The number of Russian and Belarusian citizens seeking international protection in Estonia has soared since the start of Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine last February, according to the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board (PPA). The number of Ukrainians who have applied for asylum in Estonia has also increased dramatically.
In 2021, a total of just 15 applications for international protection from Estonia were submitted by Russian and Belarusian citizens. In 2020, the number was 14. Last year however, 213 Russian and Belarusians applied for protection in Estonia.
"The number of applications for international protection submitted by Russian and Belarusian citizens in Estonia has increased exponentially since the beginning of the full-scale invasion," said Marina Põldma, superintendent of the PPA's Identity and Status Bureau.
In the first seven months of this year, 52 applications for international protection have been submitted to Estonia by Russian citizens and 13 by Belarusian citizens.
According to Põldma, Russians and Belarusians applying for international protection in Estonia are predominantly younger or middle-aged, with more men having done so than women. The main reason given for seeking international protection is the risk of persecution in their home country due to their views.
"Most of it is related to anti-war views. In these cases, the allegations made by the person about the threat they face are thoroughly assessed and the decision to grant or refuse protection is made on the basis of the information we receive," Põldma explained.
The representative of the PPA stressed that annual figures do not overlap, as the maximum time for processing an application is six months and therefore decisions may not always be reached in the same year applications are made seem.
This year, 28 Russian citizens have been granted refugee status, 12 of their family members have received residence permits, 40 applications have been rejected and eight cases have been closed. Among Belarusian nationals, seven have been granted refugee status, three family members have been granted residence, six applications have been rejected and one case closed.
Russian and Belarusian nationals whose applications have been rejected, have filed 49 appeals with the Administrative Court since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion, 21 of which have been upheld, 22 rejected and eight are currently pending.
Vast majority of applications come from Ukrainian citizens
At the same time, a total of 5,766 applications for international protection were made in Estonia in the period from February 24, 2022 to July 23, 2023. This is a major increase from the usual number of applications, which had been somewhere in the region of 100 per year.
ERR previously reported that the number of applicants and beneficiaries of international protection in Estonia remained relatively low until the beginning of 2022.
Last year, following the start of Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, the European Union implemented a temporary protection mechanism for war refugees for the first time. Under the mechanism, Ukrainians who fled their home country could more easily obtain one-year residence permits in EU countries. Last year, Estonia granted temporary protection to 41,639 Ukrainian citizens.
"The large increase in the number of applicants for international protection is mainly due to the military activity in Ukraine. The applicants for international protection are mainly Ukrainian citizens, who do not qualify for temporary protection and who have decided to apply for international protection because they are in danger of having to return to their country of origin," explained Silvester Silver Stõun, adviser at the Estonian Ministry of the Interior's European Union and external relations department.
A representative of the PPA explained to ERR that among those who have applied for international protection, are many Ukrainian citizens, who were already in Estonia before Russia's full-scale invasion began and are therefore not covered by the EU mechanism. However, they equally do not yet wish to return home to Ukraine.
A beneficiary of international protection is defined as an alien (non-native citizen), who has been recognized as an asylum seeker, person benefitting from subsidiary protection or temporary protection and to whom an Estonian residence permit has been granted
Editor: Michael Cole