“For refugees, the most important thing is a sense of security.” Interview with lawyers from EHRC’s refugee department

Lawyers at the Estonian Human Rights Centre, Uljana Ponomarjova, Kertu Tuuling, and Olga Vaarmann, work in a field often shrouded in confidentiality. They are dedicated to protecting the rights of refugees who have arrived in Estonia.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent refugee crisis, their work has become more stressful and critically important than ever. Last year, they provided legal advice to 1,190 people and were involved in 19 court cases simultaneously. Fortunately, Uljana and Olga recently found time to answer some questions.

To start, could you explain what a refugee lawyer does?

Uljana: “We advise and represent people seeking asylum from the Estonian government in various institutions, including courts. We explain their rights and obligations to those who have arrived here, help them communicate with officials, seek and present evidence to justify their need for asylum, and encourage them to cooperate closely with the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and other authorities to ensure a quick and smooth process.

We also work on family reunification. Often, only one family member can escape from their country of origin, leaving the rest behind. If a person has the right to bring their family to join them, we try to help.

In summary, our job is to ensure that those who need protection get it, and those who don’t are returned to their home country as quickly and dignifiedly as possible.”

Olga: “I’d like to add that we also provide consultations in detention centers, where the state places international protection applicants who are considered a potential danger. Furthermore, as partners of the UN Refugee Agency, we monitor local border checkpoints and accommodation centers.”

Why do people who turn to you find themselves in a situation where they need asylum? What kind of journey have those seeking international protection been through?

Uljana: “Excluding Ukraine, most applicants in Estonia come from Russia. They are usually politically active individuals who have opposed the regime and are already under or likely to face politically motivated criminal prosecution.

They leave behind their family, home, personal belongings, and their entire life up to that point. What awaits them is the uncertainty of life in a foreign land. If the Estonian state decides to grant them asylum, they essentially start their life from scratch. I wouldn’t wish this situation on anyone.”

Olga: “A common thread in most stories is fear—fear for one’s life, health, and well-being, and that of their loved ones. Becoming a refugee is an extremely difficult decision requiring both physical and moral efforts. The Police and Border Guard Board’s process lasts up to six months, during which the state learns essentially everything about the applicant. The person must be mentally strong to go through this. But, of course, there are also stories of adventurous nature and those seeking economic gain.”

Uljana: “Essentially, a refugee is just an ordinary person who has found themselves in an extraordinary situation. They need the same things we all do—the opportunity to live a safe life, to freely express their thoughts, to follow their faith, or simply to be who they are.”

Has working with refugees changed you or your values in any way? How?

Uljana: “Actually, no. I have always believed that every person has the right to live safely, regardless of their political views, identity, religion, ethnic background, or nationality. However, working with refugees makes me think about how important democracy and the protection of human rights are in our own country, to ensure nothing similar happens here. It makes me appreciate more what we have in Estonia.

When everything is more or less okay, human rights protection often becomes secondary or something that seems unnecessary. But we must always remember how quickly some democratic countries can turn authoritarian.”

Olga: “Family, friends, home, work, and leisure have all become more valuable. Realizing that a person can lose everything due to various circumstances and factors beyond their control makes ordinary things seem valuable.”

Do you keep an eye on what happens to people who have been granted asylum? Do you feel responsible for them?

Uljana: “We are lawyers, not friends or support persons. In some cases, for example, if a protected person’s family remains in their home country, we maintain contact after protection is granted because we deal with family reunification. Often, however, we meet protected individuals again three years later when they wish to extend their refugee status. International protection is not granted forever. If the situation in the country of origin has consistently improved over three years and the person no longer needs protection, it will not be extended.”

Olga: “People who have received help from EHRC turn to us later with other issues, not just those related to international protection. This shows they trust us and believe we can help them. We then direct them to the appropriate agency.”

You mentioned that you also visit the border. What do you do there? Whom do you meet?

Uljana: “We monitor the situation at the border to ensure that the state fulfills its obligations under the law. This means that people in need of protection must have access to the asylum system, i.e., a real opportunity to apply for protection.”

Olga: “During monitoring, we communicate with border guard staff, examine the situation at the border and the conditions for applying for international protection, and review the waiting areas and living conditions for applicants.”

Uljana: “It must be acknowledged that we are developing a pretty good cooperation with the PPA. We listen to each other’s expectations and share best practices. It’s important that institutions dealing with refugees have a common understanding. And if it happens that this understanding does not always match, fortunately, in Estonia, we have an independent and very professional court.”

What is the hardest part of your job? And what is the most enjoyable?

Uljana: “The hardest part is staying healthy while listening to people’s stories filled with violence and sadness day after day. We encounter victims of torture and human trafficking, people who have been beaten, whose relatives have been killed, etc.

The most joyful moments are those when we succeed in helping long-separated families to reunite and stay together. When you see a glimmer of joy amid great sorrow, you feel that you’ve done something important. Personally, I’m also very happy when the law or practice changes for the better, more humane, and just, thanks to our work. Changing the system is one of the most important goals of strategic litigation. A good example is a case last year that was resolved positively, allowing asylum seekers awaiting decisions in detention centers access to mobile phones and the internet. Thanks to this, they can now communicate with their families and search for and present evidence why they need international protection.”

Olga: “Since I’m relatively new to refugee law, I’m thrilled every day that I get to learn thanks to our team leader. But the coolest thing is feeling like part of changing court practices and processes that have developed over the years, making human rights not just a word but the result of determined work.”

Is Estonia a good place for a refugee to arrive? Why?

Uljana: “For a person who needs protection, the country itself is usually not the most important thing, whether it’s Estonia, Finland, Latvia, or something else. Their main concern is a sense of security. An international protection applicant cannot freely choose the country where they apply for protection (except for Ukrainian citizens, for whom a special procedure currently applies). Usually, a person applies for protection in the first safe country they reach, and if that happens to be Estonia, then so be it. I have a good life in Estonia; it’s my home, and I defend it as best I can. I hope others feel the same.”

Thank you! And good luck with your work!






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