Unexpected Outcome: Russian Refugees in Estonia Subject to Russian Law

The Supreme Court of Estonia declined to hear the complaint lodged by Russian citizens, Jana and Anna (correct names known to the Estonian Human Rights Centre), signifying that the decision of the circuit court stands. This decision entails that the Russian law continues to be applicable to the family that has been granted refugee status in Estonia, a country that has provided them refuge from the very Russian state whose legal system now governs them.

Jana and Anna are women raising a young daughter, and their life in their homeland became unsafe as they publicly advocated for LGBT+ rights and expressed their disapproval of Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine by participating in anti-government protests.

The proceedings conducted by the Police and Border Guard Board revealed that the family faces persecution in Russia. Consequently, all three were granted refugee status by Estonia in June of last year. Fearing the uncertainty of their situation and wishing to provide security for their child, Jana filed an application in court last year to adopt her spouse’s child, an application that had previously received approval from the Social Insurance Board.

Unexpectedly, both the county and circuit courts ruled that Jana could not adopt in Estonia. The courts determined that in the case of Jana and Anna, the Estonia-Russia agreement on legal assistance and legal relations in civil, family, and criminal matters should apply. According to this agreement, adoption should take place in Russia under Russian law, a decision that could have dire consequences – not only does Russia not recognize adoption by same-sex couples, but returning there would also jeopardize the women’s lives.

According to § 7 of the International Private Law Act, foreign law is not applied if its application would conflict with the fundamental principles of Estonian law. Today, we find ourselves in a situation where the decision of the Estonian judicial system contradicts this principle.

Liisa Linna, sworn attorney at the law firm LIVERTE, which represented the family, stated: “From a human rights perspective, the situation is perplexing. When choosing the applicable law for adoption, in my opinion, we should primarily consider Estonian laws, human rights, and the protection of children’s rights. Moreover, this is a refugee family, meaning that the Refugee Convention applies, which takes precedence over the treaty on legal assistance.”

The Minister of Justice has initiated a draft law to terminate the agreement. Following the termination of the legal assistance agreement, the adoption will be subject to the laws of the family’s place of residence, i.e., Estonian law, and Jana will have the opportunity to reapply for adoption.

“Jana and Anna are courageous women who fearlessly championed human rights in Russia, even in the face of threats. It is incomprehensible that the Estonian state has not terminated the agreement with a terrorist regime. The approach that requires Jana to adopt based on Russian law, which does not respect human rights and does not recognize same-sex partnerships, is deeply troubling,” added Kelly Grossthal, Head of Strategic Litigation at the Estonian Human Rights Centre.

The Estonian Human Rights Centre supported Jana and Anna’s legal journey, extending heartfelt thanks to the law firm LIVERTE for representing the family and to all donors who helped cover the legal costs.

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