The 'grey passport' issue: Ministry of the Interior's response
The Estonian Ministry of the Interior has issued a response to points raised regarding the issue of 'stateless persons' in Estonia which formed a part of an interview feature with Yana Toom MEP published on Saturday.
The piece, which can be read here, covered the status of those persons resident in Estonia who do not have citizenship either of Estonia or any other state, their treatment in Estonia and possible ways of resolving the issue, in the light of pronouncements on statelessness by the UN, the EU, and the Council of Europe, as well as in a broader historical context.
The main themes the Ministry has picked up on concern statistics regarding the numbers of persons with undetermined citizenship/stateless persons, their current rights and travel possibilities, and future changes to the law.
Andres Anvelt, Minister of the Interior, began by addressing the proposal which Yana Toom made which would grant Estonian citizenship immediately to those who requested it, and not impose it upon those who did not. Mr. Anvelt has said that:
"I do not approve of automatically granting Estonian citizenship to people with undetermined citizenship. According to an integration study from 2017, 45% of those persons with undetermined citizenship do not wish to acquire Estonian citizenship or are not sure about their wishes in that area. But I do stand for breaking the cycle and not creating any more people with undetermined citizenship. We have solved this problem concerning children born in Estonia, with the changes in legislation that came into effect in 2016. We have also simplified the process of applying for Estonian citizenship for elderly people.
''I believe that the cornerstone for applying for citizenship must be the individual's desires. If the desire exists, then it must be supported in every possible way. For example, starting from next year a so-called citizen's contract will come to effect. With this contract, a person applying for Estonian citizenship can learn Estonian free of charge and can even go on a paid study leave upon agreement with their employer, with the proviso that they pass the citizenship exam successfully in the end. Thus any lack of money or time should not be a hindrance when applying for a citizenship."
The Ministry also states that according to Statistics Estonia, there are 80,315 people with undetermined citizenship presently living in Estonia (as at 1 January 2018). This consitutes less than 7% of Estonian population, the Ministry says. According to the last population census (from 2011), 85% of people resident in Estonia hold Estonian citizenship, 7% hold citizenship of the Russian Federation, 7% are of undetermined citizenship/stateless persons, and the remaining 1% hold citizenship of other states.*
The Ministry goes on to state that of those holding Estonian citizenship, 16% are 'ethnically Russian' and 2% are of 'other nationalities', and that 88,280 citizens of the Russian Federation have registered Estonia as their place of residence.**
Furthermore, the Ministry says, whilst Estonian citizens can travel to 141 countries and overseas territories without a visa, alien's (ie. 'grey') passport holders can travel visa-free to 42 countries without a visa.***
Alien's passport holders are permitted to vote in local government elections, the Ministry says, and can travel without a visa to all 28 EU member states and the Russian Federation. All the same rights apply to alien's passport holders as do to all legal residents of Estonia – they can receive needs-based social services, and their children can go to schools and kindergarten in Estonia, the Ministry goes on.
Changes in Estonian Law relating to persons with undefined citizenship/stateless persons
The Ministry of the Interior cites several new laws which came into effect in 2015-16, as well as future planned laws, which directly aim to alleviate the numbers of persons with undetermined citizenship/stateless persons in Estonia:
- From 2015 persons older than 65 no longer have to take the written part of the language exam, with only the spoken part needing to be passed.
- From 2016, all children born in Estonia to parents with undetermined citizenship/stateless persons who have been living in Estonia for at least five years are granted Estonian citizenship via naturalization. The same applies for all children aged under 15 who were born before 2016.
- In 2019, as stated above by Andres Anvelt, a citizen's contract is to come to effect, which will grant an applicant free language courses and a paid study vacation (upon agreement with their employer) provided that they pass the citizenship exam after their studies.
Last year, almost 800 people gained Estonian citizenship, 558 of whom were previously holders of undetermined citizenship/stateless persons, the Ministry says. Since Estonia regained independence in 1991, it has granted and restored the citizenship of more than 160 000 people, the Ministry goes on.
*(Source: Statistical Office of Estonia)
** (Source: Estonian Population Registry)
*** (Source: Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: Ministry of the Interior