ukrainian citizens have been prevented at the border from entering Estonia as well.
"The PPA's job is to ensure public order in the country," the deputy director general stressed. "If we determine that it may be jeopardized, then we will turn an alleged Ukrainian citizen back at the border."
Grounds for refusing entry, he explained, include an individual not having come from a war zone, having lived in Russia for years or holding dual citizenship.
"There are also people who are supportive of Putin and the war in Ukraine, and there are people who give false statement after false statement," he continued. "It pays to be honest with a border guard — that's the solution for finding a way to help someone."
According to Belitšev, nearly 60,000 Ukrainians have stated at the border that they wish to remain in Estonia.
"In order to filter their status and location, we've checked on what has become of them," he said. "We've identified that nearly 15,000 people don't have temporary protection or a residence permit, 11,000 of whom are adults. Their personal identification is listed in the population register and their place of residence is registered and they have an active employment relationship. They are using other means to legally reside in Estonia."
He added that as of December 4, more than 40,000 people have applied for temporary protection in Estonia, and 2,805 applications have been submitted for waiving temporary protection. Another 2,474 applications have been filed for international protection, including 2,168 by Ukrainian citizens and 202 by citizens of the Russian Federation.
Nearly half of refugees working
The Social Insurance Board (SKA) has offered temporary accommodations to 2,500 people, a figure that according to Häli Tarum, head of crises management and continuity at SKA, has been in continuous decline.
"Last week, 90 people arrived at temporary accommodations, and 290 people left them," Tarum said. "The biggest temporary accommodation provider is the [Tallink ferry MS Isabelle] with 1,500 war refugees. The highest number of refugees per local residents is at Nelijärve Holiday Center in Anija Municipality."
70 percent of refugees in Estonia live in apartments of their own, 8 percent live in hotels, 7 percent are renting a room in a house and 6 percent are sharing an apartment. "They're doing just fine," the SKA official said. "The majority of them are paying for their apartment themselves."
To date, refugees from Ukraine have received a combined €9.4 million in benefits, accounting for 0.4 of all benefits paid to people in Estonia in that time.
"Ukrainian refugees have been doing great finding work as well: 40 percent of the adults are employed," Tarum highlighted, adding that one contributing factor is the fact that it is possible to get by in Estonia speaking Russian. In contrast, overall employment among refugees in Europe is below 30 percent.
She added that three fourths of refugees to receive temporary protection hope to return to Ukraine, 5 percent believe they will remain in Estonia and 20 percent are yet unable to say.
Editor: Aili Vahtla