Ukrainians' reception in Estonia has raised eyebrows among past arrivals

Anu Viltrop.
Anu Viltrop. Source: Patrik Tamm / ERR

A shared history and close ties have seen Estonians be much more receptive of Ukrainian refugees when compared to those granted temporary protection before. This has sometimes caused a twinge of pain, Anu Viltrop, head of support services at the Estonian Refugee Council, admits in an interview to ERR.

The Ukraine war started on February 24. What was your initial reaction?

I first learned of the war when I got a call from a Ukrainian person in Ukraine who had found my phone number on the Estonian Refugee Council website and was calling to inquire how they could come to Estonia quickly and safely. I must admit that even though I'm very much a morning person, I was still sleeping before 6 a.m. and it took a while for me to understand what they were talking about. I took one look at the news and realized that it was on now.

How do you look back on ten months of war?

The signs were there that something might happen, but you always hope for the best. It was a shock. I believe many in Estonia can relate, as it felt weird all the time. I lost my appetite and food tasted wrong for a while.

I have not yet gotten around to really thinking about what the war means. The Refugee Council helps those who have arrived to get settled in Estonia, while we also operate in Ukraine where we have expanded our activities. We offer financial support to people who have stayed and are having a hard time in Ukraine.

How successful have we been at welcoming refugees in Estonia?

There have been myriad lessons. While a lot of off-hand mistakes have been made, lessons have also been learned. In all, we could say that Estonia has moved very quickly. Ukraine is just that close: we have many contacts and share a common past, including a commonly perceived enemy. That is why there was great empathy in society and desire to work together and help. People really offered all manner of help back then (when the war started – ed.) – their time, skills, services and living space.

I saw a lot of officials scrambling to accommodate the first refugees who would arrive, help them find medical assistance. We did not know what the legal status of Ukrainians would be at first. There was a lot uncertainty at the time, while I saw a lot of people attempting to create order. It has been impressive.

It was said at first that the state was not ready and dropped the ball when the wave of refugees hit. How well did the system do?

Estonia does not have many people who know what migration or migration-related social work really mean. This has been one of those lessons.

There has perhaps been quite a lot of optimism in terms of thinking that these people will come here for a short time and return home as soon as the war is over. We can see today that Ukraine is not a country where one can return to. It is not safe, the country does not have power, heating or gas in many parts. There have been myriad lessons. Some have been learned quicker, while it has taken longer with others.

Ukrainian war refugees arriving in Tallinn in March 2022. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The Refugee Council has been helping people who arrive in Estonia for a long time. To what extent has helping Ukrainians differed from the work you had been doing until then?

Early morning of February 24, many Refugee Council employees, myself included, knew virtually all 603 people who had been granted temporary protection in Estonia by name and appearance. Today, there are so many refugees in Estonia that it is unfathomable to know them all.

This means that the organization's work has also changed to a considerable degree. While we used to be able to provide a very personal service, we must consider how to reach as many people as possible right now. Even in a country as small as Estonia, 603 people tend to get lost in the system.

On the one hand, the Estonian social system is impressively diverse and offers almost every opportunity one can dream of. However, as a country, we sometimes fail to realize that more vulnerable target groups need help accessing services. People with a refugee background might not be active enough to ask for the things they need. They might not know what they are entitled to or about their possibilities and obligations. The reason could be the language barrier, unfortunately, also preconceived notions about people with a refugee background among officials.

Ukrainian refugees make up 5 percent of the Estonian population today, meaning that it is becoming hard not to see then in society. We are creating accessible opportunities, systems for them as a country.

And it is no secret that many people with a refugee background from other countries feel a twinge of pain in terms of not having been received as warmly. But a refugee is a refugee either way – they have a valid reason for escaping their home country and why they've been granted protected status.

The Estonian Refugee Council was among organizations that helped move people to Estonia from the Polish border. It has been suggested in hindsight that we may have brought too many here because we're failing to accommodate them all. Was it the right call at the time?

It is always the right thing to do to help people move to a safe country safely. Situations that cause a major flow of refugees always attract those looking to take advantage. If you happen to be a single woman with three children stranded on the border and someone walks up to you offering you free accommodation and a good job, it is very difficult to decide whether that offer is genuine or whether there is something else at play.

I still believe that the buses we organized helped people come [to Estonia] safely, access first-contact psychosocial aid that helped them adjust to their new situation later on.

Of course, it may well happen that there will come a point where Estonia will be hard-pressed to offer the same conditions to new refugees. However, I find debates over whether we have too many or too few [refugees] to be a little cynical. There is no war in Estonia, while there is one in Ukraine. I find it entirely natural when ordinary people move from an unsafe country to a safe one when escaping war.

The Ukraine refugee crisis also showed that people in Estonia do not trust NGOs, that a person rather goes out and buys a piece of soap to donate themselves instead of giving money to a nonprofit that could source soap on location, avoiding the transport costs. Have these attitudes changed and been replaced with trust?

Whence this claim that there is no trust in NGOs? I'm sure there are people who feel that they need to physically hand over that piece of soap or bag full of clothes to absolutely make sure it reaches those in need. On the other hand, there are those who are glad to donate and trust NGOs to distribute aid.

The Estonian Refugee Council has received quite a lot of donations this year. We do not collect things but rather money, which has allowed us to offer various group counseling sessions, different activities to help Ukrainians better grasp their rights, obligations and possibilities in Estonia. Make their own decisions.

A lot of donations have gone to Ukraine as financial support. Humanitarian aid principles hold it sensible and more dignified to give people financial aid for as long as the market remains functional, so they can decide whether they need soap, or to buy medicines instead.

You said in early summer that not everyone looking to help is a support person, that it is possible to make mistakes when trying to help and hinder refugees' integration. What were the main mistakes people made wishing to help but ending up doing a disservice?

I believe that an adult needs to live their own life above all, make their own decisions. The best way to help someone is to give then information on their possibilities so they could decide for themselves, instead of telling people they must do particular things in a particular way.

It is the same story with items. If at all possible, we should give people the chance to choose, give them money to buy what they need. It is the most dignified way for the person.

Help needs to consider whether it contributes to the person coping independently and with dignity in the long term. /.../

At the Refugee Council, we encourage people and try to help in a way that is well-weighed, systematic and aimed at those who really need it most.

September 1, 2022 at the Kristiine High School and the Freedom School (Vabaduse Kool), both in Tallinn. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In Estonia, did we teach people to fish or did we just got them used to fish deliveries?

I saw different outcomes. One thing that can happen when trying to help someone with zero knowledge going in is not being ready to handle all the stories people wish to share. For example, people who have spent weeks in a shelter or come through war and had things happen to them... How to stay hale oneself and not carry those stories around.

Or if we want to help people access different services without really knowing the system ourselves and end up providing false information. Also, the inability to understand why people do not want the kind of help we have to offer. That is why it is first necessary to really consider the nature of helping, what is it that we can do.

At the Refugee Council, we want adults to make their own decisions after receiving the necessary information from us. We have ways for people working with refugees to unload the burdens placed on them during the day. It is only possible to help others when one is in shape oneself.

You said toward the start of the interview that we made a lot of mistakes despite being quick learners. What have been the biggest lessons so far?

People in transit have been a constant concern for the Refugee Council. People from Eastern Ukraine who could not get out before the front washed over them and had to come through Russia. We long debated whether they were refugees or tourists and what level of help Estonia should make available to them.

We were very keen to help when the refugee crisis began, while it is only a short step from keenness to madness. Were there cases where that extra step was taken and things got out of hand?

I believe more systematic analyses should be saved for the future. Rather, I have seen caution on the state's part in making different decisions, and it has perhaps been difficult for civil society to wait for some of them. For example, regarding transit refugees.

On the civil society side of things, there have been cases where people started out very enthusiastically only to run out of steam a little later. But the war continues, more people are getting out of its way and coming here and also need to be shown where they are now and how to access necessary services.

But I believe it is very good that we have a country and people who see problems and find it is their responsibility to help solve them. In some ways, people have pointed to problems the central and local governments should address.

It will soon be a year from the start of the war. How long can we retain the recent level of effort in helping refugees?

I don't really see much choice in the matter. We need to have steam for as long as necessary, and if this means relaxing certain reception conditions, it needs to be done.

We cannot just close our borders as no Ukrainian is in any way responsible for what is happening at home. It is their right to find refuge in a safe country.

What does international experience tell us? How many refugees will return if the conflict lasts a year or 18 months?

Various studies suggest that the longer the conflict, the smaller the chance people will return. It is understandable in that starting again is difficult for an adult.

A refugee who reaches Estonia has already lost a great deal. They have left behind their country, home, perhaps relatives and friends, their career and social status. If they can restore all that in their new home country, that they may consider temporary, it is very difficult to then go back and start from scratch again.

September 1, 2022 at the Kristiine High School and the Freedom School (Vabaduse Kool), both in Tallinn. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Marcus Turovski

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: