City baffled by SKA decision to evict refugees in the middle of school year

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Ukranian refugee residence on Kopli tänav in Tallinn.
Ukranian refugee residence on Kopli tänav in Tallinn. Source: Google Street View

Hundreds of Ukraine refugees living in two Tallinn housing locations have to find new lodging in the middle of the school year, even though the property manager agrees to continue providing accommodation, with Tallinn also opposed to the move. Social Protection Minister Signe Riisalo maintains the contracts will not be extended as refugees need to be treated equally.

Ukraine refugees have been living in two buildings on Kopli and Mäepealse streets since April 1 last year. The buildings, owned by the Center for Defense Investments (RKIK) and used as EDF barracks in the past, were uninhabited for years, with metal beds the only items of furniture there last spring. The windows didn't even have curtain-poles, not to mention curtains.

Kadri Viirand, who helps and is the authorized representative of Ukrainian refugees housed in Kopli, told ERR that volunteers who met refugees coming off buses on Niine tänav started collecting furniture, pots and pans for those who moved in.

"On April 1, they were given a document which stated the buildings served as a long-term housing location where refugees could stay at least until March 31, 2023," Viirand recalled, adding that the deadline was laid down because no resident's temporary protection went beyond it at the time, and it was unknown how long the war would last.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and the Social Insurance Board (SKA) reclassified the building as a short-term accommodation location last August, telling residents at a meeting that this was necessary for legal reasons.

SKA told residents on January 5 that the contract will not be extended and everyone must move out by the end of March. The building had around 400 residents at the time.

"We decided to fight it because it is not sensible in the middle of the school year – the children have school, kindergarten and sports practice, they've made friends. SKA initially suggested that the buildings have to be emptied and there's room in Saaremaa and Finland," Viirand said. "We fought back, asking them to allow the children to at least finish the school year. The dispute continues to this day."

She said that the plan to move the refugees to Finland has been abandoned by now, and that it would have constituted an abnormal decision in a situation where people have been struggling to learn Estonian for ten months, while no one speaks Russian in Finland. Saaremaa is also considered a poor solution as it is difficult to find work there. People who do not have pets will be put up on a [Tallink] ferry, while those with pets and who cannot find a place to live in the capital will have to move to Saaremaa.

Volunteers have been trying to come up with ways for refugees to keep living in their current homes until the end of the school year. Viirandi said that one option was for Tallinn to take ownership of the buildings from RKIK and turn them into social housing. However, this did not work out.

"While this building in question is owned by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Social Affairs has been given the power of decision in this matter and it has refused to extend the contracts," she said.

What the volunteers helping the refugees with this matter find most baffling is that even though RKIK agrees to the extension until next February and would not seek a fee for the continued use of the buildings, the Ministry of Social Affairs and SKA have decided to send the refugees to the rental market regardless.

"Most make minimum wage, families have elderly and mothers staying home with small children, while we are going to leave them at the mercy of the rental market, with the city set to dish out for relevant subsidies," Viirand said in terms of the ministry's perplexing conduct. "Those benefits will run thousands upon thousands."

Mayor: SKA representatives making no effort to find a humane solution

The situation is also worrying the city of Tallinn. Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center) has turned to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) and pointed out that even though the rental contracts are about to expire, SKA has not provided sufficient explanation.

"The current situation has people extremely worried and stressed because finding new accommodation is a serious challenge for less fortunate families, more so as it is impossible to find something on the market in a short time," Kõlvart said.

He added that the city explained the need to extend the contracts at least until the end of the school year during a meeting held on March 10, with representatives of SKA, RKIK and volunteers also present. People attending for RKIK assured the participants that the agency is prepared to extend the contracts.

While SKA has pointed to Rescue Board control action according to which the building on Kopli tänav is dangerous, Mihhail Kõlvart said that these problems could be easily fixed with enough good will. The mayor also wrote in his letter to PM Kallas that proposals by the city and volunteers were presented to Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform) on March 13, while she still found it impossible to extend the contracts between RKIK and SKA.

"We are left with the realization that representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs' administrative area aren't even trying to solve the situation in a humane and dignified manner, instead putting pressure on refugees to move out sooner in an already difficult situation," Kõlvart said.

He added that during a visit to the Kopli tänav building on March 16, both Riisalo and SKA representative Vadim Ivanov said that earlier promises of long-term accommodation are no longer valid. Volunteers and the city's representatives who attended the meeting said the atmosphere was critical and indifferent towards families' concerns regarding moving in the middle of the academic year or the ban on pets aboard the ferry.

Viirand also recalled Riisalo claiming that the building was meant for short-term use from the beginning, even though the document given to refugees on April 1, 2022, clearly designated it as long-term housing.

"There have been a lot of lies and walking back on promises," Viirand said. "SKA coordinators are humiliating and persecuting refugees, trying to run them down. These people have been subjected to emotional trials from the first."

She finds that the Ministry of Social Affairs has treated refugees extremely poorly, pointing out that some families have even decided to move back to dangerous regions in Ukraine because of it.

Kõlvart has asked for the prime minister's intervention because next to making sure refugees have humane conditions, the matter is also about maintaining the credibility and reputation of the Estonian state. He has proposed extending the rent contracts for the Kopli and Mäetaguse buildings at least until the end of 2023 and asked for feedback by March 30 at the latest.

Riisalo does not plan to extend the contracts

Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo told ERR that the government does not plan to discuss Kõlvart's request.

"The government has no reason to discuss matters that have been fixed in legislation. It has been discussed in the government that the Ministry of Social Affairs' administrative area has enough resources to offer everyone temporary housing, while its duration is two months on average and up to four months pursuant to the law. We are talking about a year in this case," she said.

The minister added that families inhabiting the buildings in question have been given enough extra time to find alternative housing in cooperation with Tallinn and SKA.

"We do not deem it possible to continue what amounts to unfair treatment any longer. People actively looking for an apartment are offered support, with individual solutions sought for those who cannot find a place to stay on their own. In many cases, this amounts to temporary stay on board the ferry; however, I see no way of extending the contracts," she remarked.

Riisalo emphasized that over 24,000 people have sought temporary housing since the start of the war who qualify for a one-off benefit of €1,200 that can be used to make a down payment or cover other expenses tied to moving.

"All those with temporary protection have the same rights as everyone else in Estonia. They qualify for the subsistence benefit, which helps cover living expenses if income is insufficient," the minister said, adding that refugees may also qualify for disability and family benefits, while elderly refugees are compensated for the difference between Ukrainian and Estonian pensions.

Just like Estonians, Ukrainians are expected to make an effort. She said that over 24,000 people who have sought temporary housing have been granted it and found a more permanent place to live in two months on average.

"People have been staying in the two housing units in question, which are temporary and for which the state is paying, for a lot longer than that. Some have been there for almost a year. We are talking about use of public funs. And we need to realize that offering Ukraine refugees special treatment creates anxiety in those who have to fend for themselves, nor is it fair towards our own people for whom we lack social housing in Tallinn and other municipalities and where waiting times are considerable," the social protection minister suggested.

She added that no one will be left out in the cold and temporary accommodation will be offered aboard the ferry for everyone who wants it. There is now plenty of room on the ferry as the flow of refugees coming to Estonia has dried up.

"There is full-scale war in Ukraine. Estonia has made considerable expenses per capita both as military aid and to help refugees. It is very difficult to offer people with pets temporary accommodation. People should take advantage of all the help they're being offered and try to find long-term housing together with volunteers," she remarked.

The minister also said that Estonia has paid for veterinary care for refugees' pets, while inflation and energy prices make it impossible for the country to offer everything refugees might want.

"I understand how difficult the situation must be, moving to another country and cultural environment, while efforts need to be made regardless, and I would emphasize that we have 39,000 refugees with temporary protection in Estonia today, while we are talking about just two housing units where problems have arisen. I believe the solution here is for everyone involved to come together in an effort to help people secure [alternative] housing. Extending the contracts is not the solution."

SKA: We are not leaving anyone homeless

SKA's Crisis Management Department team leader Kirill Badikin said the agency is not leaving anyone homeless.

"SKA's job is to provide short-term accommodation and support people in their transition to an independent life. Today, the majority of war refugees living in RKIK accommodation are ready to move on to living independently," he said, adding agency workers and volunteers have helped with this process.

Badikin said, as of Tuesday, 68 of the households living in the building have found a permanent residence, nine still require short-term accommodation, six families have decided to relocate to other countries and 16 households are seeking long-term accommodation with help. SKA also has 35 options it can offer.

Refugees also have the option of moving to the cruise ship Isabelle.

He said, at the start of the war, it was hoped accommodation on Kopli and Mäepealse could be used as long-term housing for Ukrainians but this plan did not come to fruition.

But the official said the most important goal was that no refugee was left without shelter and this was achieved.

Badikin denied claims that the residents had been given notice at the start of January and said the information was given on August 12. Agreements with a moveout date of March 31 were then drawn up and signed in October and November, he said.

However, Kadri Viirand said the information from SKA has often been contradictory.

SKA also pushed back on claims made by Tallinn and volunteers that they have not offered refugees help when it was needed. Badikin said agency workers had always been available to help.

The non-renewal of contracts was justified, he said, because there are longer leases available elsewhere and there are almost 1,500 free places available in other short-term accommodations. SKA also calls on people to rent their empty private property to refugees.

Badikin said under the law, accommodation provided by the agency is temporary and new arrivals must find their own place to live within four months. As housing stock owned by local government is in short supply, people must look on the private rental market.

'If a person has refused the solution offered by SKA, then we have the legal right to ask a person to find themselves a place to rent within two months. After that, they must leave the accommodation," said Badikin, adding that under the Social welfare Act, the local government should find places for people who cannot manage financially.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski, Helen Wright

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