The Estonian Human Rights Centre has been active in the field of refugees for almost ten years. During this time, our legal counsel has helped hundreds of people in need. The Refugee Legal Clinic, established in 2011 by the Center and with the support of the Ministry of the Interior, has now grown into an effective partnership with the UNHCR. However, the goal has remained the same: to listen to every story and help people whose lives and health are in danger. Thanks to the work of the Human Rights Center, refugees deserving of asylum have been given the opportunity here and the Estonian asylum procedure has become of better quality.
In 2019, the Centre’s lawyers advised 59 asylum seekers. In 2019, a total of 84 people applied for asylum from Estonia and the Estonian state granted international protection to 43 people. According to UNHCR’s Global Trends report, 79.5 million people, that is more than 1% of the total population, were displaced as of the end of 2019.
The numbers are large and often imperceptible, but behind every number is the story of one person, a family, a child, which is incredibly tragic, and often these stories go unnoticed. People who are fleeing cannot tell their stories publicly because they are threatened with revelation and may be found. Especially in Estonia, where the number of refugees is very small. Nor should people be pressured to talk about their experiences, which often involve war, torture, rape or other serious things. It must also be borne in mind that, in order to obtain international protection, they have repeatedly had to describe what they have experienced and thus relived it all.
Money and technical assistance alone are not enough
The message of UNCHR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie that the fight for human rights and equality is universal and should not stop at our borders is also a stumbling block for the Estonian government. Although we have helped different countries in the context of development cooperation, money and technical assistance can only bring about change to a certain extent.
The current government’s decision to end its participation in resettlement and relocation programs for people in need of international protection is particularly shameful in a context where the number of people in need around the world is growing. When in 2015, during the refugee crisis we agreed to accept those in need voluntarily, there was no well-functioning refugee reception and integration system in Estonia. However, now that the system from support person service to language learning is well developed, the are no refugees to use it. So now, if the country’s capacity allows, we could accept some families on a voluntary basis.
At the end of 2019, the Greek Minister wrote to his European colleagues asking them to take responsibility and help orphaned children. There was silence. At the end of the year, the Prime Minister announced in the Greek Parliament: “We are talking about 3,000 children – cannot they be divided between 27 countries so that Europe can show solidarity?” Again, silence followed from Europa.
At the beginning of the year, the European Commission asked Member States to consider providing assistance to unaccompanied minors who have no parents or relatives and who live in refugee camps on the Greek islands. Children live in inhumane conditions. According to Human Rights Watch, children need to sleep on mattresses and in crowded tents and may be exploited. In total, there are 1,600 children who need a home. Finally, our immediate neighbors Finland and Lithuania have promised to receive and help those in need. But not Estonia.
Today, on International Refugee Day, we urge the Estonian government that despite Estonia’s conservative immigration policy, we should have enough humanity to help even one child.
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It is important to protect everyone’s human rights, because it helps to keep stability and peace in the society. There are many challenges for protection of human rights in Estonia: intolerance has really come out of the closet. Bad things happen when good people are too passive, but together we can make a change.
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