Interior minister to launch inquiry into Ukrainians migrating to Estonia

Interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE).
Interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) says he has ordered an inquiry into the lifting of visa-free entry into Estonia for Ukrainian citizens. Since 2017, a visa waiver agreement between Ukraine and the European Union has allowed freer movement, which Helme said is putting pressure on Estonia's eastern border.

"In Estonia, because of its location and history, migration from the east has become a bigger and bigger issue, especially from Ukraine," Helme stated on the Conservative People's Party of Estonia's (EKRE) own portal Uued Uudised, ERR reported on Wednesday.

"We have to take a serious look at the situation, and we have taken legal advice," he continued.

Helme said that his party had already predicted the uptick in the number of people from Ukraine entering Estonia ahead of the agreement with the EU coming into effect, and notes that the development constitutes a "trojan horse", primarily for Russian influence in Estonia.

"This trojan horse works, among other things, on Russia's behalf, since those who have been coming here are not Ukrainians so much as Russians from eastern Ukraine, or Russians from Russia, or simply 'homo sovieticus'," Helme said, referring to a disparaging term for an average, conformist and largely Russian-speaking person from the former Soviet Union as a whole.

Helme added that he is also working on removing immigration exemptions and redesigning the current rules on temporary agency work. Many workers from Ukraine are reportedly employed in the construction sector in Estonia in particular.

"Underlying this migratory pressure is a whole bunch of our businessmen who use Ukrainians for cheap labor: Our real estate agents and developers who are building blocks of flats in Tallinn, who see immigrants from the east [as a source of labor]," Helme continued.

Helme was echoing comments he had already made on ERR's Russian-language TV channel, ETV+.

"Visitors from Ukraine are not our people. They are economic migrants who want to get better conditions in Estonia and higher earnings than is possible in Ukraine. For Estonia, these people are a problem; they take jobs from local residents and are willing to work for less. Thus, they create pressure on local earnings in general," Helme said, speaking on ETV+ current affairs show Svoya pravda on Tuesday.

Helme said that he would be putting the relevant legislation before the Riigikogu in Autumn.

"We need to be able to choose for ourselves and control the numbers we allow here, under what conditions, and for how long. This is definitely a focus that cannot be overlooked," he added.

The issue has not been discussed at governmental level, however, according to education minister Mailis Reps (Centre), speaking to ERR.

A March 2019 study by the European Migration Network revealed that in 2017, 659,000 Ukrainian citizens were granted residence permits in EU countries, while 33,000 thousand Ukrainians were found illegally staying in EU countries. The majority have moved to Poland.

In the same year, 10,000 Ukrainians applied for asylum in EU countries, fewer than from Georgia (11,000) or Albania (24,000). 

In 2017, 13,000 Ukrainians were found to be working illegally in the EU, accounting for about two-thirds of illegally employed citizens from among non-EU eastern European countries, the report said.

The same study also notes that Estonia, together with Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland and Slovakia, have recognized the positive impact of visa liberalization on their tourism sectors, particularly regarding tourists from Ukraine.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, 15,524 short-term employment and temporary residence permits were granted to Ukrainian citizens temporarily staying in Estonia, with or without a visa, in 2018, and 2,565 were granted residence permits. 

According to the statistics on refusal of entry, 106 citizens were subject to refusal of access from Ukraine in 2018, with 210 refusals of entry from that country on the books at present.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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