Tucked away in the far-eastern corner of Europe, bordering Russia, lies the small Baltic State of Estonia. It may not be the most well-known member of the European Union, but nonetheless, Estonia is proving a valuable asset in the EU’s response to the growing refugee crisis.
Here are 10 things you should know about refugees in Estonia:
- Refugees in Estonia primarily come from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia.
- Estonia has not received as many applications for asylum as other EU member states, but the number of applicants is steadily growing. As of March 2016, Estonia had accepted 107 quota refugees–87 from Greece and 20 from Turkey. Estonia has also agreed to take in about 500 people over the next two years.
- Estonia has one of the best welfare support systems in Europe. Estonia currently offers every refugee free housing and income support for two years. Refugees also receive benefits including language courses, translators and assistance in finding employment. They receive the same unemployment and welfare benefits available to Estonian citizens, as long as they remain in Estonia.
- Refugees in Estonia have one of the best advocates in the EU, Riina Kionka, the chief foreign policy advisor to the president of the European Council. She is passionate about the refugee crisis, as her mother was an Estonian refugee that came to the U.S., where Kionka was born. She stated that she believes Estonians should be at the forefront of helping refugees, “given Estonia’s history, with so many of its compatriots having been welcomed by other countries as refugees after the second World War and during the Soviet occupation.”
- Refugees come to Estonia mainly through relocation programs, not resettlement. Estonia and Italy are currently negotiating a relocation agreement, in which Estonia will take on some of the influx of refugees surging into Italy. This agreement has been discussed for several months, but predicted to close soon. Estonia is already relocating refugees from Greece and Turkey through a similar agreement.
- Estonia’s retention rate of refugees is one of the lowest in all of Europe. As of May 2017, more than 25 percent of the 150 refugees taken in by Estonia had left the country. Most refugees coming in do not choose Estonia; the EU assigned them to the country in an effort to spread the number of refugees across Europe. Many are disappointed with the cold climate and discouraged by the low-paying jobs they secure, which often contrast deeply with what they had in their home countries.
- The greatest challenge refugees in Estonia face is their own expectations. Many refugees, especially the ones relocated from other EU countries, find themselves discontent with life in Estonia. Analysts from Estonia’s relocation program trace this dissatisfaction to social media, as most of the refugees “spent the past year stuck in Greece…seeing the successes of refugees who landed in Germany or Sweden through the filters of Facebook and Instagram.”
- Refugees living in Estonia are among the most welcomed in all of Europe. Anti-migrant attitudes are growing dangerously fast across the rest of Europe, but there has been little backlash in Estonia. Seeing as how the country was deeply divided over the refugee crisis only a few years ago, this signals a great shift in the country’s mindset. Communities and families alike are coming together to try and make refugees feel welcome, helping the newcomers furnish their apartments and even giving out winter clothes to shield refugees from Estonia’s colder climate.
- Refugees living in Estonia have some of the best chances at integrating into the society of their host country. The government has spread its refugees all across the country, especially to sparsely populated rural areas, in order to give refugees a better chance at immersion. Children are immediately enrolled in schools, and adults receive help learning Estonian and English and coaching on finding jobs. The goal of the resettlement process is to empower refugees to support themselves and no longer need government benefits.
- If the refugees can’t come to Estonia, Estonians are going to them. The Estonian Refugee Council has substantially increased its efforts to reach refugees, especially in the Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts of Ukraine. In April alone, they delivered hundreds of humanitarian aid packages consisting of food, hygiene products and blankets. Estonians also increased support for these efforts, as the ERC gathered 34,876 euros by the end of April 2017 in donations alone.
Though there is still work to do, Estonia is setting a strong example for the world by warmly welcoming refugees. Estonia’s approach to the refugee crisis will contribute significantly to resolving the refugee crisis and will hopefully inspire its EU counterparts to implement similar tactics.
– Sydney Cooney