Timothy Anderson recently defended his PhD thesis examining the experiences of asylum seekers who arrived in Estonia and used the country's asylum system. Anderson's objective was to 'flip the refugee system on its head' for a moment and highlight the weaker side.
"As the title of my PhD thesis 'Voices from Outside: A Closer Look at Refugee Autonomy and Political Life in Estonia' suggests, I wanted to bring these 'excluded voices' into the Estonian public discourse. I was curious about what happens when 'one-size-fits-all' asylum regulations clash with complex individual experiences," the researcher explained.
Anderson did the ethnographic fieldwork that forms the basis of the dissertation in Estonian refugee facilities. To truly grasp the local experience he lived and worked in one of them for about a year. The study also includes interviews with asylum seekers and refugees. Anderson was particularly interested in their experiences with confinement, resettlement, and local integration.
Anderson was drawn to the subject because of a personal experience: "I grew up in El Paso, Texas, near the US-Mexico border. It is, undoubtedly, one of the world's largest bicommunal urban zones. I was astonished by the power and presence of this notorious border. Estonia, of course, is a very different setting, but I believe that such a worldwide parallel can be extremely valuable in understanding how mobility, citizenship, and refugee laws work.
Asylum seekers are not passive recipients of help
According to Anderson, the key outcome of his research is that the refugee experience is considerably more variable, nuanced, and diverse than is commonly portrayed in the media and by academics. "Legalistically speaking, being a refugee seems to blur personalities. Similarly, the way they are portrayed is often overly homogeneous, if not inhumane, with refugees seen either as a threat or as victims only," the researcher said.
Anderson believes that ethnographic study and research based on personal experience provide the finest access to real-world experiences. This approach takes the richness of asylum seekers' lives in reception centers seriously.
"The shelter's role as a transition point between the two phases makes people's interaction and communication more intense than it might otherwise be. I witnessed new friendships emerge and perspectives shift, also though hobbies, learning, self-expression, and home-making. One asylum seeker with an artistic background adorned her room with murals commemorating the centennial of the Republic of Estonia. There was a sense of solidarity and kinship, which is very surprising for an outsider," he said.
While asylum seekers may not have control over the outcome of their international protection claims, Anderson believes they do have the ability to make decisions about their everyday life. The researcher argues that it is critical to recognize that asylum seekers are proud individuals with unique abilities, journeys, and worldviews, rather than passive beneficiaries.
I want to be Estonian
While Anderson believes that the conditions in accommodation centers are usually very good, the staff is dedicated, and the local community is empowering, asylum seekers' integration into Estonian society is fraught with challenges.
"Estonian state authorities have specific criteria that someone must follow in order to be considered a 'Estonian' as a national category. There are two dimensions: ethnic and linguistic. For example, in the census, only people with at least one parent and one grandparent born in Estonia are classified as "native." The others are included in the population register as of foreign origin," Anderson explained.
The study concluded that the underlying historical and cultural factors are obvious. At the same time, such an ethnolinguistic definition carries certain implications.
"This creates a social barrier that migrants struggle to surmount. I don't mean the difficulty of learning Estonian or finding work, but rather a deeper understanding of what it means to 'belong' or be a part of a national narrative," Andreson said.
In the study, the researcher recalls political dissidents from Cuba and Russia, who arrived in Estonia with a solid understanding of local history. The dissidents appreciated Estonia's struggle against totalitarianism and subsequent restoration of independence as a liberal democracy.
"They viewed Estonia as a potential spiritual home. They considered themselves as part of the country's national identity. On the one hand, it was accompanied by the notion that their own nations could and should follow Estonia's example. On the other hand, they were motivated by the expectation that Estonians would understand the horrific experience of, of example, Cuba's dictatorial regime," Andreson said.
Nonetheless, the researcher's asylum applications were refused. Instead of sympathy, the authorities responded with prejudice and mistrust. Officials saw their experience with Russian and Cuban dictatorship as a risk rather than a sign of closeness or solidarity. According to asylum seekers, they weren't viewed as individuals, but rather as representatives of troublesome ethnic groups. Despite their strong affection and desire to become part of Estonia, their encounter with 'Estonianness' resulted in ethno-nationalist isolation.
"For many people in Estonia, immigrants and non-Estonians alike, the experience of 'being Estonian' is nuanced and diverse. In everyday life, it can't be correlated with speaking Estonian or ethnicity," Anderon said. Identity is inextricably related to individual experience and interpretation. As a result, he argues, it is not uncommon for someone to feel connected to multiple communities at the same time.
"Can one be a cosmopolitan Estonian? What if someone thinks that 'Estonianism' primarily refers to human rights and liberal democratic values, rather than ethnic identification? Is he or she mistaken? It is not for me to decide, but I believe it is critical to incorporate 'excluded voices' into official debate," Anderson said. "Estonia has a broad and deep cultural heritage, and there can be more than one way to 'belong' here."
According to the researcher, all of the problems that asylum seekers confront originate outside of their accommodation facility. In addition to exclusion and alienation, the experience includes constant worry and fear about their application, inability to find a job, a place to live, and enough money to travel to Tallinn or Tartu. These difficulties frequently linger even after the application has been approved and refugee status granted.
Do human rights give hope?
While global attitudes to human rights are above all hypocritical, refugees' faith in a human rights-based world is very powerful, Anderson said. "Organizations such as the United Nations and treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights contribute to enforcing human rights and maintaining their legitimacy. However, many governments that claim to uphold human rights seem either cynical or simply powerless to stop the rise of extremism, imperialism and reactionary politics," the researcher said.
At the same time, the refugees Anderson met during his research were optimistic about the potential of human rights, even in the midst of conflict and persecution. They believed Estonia had the potential to be a liberal and human rights-oriented country. According to the researcher, refugees viewed human rights as a truly global practice, a moral principle in which every human being is entitled to compassion, protection, and decent treatment across borders.
"This is a conception of politics and human rights that the prevailing biopolitical approach does not take into account (a conception of politics according to which the modern state exercises physical power according to the principle "live and let die"). Politics, as a form of being and organizing in the world with others, does not require the nation state to be 'real.' Can we imagine a future where human rights are not just an expression of state's power, but part of a wider social contract between individual and the world? Of course, this sounds highly idealistic, but I believe that this kind of hope is required to prevent apathy," Anderson concluded.
Editor: Kristina Kersa