Issued:
2021
Short Description:

A preliminary mapping on hiring refugees in Estonia from the perspective of employers and organisations supporting refugee employment.

The purpose of this preliminary mapping is to provide insights into the Estonian labour market in terms of refugee inclusion and, more specifically, the experiences of employers in hiring and supporting asylum seekers or refugees. This mapping is based on online meetings with organisations offering some type of support to refugees entering the labour market and employers with experience or interest in hiring refugees.

The mapping is also available in Estonian (click on ET on the left upper corner of the page).

Key issues

  • COVID-19 restrictions have affected freedom of movement, assembly, and association, the right to respect for private and family life, the right to education, and the right to engage in business.
  • Various data protection issues have arisen in connection with the pandemic, while Estonia has kept privacy rights central in the formulation of fresh solutions (such as in the case of the HOIA mobile application, for example).
  • The spread of misinformation is tending to cause problems in the fight against the pandemic, especially issues relating to vaccination often polarising society.

A summary of the situation and related restrictions

On 12 March 2020, the government declared a state of emergency in Estonia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this state of emergency ended on 18 May 2020. As of 12 August 2021, a fresh healthcare emergency has been in force within the country.[1]

In March 2020, Estonia informed the Council of Europe that it was exercising its right to derogate from its obligations under Article 15 of the ‘European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’. Estonia announced the suspension of a number of rights, including the right to liberty and the security of the person, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for private and family life, freedom of assembly and association, the right to education, and the right to freedom of movement.[2] The use of the derogation ended at the conclusion of the state of emergency on 18 May 2020.[3]

Most of the COVID-19 measures which have been introduced by the state have been widely implemented, focussing generally on restricting freedom of movement, assembly, and association, and measures which serve to restrict business operations. Restrictions on freedom of movement were imposed on people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and people who were living with them, along with people who were crossing the Estonian state border, while movement in public spaces was also restricted (known as the 2 + 2 rule).[4]

Restrictions on movement particularly affected vulnerable groups. In April 2020, people who were living in general care homes and special care homes were prohibited from leaving the care home grounds until the emergency situation had been concluded.[5] Restrictions on care homes also concerned the right to respect for private and family life, as residents of care homes were unable to meet their relatives for a long time due to the ban on visiting care homes.

The restrictions also significantly affected the rights of detainees. The Chancellor of Justice criticised the ban on walking in fresh air and reductions in the opportunity to call on relatives to just once a week, a situation which was established during the state of emergency.[6]

During that state of emergency, all public gatherings were banned, raising questions about the constitutional validity of the ban on political demonstrations and worship. The Chancellor of Justice expressed the opinion that, during the state of emergency, freedom of opinion and expression as provided for in the constitution was not in fact being restricted, as it remained possible to express one’s mind in forms other than through a physical gathering. The Chancellor of Justice also explained that the ban on public gatherings prevented the holding of religious services, but the holding of religious services were still permitted if one did it alone or in private, while no churches or shrines were closed during the emergency, and no prayers were banned.[7]

The corona restrictions also concerned the right to education. During the special situation, distance learning was introduced into schools, while in some places distance learning was applied even after the end of the state of emergency. The lack of contact learning placed those students who have special educational needs in a particularly vulnerable position. The Estonian Chamber of Disabled People has found that the closure of contact schools, dormitories, and social services in schools and special schools resulted in a sharp increase in the care burden being borne by the parents of children who have disabilities, with parents stating that school support for distance learning was for the most part insufficient.[8]

Legislative developments

In May 2020, a clustered draft act for several legal amendments which were related to the COVID-19 pandemic all came into force together, amending more than thirty legal acts in the process.[9] The Chancellor of Justice criticised the fact that the package of urgently-needed amendments also included changes which were not urgent, and the impact of which extends beyond the emergency situation itself. Of particular concern was the amendment to reduce the period of judicial review regarding involuntary treatment and involuntary placement in a psychiatric hospital, as it made it possible to exclude people from being heard in such court proceedings.[10]

The Estonian Refugee Council and the Estonian Centre for Human Rights condemned the amendment which was contained in the cluster draft act, according to which the detention of applicants for international protection would be allowed without extraordinary justification if there were an exceptionally large number of applications.[11]

In addition, the ‘Act Amending the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act’ was passed in May 2021. The draft specifies the competence of the government and the Health Board, and adds a legal basis to the law which makes it possible to ensure that people are under an obligation to follow the precautionary infection safety measures in the event of the spread of an infectious disease. The act also adds to the current raft of legal acts the possibility of being able to involve the police and other law enforcement agencies in the performance of the tasks of the Health Board.[12] Before the law was passed, people protested on Toompea against the draft act. Protesters expressed the fear that the draft act would allow the law to be used to evict people, especially children, by force. Legal experts have confirmed that this is not in fact the case, and the new law will change the procedure only to a minimal extent.[13]

Case law

The COVID-19 pandemic did not interrupt the Estonian judicial system. In the event of an emergency, preference was to be given to written procedures and the holding of essential court hearings by technical means of communication.[14]

Many issues which could be related to corona restrictions have not reached the Estonian courts; complaints have rather been directed to the Chancellor of Justice. The Chancellor of Justice has questioned the fact that restrictions have been established by means of a general order, over which the Chancellor of Justice does not have the opportunity to initiate a constitutional review; in the event of there being any cases which involve a violation of rights, the individual concerned must go to court to address the matter.[15] In this regard, the Tallinn Administrative Court has taken the position which dictates that the form of the general order is correct in terms of restrictions, while ensuring better opportunities for people to be able to protect their rights and interests. By means of the same decision, the court dismissed the complaint by the ‘Foundation for the Protection of the Family and Tradition’ regarding the legality of the coronavirus restrictions, finding that the disputed restrictions regarding the number of participants at public meetings were indeed appropriate, necessary, and moderate in order to make it possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19.[16]

Judgments regarding corona restrictions can be found in various areas such as, in particular, concerning complaints about the rights of prisoners, and restrictions on freedom of movement and communications. Based on the available court rulings, the prevailing view is that restrictions regarding prisons, such as bans on long-term visits, are indeed proportionate, as the public interest in preventing the spread of the virus outweighs the impact of the restrictions on the rights of detainees.[17][18]

Statistics and surveys

In June 2021, the Praxis think tank published a study entitled: ‘The socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender equality’, which found that gender inequality had increased during the pandemic. With the closure of schools and childcare facilities, most of the burden of caring for children and carrying out domestic work was borne by women, with their opportunities to be able to undertake paid work being reduced. The analysis revealed that not enough measures have been taken in Estonia to support gender equality during the pandemic.[19]

In the summer of 2020, the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People conducted a mini-study entitled ‘Disabled people coping during the crisis’. The recommendations which were made on the basis of the study emphasised the need to provide basic social services for people with disabilities even during a crisis, as well as the need to provide contact learning opportunities for children who have special educational needs. In addition, emphasis was placed on the importance of providing accessible communications, and preventive organisation in terms of social work.[20]

Promises and good practice

In August 2020, the mobile application, HOIA, was introduced in Estonia, with it informing users when they have come into close contact with a carrier of coronavirus. Although it is difficult to assess the impact of the application, it is a positive fact that special attention has been paid to the protection of personal data in terms of the application’s development. It is not possible to identify users or their location through the application, and the state does not receive any information about the identity of those people who are infected or their close contacts.[21] The Data Protection Inspectorate and the Office of the Chancellor of Justice have also praised the HOIA application in this regard.[22]

Major public debates

Disputes over vaccination and masking are widespread on social media and beyond. Some people see the restrictions which have been raised in relation to COVID-19 as a deprivation of liberty and a violation of human rights. The spread of misinformation has contributed to this; misinformation which is related to the vaccination programme has enjoyed a particularly high area of dissemination in Estonia.

The vaccination programme raises a number of issues which have been widely discussed in the media, in particular the COVID-19 certificate, or what is known as the requirement for a vaccination passport. Since the autumn of 2020, a COVID-19 certificate must be presented in Estonia to permit holders to participate in various activities, including public meetings or events, and visits to entertainment establishments and catering establishments. The opinion articles which have been published by media sources have been analysed in some detail, in particular regarding compatibility with the right to equal treatment in regard to the use of vaccination passports for non-medical purposes, as well as issues which are related to the protection of personal data.[23]

Professor Mart Susi of Tallinn University has expressed the opinion that the use of a vaccine passport does not violate human rights if its presentation is not an unavoidable condition for access to certain services or events, and practically everyone can obtain a vaccination passport.[24] In May 2021 the Chancellor of Justice explained that requesting an immunity certificate from consumers who are attempting to access certain services is a justifiable act in order to reduce the risk of infection, but should still remain a temporary solution which lasts only as long as the epidemiological situation requires it.[25]

Case study

The Chancellor of Justice was approached by a kindergarten teacher who had been infected with coronavirus. The teacher had reported their positive test result to their superiors at the kindergarten. The kindergarten’s principal informed parents of the teacher’s name, which triggered resentment and some hostility in the parents. In the opinion of the Chancellor of Justice, there was no justification for disclosing the name of such an infected person; the disclosure of sensitive health information is unequivocally prohibited. The Chancellor of Justice explained that if a person believes that a private body is unlawfully processing their data, the Data Protection Inspectorate must be notified, which has the obligation to monitor compliance with those requirements which have been established for the processing of personal data pursuant to the Personal Data Protection Act.[26]

Recommendations

  • The response to the COVID-19 pandemic must be thoroughly analysed and publicly justified in terms of human rights and levels of proportion. The impact of restrictions must be considered both before and, periodically, afterwards, with a possible analysis also being conducted on a regular basis regarding possible side effects.
  • The specific nature of and messages which were included in the measures, and information which has been shared in regard to those measures, are all important areas, including for the purposes of mitigating the risk of misinformation.
  • In a crisis situation, special attention should be paid to the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups, including the rights of people with special needs, by cooperating with relevant organisations and, amongst other things, following the recommendations of the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People.[27]

[1] Vabariigi Valitsus. 2021. Koroonaviirus ja selle vältimine .

[2] Eesti Vabariigi alaline esindus Euroopa Nõukogu juures. 2020. Note verbale nr 1-16/6, 20.03.2020.

[3] Oja, B. 2020. Eesti teavitas Euroopa Nõukogu eriolukorra lõppemisest, ERR, 16.05.2020.

[4] Riigi Teataja. 2021. Meetmed koroonaviiruse SARS-CoV-2 leviku tõkestamiseks.

[5] Riigi Teataja. 2020. Eriolukorra juhi korraldus hoolekandeasutustes liikumisvabaduse piirangu kehtestamise kohta, 17.05.2020.

[6] Õiguskantsler. 2020. COVID-19 haigust põhjustava viiruse leviku tõkestamise meetmed,  nr 7-7/200489/2001899, 06.04.2020.

[7] Õiguskantsler. 2020. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade – Õigusriik eriolukorras.

[8] EPIKoda. 2020. Puudega inimeste toimetulek kriisiajal, 14.09.2020.

[9] Riigi Teataja. 2020. Abipolitseiniku seaduse ja teiste seaduste muutmise seadus (COVID-19 haigust põhjustava viiruse SARS-Cov-2 levikuga seotud meetmed), 06.05.2020.

[10] Õiguskantsler. 2020. Tähelepanekud abipolitseiniku seaduse ja teiste seaduste muutmise seaduse (COVID-19 haigust põhjustava viiruse SARS-Cov-2 levikuga seotud meetmed) eelnõu kohta, nr 18-1/200565/2001935, 07.04.2020.

[11] Eesti Inimõiguste Keskus, Eesti Pagulasabi. 2020. Arvamus abipolitseiniku seaduse ja teiste seaduste muutmise seaduse (COVID-19 haigust põhjustava viiruse SARS-Cov-2 levikuga seotud meetmed) eelnõu 170 SE kohta, 13.04.2020.

[12] Riigi Teataja. 2020. Nakkushaiguste ennetamise ja tõrje seaduse muutmise seadus, 22.05.2021.

[13] Ellermaa, E. 2020. Meeleavaldajate ja õigusekspertide tõlgendus seaduseelnõust läheb lahku, ERR, 08.04.2021.

[14] Kohtute haldamise nõukoda. 2020. Kohtute haldamise nõukoja soovitused õigusemõistmise korraldamiseks eriolukorra ajal, 16.03.2020.

[15] Õiguskantsler. 2021. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade.

[16] Nael, M. 2021. Halduskohus ei rahuldanud SAPTK kaebust koroonapiirangute kohta, ERR, 01.10.2021.

[17] Tartu Ringkonnakohtu 21.12.2020. a määrus haldusasjas nr 3-20-2343.

[18]  Tallinna Ringkonnakohtu 18.01.2021. a määrus haldusasjas nr 3-20-2267.

[19] Haugas S.,  Sepper, M-L (Mõttekoda Praxis). 2021. COVID-19 pandeemia sotsiaal-majanduslik mõju soolisele võrdõiguslikkusele.

[20]  EPIKoda. 2020. Puudega inimeste toimetulek kriisiajal, 14.09.2020.

[21] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2020. Tänasest saab laadida nutitelefoni koroonaviiruse levikut piirava mobiilirakenduse HOIA, 20.08.2020.

[22] R. Liive. 2020. AKI peab eestlaste koroonaäppi sobilikuks, õiguskantsleri büroo jagab tunnustust. Digigeenius, 19.08.2020.

[23] Luik-Tamme, I., Šipilov, V. 2021. Ingeri Luik-Tamme ja Vitali Šipilov: vaktsineerimispassi mõju põhiõigustele, ERR, 05.03.2021.

[24] Susi, M. 2021. Mart Susi: vaktsiinipass versus inimõigused, Postimees, 14.05.2021.

[25] Õiguskantsler. 2021. Lihtsustatud juurdepääs teenustele immuunsustõendi alusel, nr 14-1/210929/2103416, 18.05.2021.

[26] Õiguskantsler. 2021. Õiguskantsleri aastaülevaade.

[27]  EPIKoda. 2020. Puudega inimeste toimetulek kriisiajal, 14.09.2020.

Key issues

  • The spread of COVID-19 was accompanied by economic problems: people became ill, their workload and/or wages were reduced, they became unemployed due to their company’s financial difficulties, and so on.
  • The proportion of people who are living in relative poverty has remained around the 21-22% mark in recent years, but the proportion of people who are living in absolute poverty has steadily been declining.
  • In the last ten years life expectancy in Estonia has grown faster than in the EU
    At the same time, gender, socio-economic, and regional inequalities in terms of health indicators remain in place.[1]

Political and institutional developments

At the political and institutional level, the fields of employment and social protection for 2020-2021 have largely been based on the welfare development plan which was approved by the government in 2016. In 2021, the Ministry of Social Affairs started preparing a new national welfare development plan for 2023-2030 (this is a continuation of the previous development plan). That development plan should enter into force on 1 January 2023.[2] The forthcoming document brings together the strategic objectives which are contained in the ‘Welfare’ policies, those of reducing social inequalities and poverty, increasing gender equality and social inclusion, promoting the equal treatment of persons who belong to minorities, improving employment, ensuring lengthy and high-quality working lives, promoting population policies, and increasing the well-being of children and families, all of which are scheduled to cover the period between 2023-2030, while taking into account the strategic goals which have been set out in the country’s long-term development strategy, ‘Estonia 2035’, as well as observing UN global sustainable development goals and the directions of the European Union, along with international commitments.

In 2020, the government approved the ‘Public Health Development Plan 2020-2030’ which had been developed by the Ministry of Social Affairs. Its main objectives are to increase the average life expectancy of the average person, improving the number years of healthy living they can expect, and to reduce health inequalities (between genders, regions, and levels of education).[3]

Legislative developments

In 2020, the government adopted two legislative amendment packages in order to create a legal basis for the adoption of COVID-19 virus-related measures, with the financial side being guaranteed by the supplementary state budget for 2020. As an example, these included the ‘Law on Support for Entrepreneurship and the State Guarantee of Loans’, tax provisions to facilitate economic subsistence and support for entrepreneurs, legal acts which relate to the social field to ensure the continuation of certain activities under the conditions of a state of emergency, and further legal acts which provide social protection during a state of emergency. Also in 2021, the government adopted a package of legal acts in order to implement measures which serve to prevent the spread of coronavirus and to mitigate its consequences. Its financial side will be guaranteed by the supplementary state budget for 2021. Of that budget, a total of EUR 16 million was earmarked as essential aid for the social sector, enabling municipalities to procure medical and hygiene supplies and increase their necessary social protection expenditures.[4]

At the beginning of 2020, the Riigikogu legalised the voluntary nature of the second pension pillar. When this entered into force in 2021, joining or leaving the second pillar became voluntary. According to politicians, the change increases people’s freedom and raises awareness of the pension system; investment opportunities were expected to expand and competition between funds to increase, into which funds people are now able to invest their money.[5] The change generated a good deal of controversy and also opposition, which even reached the Supreme Court. The president of Estonia first rejected the legal act which was intended to make the second pension pillar voluntary, and instead sent the draft to the Supreme Court for oversight. After waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision to be issued, the legal act was duly passed.[6]

The reason for this delay was the president’s desire to prevent poverty and coping difficulties in retirement. According to Kersti Kaljulaid, the withdrawal of funds which were normally collected in pension funds and their free use reduces the ability of the pension system to fulfil the objectives which have been set out for it. As the number of pensioners in Estonia will only increase in the future, and the number of people of working age is steadily decreasing, the president also saw a risk that the new legal act could serve to increase the number of people who would be at risk of sliding into poverty.[7] The National Audit Office, which provided its own assessment in the Supreme Court’s proceedings regarding the formation of the second pension pillar as a voluntary requirement, also acknowledged that the change in the pension system could lead to more people not receiving a large enough pension in the future, and that the change could also affect the incomes of current retirees.[8]

In Estonia, only the basic income is guaranteed to people in old age through the state pension. The provision of any income which is in excess of this should be ensured by means of a voluntarily-funded pension, both through the employer’s investment and also the employee’s own investment (and this share is practically non-existent for Estonian seniors as it will also be for future pensioners for at least the next few years). In the autumn of 2021, more than 150,000 people were leaving the second pillar (approximately one fifth of investors in the second pillar); with a total of 1.3 billion euros or almost a quarter of the collected assets flowing out of reserves. Thirty or more percent of 32-40 year olds are leaving the second pillar.[9] According to experts, those who are leaving the second pillar should invest their pension money independently and profitably, otherwise these people will have to expect a lower basic state pension in the future.[10]

In 2021, the government amended the State Pension Insurance Act, as a result of which the pension became more flexible than it was in 2020. People can choose the most appropriate time to retire, withdraw their pension in part, or suspend their pension if they wish.

Statistics and surveys

The economic downturn which was caused by COVID-19 led to the liquidation and bankruptcy of multiple companies, as well as a significant increase in the unemployment rate. At the end of 2020, the Unemployment Insurance Fund had 50,000 registered unemployed persons, which was much more than in 2019 (which only had a registered figure of 19,250 people). In October 2021, the number of unemployed stands at 44,000, somewhat less than the figure for 2020, but still in excess of the 2019 figure by a sizeable 13,250 people.[11]

According to Statistics Estonia, a total of 284,300 people out of Estonia’s total population (21.7% of the entire figure) lived in relative poverty in 2019, and 31,400 (2.4%) in absolute poverty.[12] A total of 2.4% of the Estonian population – 31,400 people – were living below the absolute poverty line in 2019, and therefore under the estimated subsistence minimum (which amounts to 221 euros a month).

Of the total Estonian population, 20.7% or 275,000 people had to live below the relative poverty line (of 611 euros a month). Both absolute and relative poverty endangers women, the disabled, and the unemployed in Estonia. The share of children who were living in relative poverty has decreased in recent years, but the share of children who are living in absolute poverty has remained at the same level or has even increased somewhat.[13]

A total of 6.5% of the Estonian population was severely deprived of material resources in 2020, which means that their living conditions were severely affected by a lack of resources, such as the fact that they could not afford to pay their bills, keep their homes warm, or take a week-long holiday away from home. This share has decreased when the figures are compared to those for 2019 (which was at 7.6%). In 2019, a total of 8.1% of women and 7.0% of men belonged in this group. The highest deprivation rate was amongst 50-64 year-olds (totalling 9%), while the lowest was in the 25-49 year-old age group (4.7%).[14]

Pension poverty

Upon reaching retirement age, the main regular income for most people is their pension. Estonian pensions are low when they are compared to salaries and, therefore, many people who are over the age of sixty-five years (41.4% in 2019) live in relative poverty, while over 75% of older people who are living alone live in relative poverty.[15] Estonia’s average pension (of 552 euros in 2021) is about 40% of the average salary. It also manages to keep the elderly from absolute poverty, but still leaves them in relative poverty (the relative poverty line in 2019 is 611 euros).

Unemployment poverty

When compared to the EU average, the poverty risk for the unemployed in Estonia tends to be higher (totalling 49.1% for the EU average and 52.5% for the Estonian figure respectively, in 2019). As a share of GDP, Estonia contributes less to passive labour policy measures than the European average (with a figure of 0.41% for Estonia and 0.66% for the EU respectively, in 2019).[16]

Employment depends to a large extent upon the quality of one’s working life. In 2020, labour inspectors identified 11,530 violations of occupational health, safety, employment, maritime work, or drivers’ working and rest time requirements. Violations were detected in about 83% of those companies which were inspected. A total of 3,622 occupational accidents were registered, including 915 serious occupational accidents and nine fatal occupational accidents. There were one-fifth fewer serious occupational accidents than in 2019.[17]

Health status

Life expectancy in Estonia has increased more than in any other EU country since 2000. The health status of the Estonian population is currently approaching the EU average, mainly due to the reduction in deaths due to ischemic heart disease and stroke. Unfortunately, there are large gender, socio-economic, and regional inequalities of health in Estonia. On average, women live almost nine years longer than men. In 2020, the life expectancy in Estonia was 74.4 years for men and 82.8 years for women. Life expectancy rates for women remained at the same level as in 2019, while those for men increased by 0.1 years. Inequality is even more extreme among the less well-educated population of Estonia. Low-educated women in their thirties live ten years longer than low-educated men. Regional inequalities are also perceptible in the life expectancy of the Estonian population, especially between urban and rural areas. For example, the expected life expectancy rates for the population of Tartu County is 4.5 years longer than that of the residents of Ida-Viru County in the north-eastern part of the country.[18]

Men live 55.5 healthy years and women 59.5 healthy years. When compared to 2019, Estonian men live healthy lives which are one year and five months longer. The healthy life rates for Estonian women have increased by one year and eleven months.[19]

Major public debates

The issue of pensions became central in the years 2020-2021. Although there is a high risk of poverty for pensioners in Estonia, Estonians are not actively preparing for retirement. Compared to the euro area average, Estonians spend significantly less money on equities, voluntary pension funds, and other investments. A total of 23% of people in the euro area invest in voluntary pension funds, compared to only 7.8% in Estonia.[20]

The lack of readiness for a future pension as well as the voluntary nature of the second pension pillar have served to trigger a wide-ranging debate in Estonia. The shortcomings of the current pension system which, according to several experts, has been one-sided and takes little account of people’s interests, have been sharply criticised. According to the assessment by Georg Männik, the former director-general of the Social Insurance Board, who has been active in the field of pensions even prior to the reform, it is time for analysts to admit that the main goal of funded pensions has never been to improve the retirement welfare of the population but the development of capital markets instead. In Georg Männik’s opinion, the primary goal of creating the funded pension was indeed to develop the capital markets with cheap money. Cheap money means that banks are saved from the cost of raising money and the obligation to provide a certain return to the real owners of the money, these being people themselves.[21] Georg Männik questioned the funded pension system as a whole.

He is opposed by Ringa Raudla, a professor of fiscal management at the Ragnar Nurkse Institute at TUT, who believes that the surest way to secure a pension is by investing in special pension funds. She criticises the voluntary nature of the second pillar and argues that the current round of pension reforms have given people freedom but may not make their lives any easier, as this particular reform has deprived them of an important way of being able to secure a pension. Ringa Raudla also questions other options for raising money for retirement such as, for example, investing the collected assets in property holdings or shares, and hoping that they will provide a sufficient return for the rest of their lives. This route may indeed yield a higher return than an insurance contract might offer, but investing definitely involves uncertainty and not all people have the desire or ability to invest after retirement. Financial crises are also a problem when it comes to making investments as they can significantly reduce the value of assets and, in a worst case scenario, even eliminate additional income.[22]

Ringa Raudla’s views command a degree of agreement. The pension systems both in Estonia and around the world as a whole are trending towards increased responsibility by people themselves, and the role of funded pensions is becoming more and more important. Many developed countries have created conditions which encourage additional voluntary savings amongst those groups in society which can save more.

The pension debates have proved to be of noticeable help. The SEB Baltic Pension Readiness Survey of 2021 showed that the communication of pension reforms in the Baltic states has made people more interested in their future income. While in previous years only 20% of people were interested in their pension assets, this figure can now be placed at 40%. At the same time, the Estonian people have been more passive than the residents of Latvia and Lithuania. The main reason for people not wanting to plan for retirement is complexity. As one’s retirement age is often decades away, it is not easy to predict who we as individuals will be by then, or what our health will be, what our economic situation will be, who will be close to us, and so on. Almost three-quarters of Estonians realise that they do not have enough assets and savings to cope in retirement, but nevertheless most of them do not plan to start saving for retirement.[23]

The same findings are confirmed by research in the field of economic psychology and behavioural economics. People may not make rational decisions even if they have a lot of information and good financial knowledge, mainly because people prefer short-term goals to long-term goals, and future prosperity is too inconceivable for it to be pursued in favour of spending money today. Moreover, we may not perceive the future us as ourselves; people see setting money aside for growth towards distant future as a loss of their money. On the other hand, people tend to be optimistic and confident, thereby underestimating the possibility of declining incomes. Rather, positive events such as pay rises or promotions are forecasted, paying less attention to health risks and other negative scenarios.[24]

The OECD also refers to risks in Estonia regarding future pensions. From the OECD’s point of view, Estonians live and spend too much in the present day; the future is still far off in the distance and there is no concern being felt about it. The OECD’s 2020 Pensions Review which was published at the end of 2020 emphasises the long-term nature of saving for one’s pension and the need to continue to do so during the crisis.[25]

It is also worth highlighting the discussion at Paide Opinion Festival on the topic, ‘Empty hands or a dignified retirement?’ which was held in 2021 and which was led by the Ministry of Social Affairs, with invited guest speakers including Aimar Altosaar (MTÜ Kuldliiga), Tõnu Pekk (Tuleva), Georg Männik (the social security and health care expert), and Kristjan Kangro (Change Invest).

The debate reflected the existing conflicting views regarding future pensions which had emerged from previous debates, but the main conclusions were that there was a broad consensus that we are in a qualitatively new situation in which a state-guaranteed pension was not the answer to coping economically in old age. You need to start preparing for old age early on, and it is important to inform and encourage people to use different ways in which they can raise money for their retirement, be it investing in the second or third pension pillar, or investing in stocks, property, cryptocurrency, etc. For many, the solution may be working in retirement as a new norm, which requires a healthy and physically fit lifestyle, as well as continuous self-improvement and learning in order to remain competitive in the labour market at the age of sixty-five or over. Children can also be the best pension pillar, although opinions were divided here. Critics argued that children should not be placed under such a burden as having to support their parents in their retirement. It was cooperatively found that it is important to raise people’s awareness regarding today’s choices having a direct impact upon their future ability to cope on their own.

Promising practice

Estonia has an innovative and well-developed digital healthcare system in place. The state offers a good many health-related tools and services online. These include a digitised patient medical history, the digital archive, digital prescriptions, referrals, the e-ambulance service, and also the e-consultation service. Estonia has recently adopted a central system for registering for a doctor’s appointment. More than 96% of the Estonian population have an ID card, which makes possible digital authentication and access to e-services via the internet.

Particularly good digitalisation can lead to better health outcomes. For example, doctors have online access to information on all medicines which have previously been prescribed to patients, which helps to prevent unwanted medication interactions.

Case description

Levila published an article entitled ‘Kodutute talveõhtud’ (‘The winter evenings of the Homeless’), in which they researched what the residents of two of Tallinn homeless shelters dream about on cold winter evenings.

‘They want a place in the dorm. The kind of place in which they can also spend time during the day. Then they don’t have to catch a bus to get anywhere. They want their own job and everything else… One of them is still making plans, but only tentatively because he has made plans before and still ended up back here again… and again. He’s been in this shelter and that shelter, he’s been in a social housing unit, and most recently he rented an apartment for himself. He’s currently working at the Food Bank. Help is needed in the warehouse; he hands out packages to the women there. He cuts frozen meat. Ten kilo frozen blocks come in from the store which cannot be distributed in that form. Portions must be prepared and film-wrapped, all as required, entirely clean and safe. He used to distribute food in a hospital, so he knows the job well. Not much is paid to him, though, just 3.80 EUR a day. But over the course of a month it seems to be enough for him to hold onto a place in the social housing unit. But other expenses are needed too. He can also eat at work as it’s different there from the soup kitchen. Meals are also given as takeaways, and those are always good to have: four bars of Anneke chocolate in the bag; casserole in a jar.’[26]

Recommendations

  • Estonian people need to be provided with better preparations for retirement. In order to prevent the risk of poverty for future retirees it is necessary to develop people’s financial literacy, to encourage them to save and channel money into voluntary pension funds and other investments.
  • Health education needs to be increased in order to be able to reduce health risks. More than half of the life years which are lost in Estonia are due to premature mortality and morbidity, with risk factors or risk behaviour playing a large part in this.
  • The quality of working life in Estonia requires more serious attention; there are too many violations taking place in occupational health, safety, and labour relations requirements, and too many serious accidents happening at work. Awareness needs to be developed by employees and employers about the different aspects of a working life. Employees and employers are not sufficiently aware of their employment rights and obligations, or of the potential risks involved in the work they undertake or even of the opportunities such work may offer.

[1] Tervise Arengu Instituut. Tervena elatud aastaid tuleb tasapisi juurde, Terviseinfo.ee, 11.09.2018.

[2] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Heaolu arengukava 2023–2030 koostamise ettepanek.

[3] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Rahvastiku tervise arengukava 2020-2030.

[4] Kohalik Omavalitsus. 2021. Omavalitsustele kavandatakse lisaeelarvega 46 miljonit eurot, 19.03.2021.

[5] Rahandusministeerium. 2019. Seletuskiri kogumispensionide seaduse ja sellega seonduvalt teiste seaduste muutmise seadus (kohustusliku kogumispensioni reform) eelnõu juurde.

[6] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 09.06.2020. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 5-20-3.

[7] Kook, U. 2020. President jättis kogumispensioni reformi seaduse välja kuulutamata, ERR, 07.02.2020.

[8]  Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 09.06.2020. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 5-20-3.

[9] Pensionikeskus. 2021. Koduleht.

[10] Rahandusministeerium. 2021. II samba küsimused ja vastused.

[11] Eesti Töötukassa. 2021. Peamised statistilised näitajad, 19.06.2020.

[12] Statistikaamet. 2021. Suhteline vaesus.

[13]  Ibid.

[14] Statistikaamet. 2021. Vaesuse ja ilmajäetuse määr vanuserühma ja soo järgi.

[15] Statistikaamet. 2020. Suhtelises vaesuses elavate inimeste arv vähenes.

[16] Eurostat. 2019. European Statistical Recovery Dashboard.

[17] Tööinspektsioon. 2021. Töökeskkond 2020.

[18] Tervise Arengu Instituut. 2021. Tervisestatistika ja terviseuuringute andmebaas.

[19] Statistikaamet. 2021. Statistikaamet: oodatava eluea kasv on pidurdunud, ERR, 25.08.2021.

[20] Eesti Pank. 2019. Estonian Household Finance and Consumption Survey: Results from the 2017 wave.

[21] Männik, G. 2019. Georg Männik Eesti Panga hoiatusest: inimene ei pea riskima oma pensioni pärast kõigega, Eesti Päevaleht, 15.10.2019.

[22] Raudla, R. 2020. Ringa Raudla: pensionireformi kahjulik mõju, 03.12.2020.

[23] Luminor. 2020. Värske uuring: pensioniks ei olda valmis, kuid ka koguda ei soovita, Rahageenius, 09.07.2020.

[24] Arenguseire Keskus. 2019. Tuleviku-minu rahaline heaolu.

[25] Arenguseire Keskus. 2021. Pensioniks tuleb koguda ka kriisi ajal, 15.02.2021.

[26] Mets, M. 2021. Kodutute talveõhtud, 01.03.2021.

The situation has remained the same.

Key issues

  • The UN ‘Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ issued recommendations to Estonia.
  • The COVID-19 crisis highlighted concerns about the protection of the rights of people with disabilities.
  • Increasing attention is being paid to the built environment and accessibility to services.
  • The capacity limitation system needs to be modernised.
  • The ‘Equal Treatment Act’ continues to discriminate against people with disabilities.

Political and institutional developments

In March 2021, Estonia defended the first national report of compliance with the UN ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (UNCRPD) in the UN ‘Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’.[1] On 5 May 2021, the committee published its proposals to the Estonian state.[2] According to the UN, the focus should be on Article 12 of the UNCRPD, regarding ‘equal recognition before the law’. In Estonia, there is no supported decision-making mechanism which serves to limit active legal capacity and, in most cases, guardianship is assigned to all activities of persons who require support in their decision-making and administration due to intellectual disabilities or mental disorders. For example, thousands of adults will lose their right to vote, without the court delving into people’s real capacity. With regard to Article 19, ‘Independent living and inclusion in the community’, the UN considers that the establishment of smaller special care institutions is too common a practice in Estonia. They are still institutions with all that the name implies, even if the conditions in them are significantly better than they were in the old, large care homes. The committee considers that only independent living in a place of one’s own choice, with the necessary support services, is an appropriate solution for people who have special needs. The impact of the shadow report,[3],[4] which was presented by the ‘Estonian Chamber of Disabled People’ (EPIKoda), is clearly visible in the UN proposals.

On 21 May 2021, the Riigikogu adopted the long-term strategy, ‘Estonia 2035’.[5] For the first time, the issue of the inclusion into the strategy of people who have disabilities has expanded to a cross-cutting area, having previously appeared as a narrow social issue. For example, in the issue of space and mobility, the principle of universal design has been highlighted and emphasis has been placed on the importance of public transport which is accessible to all.

In 2019-2021, an accessibility task force worked at the government office.[6] The proposals which were contained in the final report by the task force were approved by the government on 2 September 2021. The implementation of the activities is the task of various ministries; the coordinating role is carried out by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The main effect of the task force is to raise the issue of accessibility for government agencies to a significantly higher level than before, ensuring it reaches a cross-cutting level.

Legislative developments

From 1 May 2021, it will be possible to identify a disability in children who are suffering from a constraining or progressive condition for the full period prior to them reaching the age of sixteen. In the past, these children also had to re-apply every three years for disability recognition, which was a major administrative burden for their families. The same amendment to the law created the possibility of being able to pay disability benefits in certain cases to children who have not been determined to have a disability, but whose rare disease involves significant additional costs.[7] As a form of mitigation for families of disabled children, emergency parental support for a child with special needs was introduced during the 2020 emergency.[8] From 1 December 2020, it will no longer be necessary to apply for or carry an aid card, as all information on technical aid transactions will flow through the e-environment.[9] This is an important step in making it easier for people with disabilities to get the help they need. As of 1 January 2021, the circle of recipients of remote translation services for sign language was extended from just the current working age population to children and the elderly as well. However, the availability of standard sign language translation services is still uneven and often insufficient across Estonia.

In 2021, the Riigikogu started amending the ‘Media Services Act’, while the draft act on the ‘Accessibility of Products and Services’, ie. the EU ‘Accessibility Directive’, went into the coordination round. The expected future entry into force of both laws will help to protect the rights of people who have disabilities when it comes to them being able to access information, services, and products.

Due to restrictions on the placing onto the market of single-use drinking straws in the EU, there is a legitimate concern for people who have reduced mobility about the future availability of straws for independent eating and drinking. A corresponding draft report has been prepared,[10] and national solutions have been developed and made possible with the intervention of the Chancellor of Justice’s adviser, but an EU-wide solution would still be needed.

Unfortunately, the law on equal treatment remains unchanged, as pointed out strongly by the United Nations. The law provides broader levels of protection against discrimination based on nationality, race, or colour, and narrower levels of protection based on religion or belief, age, disability, or sexual orientation. People who have disabilities also need protection from discrimination in the areas of education, social welfare, health, and social security, and access to goods and services which are provided to the public, including housing. Similarly unjustified is the fact that disability is excluded as a feature from the section in the Penal Code which covers discrimination (§ 152).

Case law

A potentially high impact on social protection at the local government authority level will come from the decision by the Supreme Court, dated 9 December 2019 which, while adjudicating the Chancellor of Justice’s application concerning the provision of social services in the city of Narva, served to clarify the fact that the local government authority must take into account people’s fundamental rights, and should therefore fulfil its legal obligation to ensure the provision of social services.[11]

In 2021, under the conditions which had been imposed by COVID-19, the Supreme Court repeatedly addressed the matter of hearing people via a video bridge during procedures which were related to placing someone in a closed institution. The decisions found that the hearing of a person within the meaning of § 536 of the ‘Civil Procedure Code’ cannot be carried out using a video bridge. Even under the conditions which were imposed by a pandemic, a direct meeting with a judge is necessary for the hearing, during which it is possible to obtain additional information about the person’s mental disorder in order to form an internal conviction about any potential justification for their possible placement in a closed institution.[12],[13],[14]

In a case which involved the dismissal of a prison worker who had a hearing disability, the Supreme Court turned to the European Court of Justice to clarify whether national legislation which established the health requirements for a prison officer were actually in conformity with EU law. In a judgment which was published on 15 July 2021, the Court of Justice ruled that national legislation which provides for the complete exclusion from a prison of an official whose hearing does not meet the minimum standards which have been laid down, without allowing the official in question to verify their ability to be able to carry out their duties after taking reasonable steps as are seen to be necessary, is contrary to EU Directive 2000/78.[15] On 29 September 2021, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Review Chamber decided to refer the case to the Supreme Court en banc.[16]

Statistics and surveys

In 2020, the ‘Estonian Chamber of Disabled People’ (EPIKoda) conducted a study regarding the coping of people with disabilities during the first wave of COVID-19. It turned out that the closure of contact studies and social services in schools, including special schools, during the emergency had resulted in a sharp increase in the care burden being placed on the shoulders both of the parents of disabled children and the relatives of disabled adults in combination with difficulties in remaining in the labour market. Great difficulties were also experienced in terms of accessing scheduled treatment.[17] As a result of the recommendations in the EPIKoda study, the government made a number of changes to restrictions in the second wave of COVID-19 for those people who had disabilities, such as the opening of social welfare institutions and the continuation of contact studies for children with special educational needs. The translation of Estonian sign language was provided during government press conferences; in the autumn of 2020, subtitles were added to the Health Board’s press conferences.

A study which was published in 2021 mapped out the activity limitations and care needs of the adult population. It emerged that increased funding for long-term care was needed to improve access to services, and that services to support living at home should be further developed by increasing their capacity. In order to equalise options in relation to receiving assistance across Estonia, common standards must be developed for benefits and services.[18]

The Praxis think tank completed a study regarding needs assessment in terms of providing support services for adults with special needs,[19] and the National Audit Office completed an audit of the availability of educational support services,[20] according to which almost a third of those children who are in need of support in kindergarten and a quarter of young people who are in need of support in basic school, who number more than 8,400 in total, have to cope with significantly less than the necessary levels of assistance, or have to obtain it elsewhere, or remain completely without assistance.

Promises and good practice

The Consumer Protection and Technical Surveillance Authority has successfully launched the monitoring of building accessibility, which raises awareness in designers, builders, and building managers in regards to accessibility.[21] Riigi Kinnisvara AS (RKAS) has promoted its competence in the field of accessibility to such an extent that it is taking on the role of a leader in terms of accessible space creation in the public sector. An excellent example of accessibility is the RKAS Tartu state building.[22] In 2020, following a thorough refurbishment, the Fat Margaret Maritime Museum was reopened. The building and exposition here have been designed in cooperation with the EPIKoda to ensure they are fully accessible to visitors with mobility, visual, and hearing impairments.[23] Thanks to the new smart application, ‘MovieReading’, visually impaired people can enjoy new Estonian films in the cinema.[24]

On 3 December 2020, the ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’, the EPIKoda published the COVID-19 crisis-inspired social short film campaign, ‘Healthy life in an emergency’, which looked at life changes which have been imposed by the epidemic from the perspective of people who have disabilities and also on behalf of the chronically ill.[25]

Under the leadership of the Pärnu County Public Transport Centre, the public and social transport service in Pärnu County was combined in 2018-2021. The cross-county organisation of social transport services has significantly improved the accessibility of the service for people with disabilities.[26]

In the run-up to the 2021 local elections, the National Electoral Committee took a welcome step to ensure the accessibility of the elections. For example, the requirements, instructions, and checklists for subcommittees have been published on valimised.ee, and information which was important to the voter has also been published in Estonian sign language.[27]

Major public debates

The public debate in the years 2020 and 2021 bore the stamp of COVID-19. The focus was on the quality of care in care facilities, the legitimacy of and equal treatment in the implementation of the COVID-19 restrictions, and access to vaccinations for people with disabilities, along with their carers. For example, it was found that the digital registry through which vaccinations can be accessed was not accessible to the visually impaired.[28] The topic of public discussion has also included the misuse of parking cards for people with disabilities, which is especially relevant in Tallinn.[29],[30]

Trends and outlook

The shortage of staff with the necessary training in general care and special care institutions has further been aggravated. Chronic labour shortages in the personal care field are the most dangerous future trend in terms of protecting the rights of people with disabilities. In addition to staff shortages in care homes, there are not enough people to support children with disabilities or to be personal helpers for disabled adults. People with disabilities are also concerned about the continuing uncertainty about the future division of social welfare responsibilities between the state and local government authority levels. The law obliges local government authorities to assess the need for assistance and to provide the necessary assistance but, in practice, the chances of receiving assistance depend upon where the person in need actually lives – in effect, a postcode lottery – along with the financial resources which are available to that particular rural municipality or city authority, along with many other political priorities potentially getting in the way.[31]

Case study

In 2020, a parent applied to the EPIKoda with a child who had reduced mobility issues who could not study at the state gymnasium nearest to their home, although their study results and good results in the entrance examination would have made it possible. The negative decision they had received was based on the fact that, during the admission interview, the student was not able to describe other options which may be open to them in case they were not in fact selected for the only gymnasium which they could attend in a fully independent basis. The solution was sought under the leadership of the EPIKoda, and with the participation of officials from the Ministry of Education and Research, while the Commissioner for Equality and the adviser to the Chancellor of Justice were also involved in the case. The commissioner issued an opinion on the case, finding that the school had discriminated against a child with reduced mobility issues. The child was able to study only after a story had appeared in the press, followed by the intervention of the Minister of Education.[32]

Recommendations

  • Amend the law on equal treatment so that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all areas of society.
  • Ensure needs-based social protection across Estonia for people who have disabilities by implementing a common methodology for assessing the need for assistance, and apply state supervision over local government authorities in accordance with the ‘Social Welfare Act’.
  • Consider withdrawing the declaration which has been provided in Article 12 of the UNCRPD, and moving from substituted decision-making to supported decision-making.
  • Ensure the implementation of the recommendations in the final report from the ‘Accessibility Task Force’.
  • Provide qualified personnel for the provision of personal care services.

[1] ÜRO. 2012. Puuetega inimeste õiguste konventsioon ja fakultatiivprotokoll, Riigi Teataja, 04.04.2012.

[2] ÜRO. 2021. Rahvusvahelise monitooringumehhanismi ettepanekud riigile: ÜRO puuetega inimeste õiguste komitee soovitused.

[3] EPIKoda. 2019. ÜRO puuetega inimeste õiguste konventsiooni täitmise variraport.

[4] EPIKoda. 2020. ÜRO puuetega inimeste õiguste konventsiooni täitmise variraporti täiendused.

[5] Vabariigi Valitsus. 2021. Strateegia “Eesti 2035“.

[6] Riigikantselei. 2021. Ligipääsetavuse rakkerühm.

[7] Vabariigi Valitsus. 2020. Sotsiaalhoolekande seaduse, puuetega inimeste sotsiaaltoetuste seaduse ning tööturuteenuste ja -toetuste seaduse muutmise seadus 146 SE.

[8] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Erivajadusega lapse vanema erakorraline toetus.

[9] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2020.  Alates 1. detsembrist kaob täielikult paberil abivahendi kaart, 27.11.2020.

[10] Keskkonnaministeerium. 2021. Jäätmeseaduse, pakendiseaduse tubakaseaduse muutmise seaduse eelnõu.

[11] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 09.12.2019. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 5-18-7.

[12] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 21.04.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-20-11920

[13] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 23.04.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-20-10639.

[14] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 27.05.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-20-17226.

[15] Euroopa Liidu Kohtu 15.07.2021. a eelotsus XX vs. Tartu Vangla kohtuasjas nr C-795/19.

[16] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 29.09.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 5-19-29.

[17] EPIKoda. 2020. Puudega inimeste toimetulek kriisiajal.

[18] Turu-uuringute AS. 2021. Elanikkonna tegevuspiirangute ja hooldusvajaduse uuring.

[19] SA Poliitikauuringute Keskus Praxis. 2020. Täiskasvanud erivajadustega inimeste abivajaduse hindamine ja toetavate teenuste pakkumine.

[20] Riigikontroll. 2020. Hariduse tugiteenuste kättesaadavus, 30.11.2020.

[21] Tarbijakaitse ja tehnilise järelevalve amet. 2021. Ligipääsetavus.

[22] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Tartu riigimaja ligipääsetavust tutvustav video. (link tühjale kaustale)

[23] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Kuidas suurendada oma projektis ligipääsetavust? (Paksu Margareeta muuseum-külastuskeskus), 18.01.2021.

[24] Nõmm, G. 2021. Vaegnägijateni jõudsid nelja eesti filmi kirjeldustõlked, 01.10.2021.

[25] EPIKoda. 2020. Ülemaailmne puuetega inimeste päev 2020: terve elu eriolukorras, 03.12.2020.

[26] MTÜ Pärnumaa Ühistranspordikeskus. 2021. Sotsiaatransporditeenuse korraldusmudelite testimine.

[27] Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon. 2021. Valimiste ligipääsetavus.

[28] Liive, R. Nägemispuudega inimesed on hädas digiregistratuuri kasutamisega, Tervisegeenius, 24.05.2021.

[29] Lepassalu, V. 2021. Invaliidide tänavad – sajad terved juhid pargivad puuetega inimeste kohale, Pealinn, 21.06.2021.

[30]  Gnadenteich, U. 2021. Pooled invakaartide kasutajad osutusid terveteks inimesteks, Postimees, 16.06.2021.

[31] EPIKoda. 2020. KOV erinumber.

[32] Vainküla, K. 2020. Ratastoolipoiss Marko jaoks ei leitud koolis kohta, kuni sekkus minister, Eesti Ekspress, 30.06.2020.

The situation has worsened.

Key issues

  • The mental health of children is poor
  • The Riigikogu amended the ‘Psychiatric Care Act’ so that a child may independently turn to a psychiatrist for help, without parental permission.
  • Public consultation regarding the sexual self-determination of children

Political and institutional developments

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic in the period covering 2020-2021, a question arose in the form of how it might be possible to find a balance between the rights of the child, the interests of the family, and the interests of the state. The keywords were anxiety, isolation, and distance learning,[1] as well as increasing inequality, mental health, and child suicides.

The number of disputes which include or concern children has increased.[2] Fortunately, the government has made some adjustments to the state budget strategy,[3] approving the establishment of a national family reconciliation system in September 2021,[4] and thereby ensuring a free supranational public family reconciliation service from 2022.

Positive steps were taken in the introduction of restorative law: the third Estonian children’s home was opened in Jõhvi.[5] In 2020, a total of 429 children were assisted in the Social Insurance Board’s children’s homes, which receive children who have been sexually abused or for whom abuse is suspected. The number of cases in the various children’s homes is growing regularly.

Unfortunately, not all state decisions are always supportive of children’s coping. As an example of this, the Social Insurance Board decided to change practices around the identification of disability, as a result of which some disabled children were not actually identified as disabled and so the children in question were deprived of the assistance they needed.[6] The Riigikogu passed the necessary amendment to the law,[7] but there are still children with multiple diagnoses who are being diagnosed with a milder disability than before or who are not being diagnosed with a disability at all.

The need for support specialists has been talked about for years. According to the National Audit Office,[8] the provision of assistance to children who have special needs may be being hampered by an overly-fragmented, time-consuming, bureaucratic support system. Support for children with special educational needs was also jeopardised during the declared emergency due to the spread of COVID-19. On the plus side, there was a positive development in terms of launching reform in the support system for children who have special needs.[9]

As one of the last EU member states to do so, Estonia approved the ‘Declaration on Safe Schools’, with this being achieved in April 2020; the declaration is aimed at protecting a child’s right to education and facilitating the continuation of education in conflict situations.

Legislative developments

Legislation is the main instrument of the state when it comes to ensuring the implementation of the rights of the child in terms of decisions and activities which may concern children.[10] The realisation of the rights of the child presupposes that all legislation which may affect them, as well as the implementation of such legislation, is in accordance with the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (CRC).

Finally, in April 2021, the only correct solution was implemented from the perspective of the rights of the child, this being the elimination of a significant violation of the rights of the child, when the Riigikogu amended the ‘Psychiatric Care Act’ so that, in the future, a child with sufficient discretion can independently turn to a psychiatrist for help without parental permission.[11]

Judicial procedure and practice

According to the Justice Scoreboard 2020, Estonian courts are amongst the most child-friendly in the EU.[12] Despite this, and the increase in the availability and prevalence of child-centered proceedings, prejudiced professionals still tend to create tension in young people who are involved in criminal proceedings.[13]

Several adjudications by the Supreme Court concerned custody and communication rights. For example, one case was initiated which involved depriving a parent of their custody of a child,[14] while another concerned the granting of sole custody to one parent over the other when determining the future of a child,[15] and yet another granted the right to one parent over the other to be able to determine the child’s place of abode.[16] The issue of child maintenance is still one which is being disputed,[17] including the fact that conflicting opinions were created by a judgement which concerned the preconditions of a maintenance claim, in which the child took turns with both parents who were themselves living apart, while retroactively ordering the payment of delayed maintenance.[18] Clarification was provided in terms of who – and under what conditions – was eligible to claim the annulment of an adoption,[19] and also in terms of describing the concept of a close relationship as provided for in § 121 (2) 2) of the Penal Code.[20] Within the framework of constitutional review proceedings, the Supreme Court en banc ruled that the second sentence of § 6 (1) of the Family Benefits Act was partially unconstitutional in its nature.[21]

In addition to the usual topics of the period (such as inclusive education, communications with children, etc), the Chancellor of Justice was also contacted regarding issues which resulted from the emergency situation within the country.

Statistics and surveys

The number of children who are living in a household with a single adult has increased;[22] such children are most at risk of falling into poverty. When compared to figures for Estonian children as a whole, the figures for deprivation (6.4%) are higher for disabled children (17.5%).[23] A total of 51% of twelve year-olds rate their mental well-being as low and 15% feel unhappy.[24]

The state of emergency and the consequent constraints have been accompanied by an increase in inequality between children,[25] including technological inequality and growing educational inequality. Among other things, it was due to the lack of digital tools and skills that some children suffered from unequal opportunities during the emergency when it came to being able to receive part of what is offered by educational institutions and other organisations which typically deal with children.

The mental health situation for the population as a whole, especially that of children and young people, has become worse, in line with figures for children and young people in other countries.[26] There are more frequent incidents of aggressive behaviour, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm, sleep disturbances, and suicidal behaviour,[27] and the number of children and young people who find themselves in need is growing. The number of suicide attempts by minors has almost doubled since 2015,[28] with a total of fourteen young people under the age of nineteen having committed suicide in 2020. The field of mental health has been underfunded for decades, and access to support services remains a problem.[29]

The level of registered cases of domestic violence is high (totalling 3,987 cases in 2020), including the fact that children were either victims or witnesses of crime in 27% of cases.[30] Estonians are not prone to reporting violence against children.[31] As a child, every sixth person has mentioned having experienced sexual abuse by an adult.[32] A total of 45% of 16-26 year-old Estonian youths have been sexually harassed or sexually abused either online or offline.[33] A total of 32% of children who were referred to the now-closed child care service were in substitute care; many of them did not even have the necessary family support.[34] The number of appeals to the Child Hotline has continued to increase. One of the main concerns of children is loneliness; in many cases children do not dare tell their parents about their concerns.

Awareness is needed when it comes to being able to exercise your rights and, if necessary, to stand up for them. A total of 55% of Estonian twelve year-olds know what rights children have; a third have heard of the CRC. Significantly fewer children of younger age have heard of the rights and the convention.[35]

Promising practice

Children’s good welfare is guaranteed in several areas. Among other things, this is in terms of an awareness of children’s rights and their full implementation in society as a whole. Examples of good practice can be included below:

1) For the first time, one of the discussions at the Estonian Legal Scholars Days was dedicated to the rights of the child;[36]

2) A summary of statistics and research which was related to the rights of the child can be found on the Chancellor of Justice’s website; two collections were published: ‘Lapsed Eesti ühiskonnas’ (‘Children in Estonian society’),and ‘Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8-12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust’ (‘How are you, children in Estonia? An overview of the subjective well-being of children aged 8-12’).[37]

3) More issues which can be related to children’s mental health were covered in the media. These included the ETV series, ‘Selge pilt’ (‘Clear Picture’) and ‘Kool minu kodus’ (‘School in my home’).

4) The Minister of Social Protection consulted with organisations which deal with children and youths both in terms of mental health,[38] and also sexual self-determination.[39] Children participated in the Opinion Festival;[40] while at the April 2020 hackathon, ‘Hack the crisis – youths’, young people offered innovative solutions to problems which had arisen during the crisis.

Major public debates

Among other things, the public’s attention was focused on issues which concerned children’s right to self-determination and children’s right to health. The debate on children’s sexual self-determination, which has been the subject of discussion over the course of an entire decade, has reached the stage in which the law is to be amended, with this step currently enjoying broad public support.[41]

‘Some minors have a very bad life and may be depressed,’ wrote twelve year-old Keio,[42] with this being in response to a call by the Child Welfare Association,[43] in terms of being able to express an opinion on the availability of psychiatric care for minors. Despite the active support of interest groups,[44] opposition members of one governing party caused the Riigikogu to spend a total of fifteen long months on proceeding a bill which was aimed at guaranteeing children the right to seek psychiatric help on their own.

In the light of the documented mental health problems, the government’s proposal to reduce the support for hobbies which could be allocated to local government authorities from 2022 onwards, despite Estonia’s economic growth, resulted in a degree of opposition. A public call to abandon the cuts was made by youths organisations,[45] while the ‘Union of Estonian Cities and Municipalities’ supported this call. The ‘Union of Child Welfare’ sharply criticised any decision which ignored the interests of children.[46]

Trends and outlook

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has made it clear that, while national legislation is largely in line with the convention, its practical implementation is not always being realised. The problems are still the same,[47] be it the large number of supporters of corporal punishment, the unequal availability of services, regional inequalities, the insufficient level of child participation, or the growing number of maintenance debtors. In the 2020 joint report, the ‘Equal Treatment Network’ referred to the same problem areas for Estonia’s ‘Third Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR), which presented relevant proposals for solutions.[48]

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing problems and inequalities while also creating new ones. Restrictions have affected children’s access to education, social relationships, and mental health. In practice, the child’s right to safety, play, and leisure has also decreased. Many children have not been able to take part in sports or leisure activities, or artistic or cultural activities, all of which are essential for their development and well-being.

Case study

‘I would also need to go to a psychiatrist, but my parents do not support me in this, so I am waiting for that one year to pass, to be able to seek help myself when I am eighteen years old. Minors also need help! If they don’t get help now, things will get worse later, because the problems will not go away, they will disturb them for the rest of their lives instead,’ stated by seventeen year-old Mari.

Due to the opposition of a single government party, the Riigikogu had to spend a total of fifteen months to be able to proceed the draft ‘Psychiatric Care Act’, the purpose of which was to ensure the right of children to independently turn to a psychiatrist for help. There is no excuse for such a violation of the rights of the child, especially not when playing political ping-pong with the right of children to be able to ensure their proper mental health.

Recommendations

  • To increase the influence of children in shaping the society, and to promote children’s participation in various decision-making processes, thereby strengthening the cohesion of society as a whole.
  • Inform society more widely about the rights of the child, while also increasing the scope of human rights education in various school levels and in the basic and in-service training of child-related professions.
  • Ensure more effective implementation of the UN ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’, including guaranteeing the fundamental social rights of children and reducing inequalities. More attention must be paid to prevention, early detection, supporting a growth environment which is free from violence and bullying, ensuring the availability of mental health services, while also supporting professionals, access to hobby education, and the promotion of multidisciplinary cooperation, including in terms of mitigating the multifaceted effects of COVID-19.
  • Systematically collect statistical information which can be used as the basis of an analysis which will help to develop policies which in turn ensure the rights of the child.
  • Raise the awareness of society as a whole when informing a child who is in need so that children are not left alone with their concerns.

[1] Beilmann, M., Kutsar, D., Soo, K., Nahkur, O. 2020. Laste heaolu eriolukorra ajal: praktikute ja uurijate vaade.

[2] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Valitsus kiitis heaks riikliku perelepitussüsteemi loomise, 23.09.2021.

[3] Uudised.ee. 2021. Lastekaitse liit: laste pealt ei tohi riik eelarves kokku hoida, 30.05.2021.

[4] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Valitsus kiitis heaks riikliku perelepitussüsteemi loomise, 23.09.2021.

[5] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2020. Jõhvis avatakse kolmas lastemaja, 17.08.2020.

[6] Habicht, A. 2019. Ringmäng puudega lapse ümber, ERR, 30.10.2019.

[7] Riigikogu. 2020. Sotsiaalhoolekande seaduse, puuetega inimeste sotsiaaltoetuste seaduse ning tööturuteenuste ja -toetuste seaduse muutmise seadus, 08.04.2020.

[8] Riigikontroll. 2020. Hariduse tugiteenuste kättesaadavus, 25.11.2020.

[9] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Valitsus toetas erivajadusega laste tugisüsteemi reformi, 29.04.2021.

[10] Hakalehto-Wainio, S. 2015. Lapse õigused koolis.

[11] Pulk, M. 2021. Alla 18-aastased saavad edaspidi pöörduda iseseisvalt psühhiaatri juurde, 17.03.2021.

[12] European Commission. 2020. The 2020 EU Justice Scoreboard.

[13] Rakendusliku Antropoloogia Keskus. 2021. Alaealise õigusrikkuja kasutajateekonna ja kogemuse analüüs.

[14] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 29.04.2020. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-19295.

[15] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 19.02.2020. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-15686.

[16] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 19.05.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-20-1707/82.

[17] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 19.06.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-6499.

[18] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 12.05.2021. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-6491.

[19] Riigikohtu tsiviilkolleegiumi 10.02.2021. a määrus kohtuasjas nr 2-18-11489.

[20] Riigikohtu kriminaalkolleegiumi 09.03.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 1-19-3377.

[21] Riigikohtu üldkogu 10.10.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 3-18-1672.

[22] Statistikaamet. 2021. Kuidas elavad Eesti lapsed, 01.06.2021.

[23] Õiguskantsleri Kantselei. 2021. Lapsed Eesti ühiskonnas.

[24] Soo, K., Kutsar, D. 2020. Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8–12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust.

[25] Beilmann, M., Kutsar, D., Soo, K., Nahkur, O. 2020. Laste heaolu eriolukorra ajal: praktikute ja uurijate vaade.

[26] OECD. 2021. Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response, 12.05.2021.

[27] Tervise Arengu Instituut. 2021. COVID-19 mõju noorte sotsialiseerumisele, 25.05.2021.

[28] Värnik, P., Sisask, M., Värnik, A. 2021. Enesetappude ja enesetapukatsete epidemioloogiline ülevaade Eestis.

[29] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2020. Vaimse tervise roheline raamat.

[30] Justiitsministeerium. 2021. Kuritegevus vähenes eelmisel aastal viis protsenti, 05.02.2021.

[31] Harrik, A. 2021. Eestlased ei poolda lapse kehalist karistamist, aga teavitavad sellest harva, ERR, 06.01.2021.

[32] Sotsiaalkindlustusamet. 2021. Seksuaalse väärkohtlemise kogemine lapsepõlves ja viimase aasta jooksul.

[33] Hillep, P., Pärnamets, R., Eesti Uuringukeskus OÜ, Norstat Eesti AS. 2020. Laste ja noorte seksuaalse väärkohtlemise hoiakute ja kogemuste uuring.

[34] Riigikohus. 2020. Kinnisesse lasteasutusse paigutamine.

[35] Soo, K., Kutsar, D. 2020. Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8–12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust.

[36] UTTV. 2020. 36. Eesti õigusteadlaste päevad, 09.10.2020.

[37] Soo, K., Kutsar, D. 2020. Kuidas elad, Eestimaa laps? Ülevaade 8–12-aastaste laste subjektiivsest heaolust.

[38] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Sotsiaalkaitseminister: noorte vaimne tervis vajab eritähelepanu, 31.03.2021.

[39] Sotsiaalministeerium. 2021. Noored tegid sotsiaalkaitseministrile ettepaneku tõsta seksuaalse enesemääramise vanusepiiri 16. eluaastani, 31.03.2021.

[40] Lastekaitse Liit. 2021. Viisime laste ja noorte hääle Arvamusfestivalile, 15.08.2021.

[41] Oja, B. 2021. Ühingud toetavad seksuaalse enesemääramise piiril viieaastast vanusevahet, ERR, 19.04.2021.

[42] Nimi muudetud.

[43] Saar, H. 2020. Lastekaitse Liidu arvamus psühhiaatrilise abi kättesaadavuse kohta alaealistele, 20.10.2020.

[44] Anvelt, K., Adamson, S. 2020. Noorteorganisatsioonid: psühhiaatriline abi peab olema võrdselt kättesaadav kõigile alaealistele, Delfi, 15.06.2020.

[45] EANÜ. 2021. Noortevaldkonna organisatsioonide avalik pöördumine peaminister Kaja Kallase ja minister Liina Kersna poole, 29.04.2021.

[46] Lastekaitse Liit. 2021. Lastekaitseliidu hinnangul eirab praegune valitsus oma otsustes laste ja noorte huvisid, ERR, 01.06.2021.

[47] Saar, H. 2019. Lapse õigused 2018–2019.

[48] Eesti võrdse kohtlemise võrgustik. 2020. Ühisaruanne Eesti kolmanda üldise korralise ülevaatuse (UPR) jaoks.

The situation has remained the same.

Key issues

  • The number of asylum seekers arriving in Estonia has decreased by about 50%.
  • Insufficient access to Estonia itself and to asylum proceedings due to restrictions which are related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Insufficient access to legal aid.

Political and institutional developments

Over the last two years, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe has decreased significantly. The number of applications for international protection which were filed in 2020 alone showed a decrease of 32.6% when compared to the figure for 2019.[1] The decrease in applications was related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the closure of borders. The task of getting asylum seekers to a safe country was hampered by a reduction in air traffic levels and the reintroduction of border controls. In Estonia, the number of asylum seekers decreased by 52% in 2020 (covering approximately fifty applications) when compared to the figure for 2019 (covering approximately a hundred applications).[2] The year 2021 is not proving to be very much different. As of 1 September 2021, a total of fifty-four first-time applications had been submitted in Estonia, fourteen of which had been submitted by Afghan citizens who were evacuated by order of Estonia’s government. As the number of applicants had decreased significantly, Vägeva Accommodation Centre was temporarily closed at the beginning of 2021, while the Vao Centre continued to accommodate the reduced number of asylum seekers.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in 2020, access to Estonia for asylum seekers became a key issue, as there was reason to believe that closed borders and the suspension of air traffic could restrict people’s access to the asylum system. Directive 146 by the secretary general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dated 3 July 2020, established a restriction which ensured that Estonian foreign missions stopped accepting visa applications if the person who was applying for a visa did not have a special permit to enter Estonia, as issued by the Police and Border Guard Board. In essence, this meant restricting access to the asylum system at a time at which people were not able to apply for visas to come to Estonia in the first place so that they could apply for international protection. On 23 November 2020, the Chancellor of Justice found that such a restriction was unlawful and should be repealed.[3]

Access to professional legal aid remains a problem for anyone who is in a detention centre (with detention centres hereinafter being referred to as a ‘KPK’, as abbreviated from the Estonian language version). Foreigners in the KPK do not have access to the general internet network; in addition they are not permitted to use personal smart devices. Also, according to the internal rules, the counsellor is not allowed to bring electronic devices to a meeting with the client. Due to this restriction, it is practically impossible to provide counselling, as there is rarely any interpreter in Estonia who speaks the detainee’s mother tongue (such as in the case of the Kurdish-Sorani translation combination). In order to communicate with the detainee and to provide legal services, it is necessary to provide translation services via the internet or telephone with the help of an interpreter who has been ordered from abroad, but the KPK does not itself provide for such an opportunity, and neither does it allow counsellors to use their electronic devices. Anyone who finds themselves in this situation is not guaranteed effective legal aid.

Legislation

In June 2020, Estonia transposed Article 18 of the ‘Return Directive’ (2008/115/EC), which clarified the rules for the detention of asylum seekers in a situation in which many more asylum seekers than usual arrive in the country. Amendments were introduced both to the ‘Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act’ (hereinafter also referred to as the ‘VSS’), and to the ‘Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens’ (hereinafter also referred to as the ‘VRKS’). In addition to the amendment to the VSS, co-operation between the PBGB and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency is now regulated.

In 2020, an amendment to the VRKS entered into force, on the basis of which the PBGB will at least once a year review and, if necessary, update the list of safe countries of origin.

In the same year, an amendment to the law entered into force which changed the system of services being provided to unaccompanied minors. From now on, the Social Insurance Board guarantees the provision of such services. In recent years, no asylum seekers who have been unaccompanied minors have arrived in Estonia.[4] According to amendments to the law, the Social Insurance Board will also ensure that all accommodation centre tasks are fully and properly carried out from 2020.

Good practice

Under the leadership of the ‘Integration Foundation’, the LINDA web environment was created, intended for professionals who serve and advise people who are living in Estonia and who want to be able to adapt and integrate. This particular e-tool is accessible to anyone who wants it, with such availability making it possible to become acquainted with all of the support services being offered by the state, as well as to be able to view learning and distribution materials.[5]

Case law

Between 2020 and 2021, important court judgements were reached in the field of asylum, concerning an identification of a safe third country, the provision of initial protection, and asylum applications which were related to sexual orientation.

On 20 October 2020, Tallinn Administrative Court ruled in Case 3-20-1431, deciding that an applicant for international protection cannot be sent to a country from which it is not possible to apply for international protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention. In the same case, the district court found that this condition may not be unambiguous and may give rise to a reference to the European Court for a preliminary ruling.

Tallinn Administrative Court also found in administrative Case 3-20-2095 that countries from which an applicant for international protection did not arrive in Estonia cannot be defined as a safe third country, and the definition of a safe third country must presuppose that the applicant is allowed to enter into it or be readmitted there. In September 2021, these views were also confirmed by Tallinn Circuit Court in the same case.

On 5 November 2020, the Supreme Court emphasised in administrative Case 3-19-990 that, in the case of asylum applications involving sexual orientation, a stereotypical approach must not be used in assessing the applicant’s testimony, specific cultural requirements must be taken into account, and the applicant’s failure to answer certain questions cannot be considered sufficient to conclude that the applicant is not trustworthy. The court emphasised the duty of the administrative authority to assist in such matters, and found that the circuit court had erred in referring to facts which neither the PBGB nor the administrative court had imputed to the applicant in their decisions.

On 13 November 2020, the Supreme Court provided clarification for Case 3-20-349, deciding that when applying preliminary legal protection, the court must keep in mind the fact that any choice which is made should be proportionate to all participants in the proceedings. The court held that preliminary legal protection should be applied only to the extent which is necessary to protect the applicant’s rights and that, in addition to the applicant’s rights, the public interest and the rights of possible third parties should be taken into account. In addition, the court must anticipate any consequences both in terms of satisfying and rejecting an application for legal protection.

Statistics and surveys

In 2020, a total of forty-nine applications for international protection were submitted in Estonia, of which three were repeat applications and seven were applications to live with a family member. The largest numbers of applicants came from Russia, Syria, and Tajikistan. In 2021 (as of 30 September), asylum was applied for a total of fifty-six times, of which two were repeat applications and four were applications to live with a family member. The main countries of origin this year have been Russia, Afghanistan, and Belarus. In 2020, a total of twenty-two persons received refugee status and four persons received subsidiary protection. In 2021 (as of 30 September), nineteen persons have received international protection, and one person has received subsidiary protection.[6] Estonia still does not participate in the resettlement programme.

In the spring of 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a study entitled  The study provides an overview of the integration experiences of refugees who are living in the Baltic states, the related challenges, and the opportunities they see for improving integration. The survey found that 70% of refugees who are living in Estonia agreed that they were satisfied with life in the host country, compared to 45% of respondents in Lithuania and 21% of respondents in Latvia. Although refugees in all three countries also shared positive views on aspects such as mental and physical health, and dealing with legal documentation and children’s education, the views which were expressed regarding aspects such as employment, accommodation, and the recognition of qualifications were rather negative.[7]

Trends

In 2020, there was a tendency in the PBGB’s decisions to consider applications for international protection as being unfounded on the basis that the applicants had arrived in Estonia from a safe third country, even if the persons had not arrived directly from third countries or had last stayed there years ago.

In addition, the practice of penalising asylum seekers for irregular border crossings continued in 2020, and the centre has received a number of complaints regarding access to the asylum system. On one occasion, criminal proceedings were instituted for illegal border crossing and the person concerned was sentenced to three months in prison, despite the fact that they had expressed a wish to apply for asylum immediately after they had crossed the border. The application for asylum was accepted and the proceedings did not begin until the end of the prison sentence. The person had to request the initiation of the asylum procedure no less than three times, both orally and in writing. Punishing refugees and asylum seekers for irregular border crossings is contrary to international law.[8]

Major public debates

Major public debates were held in 2021 regarding refugees who had been evacuated from Afghanistan, and migrants from Belarus to Lithuania and Poland. In August 2021, the government decided to accept up to thirty Afghans and their family members who had cooperated with Estonia.[9] This decision was also criticised, and the number was considered both too small and too high.[10] As of now (30 September 2021), fourteen of them have arrived in Estonia and have submitted an application for international protection.[11]

At the beginning of the summer of 2021, a ‘migration crisis’ broke out on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, with hundreds of irregular migrants arriving at the border every day, mainly from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria. An important point of discussion was the question of whether Lithuania should receive those people, accommodate them and review their applications for international protection.[12] Some politicians emphasised the fact that it is the sovereign right of each country to decide who it admits and under what conditions, while on the other hand there existed an obligation under international law to provide asylum to those who need it.[13] The crisis was not due to any current military action, but was instead somewhat orchestrated. The European Commission has identified this event as a hybrid attack by Belarus.[14]

The focus of the event has mainly been on transnational relations, while the very people who find themselves in such difficult situations have often been relegated to the background. The situation has also raised the question of whether Lithuania and other countries which have found themselves in this situation have acted lawfully and whether they have properly reviewed the applications of people who have crossed the border.[15]

Case study

A Ugandan applied for international protection on the grounds of persecution due to sexual orientation. The PBGB considered this individual’s application to be unfounded and refused protection because the applicant’s explanations regarding the process of recognising and accepting their homosexuality were too general and vague. Tallinn Administrative Court annulled the PBGB’s decision and found that the applicant’s testimony was trustworthy and that there was no doubt as to their sexual orientation. The PBGB appealed to the circuit court, which annulled the Administrative Court’s decision and agreed with the PBGB’s view that a person with a homosexual orientation should be able to talk in detail about how they discovered their sexual orientation, and additionally that the court considered that a person with a homosexual orientation should not feel at ease at the time at which they actually realised their sexual orientation in a situation in which homosexuality is a criminal offence in their country. The applicant lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court annulled the decision by the circuit court, holding that a stereotypical approach should not be used in assessing the applicant’s testimony, and that specific cultural details should be taken into account. In addition, the Supreme Court found that a person’s inability to answer certain questions could not be considered sufficient reason to conclude that the person in question was untrustworthy. Unlike the circuit court, the Supreme Court held that in such cases the administrative authority has a duty to assist in ascertaining the circumstances. The person concerned has now obtained refugee status with the help of the Estonian Centre for Human Rights.

Recommendations

  • Improve the assessment of the vulnerability of asylum seekers as part of the asylum procedure.
  • Improve access to legal aid for asylum seekers and create a computerised translation service in the detention centre.
  • End the punishment of asylum seekers for irregular border crossings.
  • Ensure immediate access to the asylum system for asylum seekers.

[1] European Migration Network. 2021. Annual report on migration and asylum 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Õiguskantsler. 2020. Viisataotluste vastuvõtmine, 23.11.2020.

[4] European Migration Network. Estonia: EMN country factsheet 2020.

[5] Integratsiooni Sihtasutus. 2021. Kohanemis- ja lõimumisteenuste veebikeskkond LINDA.

[6] PBGB monthly report, held by the courts.

[7] UNHCR. 2021. Refugee Voices on Integration in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

[8] Riigi Teataja. 1997. Pagulasseisundi konventsioon (1951), artikkel 31.

[9] Vabariigi Valitsus. 2021. Valitsus otsustas Eestisse vastu võtta kuni 30 koostööd teinud afgaani, 19.08.2021.

[10] Postimees. 2021. Kallas: “kuni 30 inimese vastuvõtmine ei ole migratsiooni pumba avamine, 19.08.2021.

[11] Ots, M. 2021. Eesti ei kiirusta Talibani eest põgenenud afgaanidele asüüli andma, ERR, 10.09.2021.

[12] Kartau, A. 2021. Rändekriis Leedus: migrantide tulv võib peatuda alles siis kui mõistetakse, et seda teed pidi Euroopasse ei pääse, 30.07.2021.

[13] Paris, K. 2021. Pagulasabi juht: pea pooled Valgevene piirile jõudnud põgenikest tuleks vastu võtta, 09.09.2021.

[14] Postimees. 2021. EL võttis seisukoha: Leedu piiril toimub hübriidrünnak, 29.09.2021.

[15] Kelomees, H. 2021. Leedu lükkab kõik Valgevene piirilt saabunute varjupaigataotlused tagasi, 10.07.2021.

The situation has remained the same.

Key issues

  • The widespread and long-standing gridlock within the area of LGBT+ human rights needs to be turned into progress. For many years development has taken place only at the level of court judgements.
  • The development of human rights at the legislative level is something which has been widely politicised and does not rely sufficiently on research and recommendations from experts in the field.
  • The state does not pay sufficient attention to reducing the growing hatred in society, a potential reason for individuals who identify as LGBT+ desiring to remain discreet about their identity.

Political and institutional developments

The issues of equal treatment were still being influenced by the activities of the coalition of Keskerakond, EKRE, and Isamaa (IKE). Funding for human rights NGOs was attacked. The Ministry of Social Affairs funded equal treatment NGO projects from the gambling tax, but in July 2020, due to differing interpretations of the application of the law, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology, acting as the Minister of Finance, stopped those payouts.[1] These NGOs also included the Estonian LGBT Association, the Estonian Centre for Human Rights, and MTÜ Oma Tuba. A week later, the Ministry of Social Affairs took over the financing of the projects and provided the missing payments retroactively.[2] Although the National Audit Office also drew attention to the problem of the scope of the Gambling Tax Act,[3] no changes have so far been made to eliminate the contradiction, and options are unclear regarding state funding for projects which cover equal treatment NGOs.

The political and societal debates at the end of 2020 were dominated by IKE’s intention to hold a referendum on the Estonian constitution. In particular, the relentless desire by EKRE and Isamaa to define marriage in the constitution as being an act which is undertaken only between a man and a woman, along with the lack of support in the Riigikogu and from Estonia’s general population when it comes to amending the constitution,[4] and a strong response in society have all led the coalition into a number of crises.[5] Intelligent solutions were sought in order to word the question,[6] and attempts (likely unlawful) were made to break obstruction by the opposition,[7] but just before the final reading the coalition collapsed and the bill no longer had support in the Riigikogu.[8] The divisive and hostile referendum did not take place, but the issue of equal rights for LGBT+ people is still being used as a catalyst for conflict in the political landscape.

The principles of the new coalition of parties, which involves Reformierakond and Keskerakond,[9] included a promise to stand up for the rights of minorities. In terms of foreign policy this course was noticeable. In contrast to the IKE government’s period in office when support for LGBT+ rights statements completely dried up,[10] a human rights diplomacy source document was adopted, which promises to advance LGBT+ persons’ rights internationally, bilaterally and through development cooperation and humanitarian aid,[11] and a statement was signed against the severely discriminatory nature of Hungarian legislation concerning LGBT+ human rights.[12] Domestically, however, there has been no political development to date – whether regarding laws or policies – to allow the adoption of standards which will promote the equal treatment of LGBT+ people.

The lack of development is offset to some extent by foreign policy processes. On 12 November 2020, the European Commission presented its first strategy on LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, trans, intersex, and queer) equality in the European Union.[13] The strategy is an important guideline for member states in terms of promoting equal rights, and in providing measures as well as possible opportunities for financial support in order to combat discrimination, ensure safety, build an inclusive society, and ensure equal rights for LGBT+ people.

The European Parliament adopted an important resolution,[14] one which was based on a ruling by the European Court of Justice,[15] and which was intended to guarantee the free movement of LGBT+ people and their family reunification throughout the European Union. It specified that a marriage or a registered partnership in one member state should be recognised in the same way in each member state.

On 4 May 2021, the third regular inspection of Estonia took place at the UN Human Rights Council, where the Equal Treatment Network presented its shadow report regarding the human rights situation in Estonia.[16] As a result of the review, the countries made twenty-four recommendations to Estonia on the promotion of LGBT+ rights.[17] As a side note, Estonia received ten recommendations in the previous period. Of the current total, the Estonian government adopted nineteen in September this year.[18] Amongst those, the government pledged to expand the scope of discrimination in the Equal Treatment Act, to adopt the implementation of legislation regarding the ‘Cohabitation Act’, and to change the transitioning process for transgender people.

Legislative developments

The implementing acts of the ‘Cohabitation Act’, which have been awaiting adoption for many years, are still pending.

The scope of discrimination in the ‘Equal Treatment Act’ has not been extended and the provisions in the penal code regarding incitement to hatred and hate crimes have not been amended.

The medical expert committee assigned as an integral part of the gender transition process ended its activity on its own initiative at the beginning of 2021.[19] The new commission was formed in July of the same year[20], but at the time of the composing of this chapter, it has yet to begin operation.[21] This means that for almost a year, trans people haven’t been able to go through with processes made mandatory by the state,[22] that would allow access to medical services and the changing of legal information. Unfortunately, no time has been set for when trans people can access services that would enable them to live according to their gender expression. This obstacle is inconsistent with the standpoints of EU institutions[23], UN recommendations[24] as well as decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights.[25]

Case law

On 28 September 2021, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional that law which serves to restrict the residence of same-sex couples in Estonia.[26] The ‘Aliens Act’ did not allow the issuance of a residence permit to an alien so that he or she could settle in Estonia with his or her registered partner who was of the same sex and who was remaining here on the basis of a residence permit. By means of its decision, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Review Chamber declared the ‘Aliens Act’ to be unconstitutional insofar as it did not allow the applicant to be granted a residence permit.

The European Court of Human Rights delivered a significant ruling on 14 January 2020,[27] stating that Lithuania had infringed Article 14 (regarding the prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 8 (regarding the right to respect for private and family life), and Article 13 (regarding the right to an effective remedy). The applicant posted a photo on social media in which he kissed his male partner, which led to hundreds of hostile comments. The authorities refused to open an investigation, which left the applicant without means of redress.

In its decision of 17 February 2021,[28] the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found that Finland had violated the rights of a child who had mothers who were of the same sex, by rejecting an application for asylum from a Russian citizen. This is the first significant decision in the UN Individual Complaints Mechanism regarding asylum in which a child is at immediate risk due to the sexual orientation of their parents. The decision set a standard for the protection of children from LGBT+ families who are at increased risk and who are at risk of discrimination.

Statistics and surveys

The outbreak of coronavirus in 2020 and measures to control it served to significantly affect LGBT+ people worldwide,[29] as well as in Estonia. The initial assessment noted that this primarily affected trans people in Estonia due to the postponement of their gender transition process,[30] and in essence could limit the opportunities of trans people to live their daily lives. Also, events which were due to be organised and presented by the Estonian LGBT Association and Baltic Pride, with those events serving to empower, advise, and support LGBT+ people, did not ultimately take place.

In 2020, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted the second-largest LGBTI survey in the world to date,[31] which provides an overview of discrimination, hostility, and security in the member states of the European Union. When compared to the previous FRA survey conducted in 2012, the results in Estonia have improved somewhat. However, LGBT+ people still prefer to be discreet about their identity, which may be due to the fact that almost half of respondents have experienced harassment, and one in ten have been physically or sexually assaulted in the last five years. Trans people experienced discrimination more than any other group, especially in public places where the provision of personal identification has been necessary.

Extensive stagnation in the development of LGBT+ human rights also hit the entirety of Europe in 2021, as noted in published figures by the annual Rainbow Europe Map survey.[32] The promised development did not happen in Estonia; on the contrary, hostility,[33] and attacks,[34] against LGBT+ people are on the increase, which is something which may perhaps be seen as a response to active political or organised action against LGBT+ people.

However, the 2021 survey, ‘Attitudes of Estonians towards LGBT issues’,[35] showed an increase in positive attitudes towards LGBT+ human rights. The ‘Cohabitation Act’ is supported by sixty-four percent of the Estonian population, which is fifteen percent more than two years ago. The significant increase in support has been consistent over the years, serving as an indicator of the importance of human rights in Estonian society. Although the implementing acts of the ‘Cohabitation Act’ have not been adopted in the past seven years, it can be confirmed on the basis of the results of the study that their adoption should not be held back by any lack of public support.

Trends and outlook

The widescale standstill in the development of LGBT+ human rights is due to the excessive politicisation of the human rights field. The lack of consideration of recommendations by sectoral experts as well as of studies in the field, and the long-term failure to guarantee the rights of LGBT+ people, may all serve also to lead towards a lack of development in the future.

Case study

On 02 July 2021, a joint cycling tour by the name of ‘Vikervelo’ which was intended to support the LGBT+ community and promote an equal society took place in Tallinn. When the organiser checked the route just before the event, he was attacked by two men who tore a rainbow flag from around his neck.[36] The assailant attended the final assembly of the cycling tour, where the victim recognised one of his assailants and the police took the suspect to the police station. The attacked organiser testified to the police, but did not make a statement.

Recommendations

  • Adopt implementing legislation regarding the law on cohabitation, which will ensure full implementation of the law on cohabitation.
  • Separate medical and legal processes for recognising the sex of a transgender person. A person must be able to change their personal details within a reasonable time, regardless of medical procedures. In the case of medical procedures, the person must retain the right to decide which procedures they wish and even need, if any, in order to feel that they corresponding to their cognitive gender.
  • Regulate the protection of LGBT+ people from incitement to hatred, hate crimes, and discrimination, including the provision of protection against discrimination outside of employment (in education, health, and the use of social services, and in access to products and services).
  • Carry out research to better map out and understand the situation in which LGBT+ people find themselves in different areas (including the area of school bullying in the school system, unequal treatment in the health care system, and the treatment of LGBT+ people in prisons).
  • Provide in-service LGBT+ training for professionals (teachers, youth and health professionals, police officers, judges, and others) and include LGBT+ issues in the curricula of teachers, youth workers, police officers, judges, health professionals, and others.
  • More effectively involve LGBT+ issues and advocacy organisations in strategic decision-making and policy-making.

[1] Sotsiaalministeeriumi avalik dokumendiregister. 2020. Hasartmängumaksust laekuvate vahendite kasutamine, 10.07.2020.

[2] Sotsiaalministeeriumi avalik dokumendiregister. 2020. Tugiteenuste osutamise kokkuleppe muutmine, 17.07.2020.

[3] Koppel, K. 2020. Riigikontroll: hasartmängumaksust ei tohiks võrdsust edendavaid projekte toetada,  07.02.2020.

[4] Poom, R. 2020. Enamik valijaid peab abielureferendumi korraldamist ebaoluliseks, Delfi, 16.22.2020.

[5] Krjukov, A. 2020. Valitsus jätkab üksmeele otsimist neljapäeval, ERR, 21.10.2020.

[6] Kuusk, P. 2020. Ülle Madise: riigikogul tuleks küsimus sõnastada põhiseaduspäraseks, ERR, 21.09.2020.

[7] Treufeldt, I. 2021. Komisjon koondas tuhanded ettepanekud viieks ja saatis riigikokku, ERR, 10.01.2021.

[8] Riigikogu. 2021. Riigikogu istungi 13.01.2021 täiskogu istungi stenogramm.

[9] Keskerakond. 2021. Uue valitsuse prioriteedid: Reformierakonna ja Keskerakonna koalitsioonilepe, ERR, 24.01.2021.

[10] Pihlak, A. 2019. Eesti ei toeta enam paraadidel seksuaalvähemusi, Delfi, 18.06.2019.

[11]  Välisministeerium. 2021. Inimõigusdiplomaatia alused ja tegevuskava.

[12] Government of the Netherlands. 2021. Declaration of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Latvia, Italy, Greece, Austria and Cyprus, 22.06.2021.

[13] European Commission. 2020. LGBTIQ Equality Strategy – 2020–2025, 12.11.2020.

[14] European Parliament. 2021. European Parliament resolution of 14 September 2021 on LGBTIQ rights in EU (2021/2679(RSP)).

[15] Euroopa Liidu Kohtu 05.06.2018. a otsus kohtuasjas nr C-673/16.

[16] Eesti võrdse kohtlemise võrgustik. 2021. Ühisaruanne Eesti kolmanda üldise korralise ülevaatuse (UPR) jaoks.

[17] UN General Assembly. 2021. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – Estonia (A/HRC/48/7).

[18] UN General Assembly. 2021. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – Estonia, Addendum (A/HRC/48/7/Add.1).

[19]  Feministeerium. 2021. Läbipaistmatu süsteem ja hinnanguid andvad spetsialistid ehk kuidas kohtleb riik trans-inimesi, 05.07.2021.

[20]  Sotsiaalministri 05.07.2021 käskkiri nr 77.

[21]  Kirjavahetus Sotsiaalministeeriumi ametniku Heli Palustega, e-kiri, 22.10.2021.

[22]  Sotsiaalministri 01.06.2022 määrus nr 32.

[23]  Euroopa Liidu Parlamentaarse Assamblee 22.04.2015. a resolutsioon nr 2048 (2015).

[24]  UN General Assembly. 2015. Discrimination and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, A/HRC/29/23, 04.05.2015.

[25]  Euroopa Inimõiguste Kohtu 11.10.2018. a otsus kohtuasjas S.V. vs. Italy nr 55216/08.

[26] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 28.09.2021. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 5-21-4.

[27] Euroopa Inimõiguste Kohtu 14.01.2020. a otsus kohtuasjas Beizaras ja Levickas vs. Leedu nr 41288/15.

[28] UN. 2021. Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC/C/86/D/51/2018), 04.02.2021.

[29] IE SOGI. 2020. Report to the UN General Assembly: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the human rights of LGBT persons.

[30] ILGA Europe. 2020. COVID-19 impacts on the LGBTI communities in Europe and Central Asia: A rapid assessment report, 19.06.2020.

[31] FRA. 2020. EU-LGBTI II: A long way to go for LGBTI equality, 14.05.2020.

[32] ILGA Europe. 2021. Rainbow Europe Map 2021.

[33] Council of Europe. 2021. Combating rising hate against LGBTI people in Europe, 27.09.2021.

[34]Reimand, K. 2021. Lesbipaar peksti Mustamäel läbi: “ta võttis mu kaelast väga tugevalt kinni…“, Postimees, 19.08.2021.

[35] Eesti Inimõiguste Keskus. 2021. Eesti elanike hoiakud LGBT teemadel 2021.

[36] Laan, T. 2021. Pride-rattatuuril läks kakluseks: mehed kiskusid meeleavaldajal vikerkaarelipu kaelast, Õhtuleht, 02.07.2021.

The situation has improved.

Key issues

  • Changes for the better are taking place in integration policy, although familiar problems (such as immigration, the gap between the Russian-speaking population and Estonians, etc) are highlighted as concerns.
  • In Estonia, integration issues are characterised by politicisation, and a lack of substantive and consistent discussion. At the community level, projects and programmes are moving forwards, but the wider societal debate is still reactionary, essentially being provoked by events, established positions, or coincidences.
  • Non-Estonian nationals have provided a positive assessment of the provision of public services and the dissemination of information under the conditions of a pandemic. However, it is important to increase the clarity and comprehensibility of services amongst people who have varying levels of language skills and equally varying levels of integration into society.

Political and institutional developments

The year 2020 as the first of the new decade has been a year which has seen the completion of several development plans and strategies, which is something that reflected in the development of several new strategies. Therefore, in 2020, the ‘Coherent Estonian Development Plan 2030’ was approved, as drawn up by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Culture.[1] This is a single strategy which is based on several previous development documents.[2] The plan sets out trends in the field of integration over the next decade, as well as the vision for the future, the intended goals, and the important problems which are facing the country.

Four programmes are underway in terms of implementing the development plan. The main one is ‘Estonia supporting adaptation and integration’,[3] which is aimed at returnees to Estonia, compatriots who are living around the world, and new immigrants. The biggest goal is to improve people’s awareness of existing services, and to promote cooperation between communities, the state, and local government authorities. The ‘Community Estonia’,[4] ‘Global Estonianness’,[5] and ‘Smart Census’ programmes are also being developed.[6]

Legislative developments

In the period between 1 January 2020 and 30 September 2021, the ‘Aliens Act’ (abbreviated to ‘VMS’ in Estonian) was amended no less than seven times.[7] One of the most important changes was that, as of June 2020, it became possible for all non-Estonian nationals to apply for a digital traveller’s visa to work in Estonia. This solution allows a non-Estonian national to come to Estonia, stay here as a tourist and, at the same time, continue working for a foreign employer, regardless of location. Similar initiatives have now been launched in Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Iceland, Norway, Greece, Portugal, and Italy.[8]

Changes also took place in the ‘Citizenship Act’. At the beginning of 2020, the draft ‘Citizenship Act’ entered into force, the purpose of which is to ensure that minors who are born in Estonia and whose parents (or grandparents) have lived in Estonia prior to the restoration of the independence of the republic of Estonia have the opportunity to obtain Estonian citizenship under a simplified procedure.[9] In the same year, new grounds were added which would allow citizenship to be removed from an individual: the commission of serious crimes against the state. From now on the state can also deprive an Estonian citizen of their very citizenship when they have been successfully convicted for treason, spying, or terrorism.[10]

Case law

Two important amendments to the ‘Aliens Act’ took place in 2021 thanks to a decision which was taken by the Supreme Court. The first decision concerned the correctness of the premature expulsion of non-Estonian nationals who had arrived in Estonia for seasonal work, and their right to judicial protection. On this occasion the Police and Border Guard Board prematurely terminated the visa-free stay in Estonia of two Ukrainian citizens due to their alleged non-compliance with isolation requirements. The administrative court reviewed the complaint because, according to the court, the ‘Aliens Act’ did not grant the potential defendants with the right to go to court under the circumstances which had been described by the board. However, the Supreme Court declared the unconstitutional nature and invalidity both of the expulsion of aliens and the provisions of the ‘Aliens Act’ which did not allow the premature termination of a stay by seasonal workers who had arrived in Estonia to be challenged without the requirement for a visa having been met.

The court found that non-Estonian nationals (Ukrainians in this case) have the right to stay in EU countries without a visa for up to ninety days within a period of 180 days. According to the Supreme Court, it must also be possible to review the legality of any expulsions from the country via the courts, and the complete exclusion of this right constitutes a serious violation of fundamental rights.[11]

Another important judgement concerned same-sex rights.[12] In 2019, the Supreme Court declared the unconstitutional nature of clauses in the ‘Aliens Act’ which precluded the issuance of a temporary residence permit to an alien who wished to move in with an Estonian citizen as a registered partner of the same sex.

In September 2021, by means of a judgement which was issued by the Supreme Court, this right was also extended to the same-sex registered partner of a person who was already residing in Estonia on the basis of a residence permit.[13] In the opinion of the Supreme Court, no distinguishing argument can be made regarding the difference between a person who is an Estonian citizen or a person who is an alien who is residing in Estonia on the basis of a residence permit, because the ‘Aliens Act’ itself does not distinguish whether a spouse who is living in Estonia is an Estonian citizen, an Estonian national, or an alien.

Statistics and surveys

In 2021, the ‘Estonian Integration Monitoring 2020’ was published in its eighth edition,[14] which provided a comprehensive overview of developments in the field of integration as of 2020. Integration in Estonia has been consistent and positive over the last couple of decades. The lack of contact between Estonians of different nationalities and the difference in the levels of participation for Estonians and residents of other nationalities in working life and socio-economic coping are still a cause for concern.

In November 2020, the results of the ‘Index of Immigrant Integration Policies’ (MIPEX) for 2019 were also published.[15] The results of the Estonian migration policy have improved since 2007, with immigrants now having better opportunities in the labour market, in accessing healthcare services, and in applying for a residence permit. The situation continues to be worse in terms of general healthcare, along with political participation and citizenship policy.

The MDI ‘World Talent Ranking for 2020’ assessed the competitiveness of countries in recruiting qualified specialists from abroad in 2020.[16] Estonia significantly improved its competitiveness, rising from 27th place (in 2019) to 19th place (with Lithuania being in 27th place and Latvia in 33rd).[17]

According to a study by the Enterprise Estonia programme, ‘Work in Estonia’, as of the autumn of 2020, more and more Estonian entrepreneurs preferred to recruit international teleworkers.[18] The main reasons behind this included restrictions which resulted from the pandemic and the local labour shortage amongst qualified specialists. In 2020, a comprehensive overview of migration statistics was also published which provided an overview of migration between 2016-2020, while also serving to explain the changes which have taken place within the figures.[19]

In 2020, a survey was conducted regarding the awareness of non-Estonian nationals who were living in Estonia when it came to the special situation.[20] The results showed that such individuals perceived their stay in Estonia as being safer than returning to their home country. Their biggest fear was migration policy, especially the risk of being expelled. It was also perceived that the local population was more lenient with the restrictions (for example, there seemed to be little wearing of masks in public spaces, and the two metres gap was rarely being observed, along with other stipulations). The solution to the problem is seen, amongst other things, as being due to more efficient state communication and the expansion of the common information field for Estonian residents.

Promises and good practice

In terms of good practise, it is worth mentioning the ideas which have come out of the ‘Integration Foundation’ (INSA), which makes integration more interactive and language learning more engaging. In 2020, a course on Estonian traditional culture started in Estonian language schools in Tallinn and Narva. It serves to introduce the customs, holidays, cultural spaces, customs, folk songs, and dances of Estonians.[21] In 2021, INSA opened up a new internship programme, one which introduces job opportunities in state institutions to students who have a mother tongue which is not Estonian.[22] Thirteen young people completed the programme, thanks to which it could be seen that Russian, for example, as a mother tongue could also be a strong advantage in the public sector.

In 2020, the Baltic Research Institute started organising training programmes and events for students of Estonian higher education institutions who originate from third countries.[23] The aim of the project, which is being funded by the European Union AMIF, and also by the Ministry of the Interior, is to introduce the Estonian labour market and its peculiarities to foreign students in order to facilitate their entry into and continued stay in the Estonian labour market after the completion of their studies.

Several refugee-themed projects are also taking place at the Refugee Aid Centre such as, for example, the April 2021 launch of a project to support the adaptation of children with a migrant background and the creation of a multicultural learning environment in kindergartens.[24] Additionally, a project which started in September 2021 focuses on raising the awareness of young people about refugees in Estonia.[25]

Major public debates

In addition to the previous government’s rhetoric, the current period is also illustrated by the COVID-19 crisis, which has shaped the context of discussions regarding integration. An example of this can be provided in the form of conditions for foreigners when it comes to their being allowed to enter the country. Such conditions became more strict in 2020, leading to a shortage of strawberry pickers along with other effects. Gloomy forecasts of rising strawberry prices and crop losses led to a debate about the use of foreign labour,[26] along with coverage of the wages of strawberry pickers and the use of local labour. Against the background of many aspects, however, the situation made clear exactly what effect the involvement of foreign labour in Estonia today can have on both the national and the local economy.

A heated debate also arose in the second half of 2021, when the focus was temporarily on the change of power in Afghanistan and the provision of asylum in Estonia to those Afghans who had cooperated with Estonia. According to a decision which was reached by the government, up to thirty Afghans (including their family members) will be admitted into Estonia.[27] There was also a discussion on the refugee crisis at the Lithuanian border which had been politically triggered by Belarus, and on how Estonia could react to the situation in order to mitigate the risks. In light of this, the PBGB’s police unit, ESTPOL5, was sent to Lithuania,[28] control of the Latvian-Estonian border and ports was strengthened, and levels of preparedness on the eastern border were raised.[29]

Trends and outlook

A large number of people still come to Estonia for short-term work. This will increase the number of foreign workers who arrive on the basis of, among other things, short-term work permits and visas, which will help to alleviate the labour shortage. In turn, though, this remains a problem for the limit which has been set for immigrants. In 2020, the number of applications which were submitted exceeded the annual limit as early as 6 January.[30]

The development and diversification of integration programmes is expected in the future. However, the debate on integration and migration remains reactionary and not nearly constructive enough. This shows that society does not have a clear understanding of how these issues should be approached, or how to plan for them, and what decisions which possibly have been implemented at the national level could be.

Local government elections in October 2021 confirm that attempts to play the ‘Russian card’ are still ongoing, while in a number of areas, such as education reform (or language, citizenship, etc), no major changes have been made. The emergence of these issues in the form of ongoing waves is also expected in coming years, but it may not bring with it any substantive solutions.

Case study

The problem regarding Abkhaz Estonians retaining Estonian citizenship and applying for it is one which still deserves attention. A curious story took place in 2020, when the ERR wrote about Alli Rutto living in Abkhazia, while struggling to extend his Estonian citizenship.[31] Alli Rutto’s grandfather was an ‘optant’, an Estonian who was living with the territory of the old Russian empire prior to the 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty. The Tartu Peace Treaty gave optants the opportunity to acquire Estonian citizenship whilst still living abroad, which was an option which was taken up by Alli’s grandfather.

The Estonian state issued a citizenship certificate to Alli’s grandfather and, in 2012, Alli himself became an Estonian citizen by birth. Then, in 2018, the Supreme Court reached a precedent-setting judgement, stating that the descendants of optants cannot be considered as being Estonian (post-natal) citizens if the opt-in was not followed by settling in Estonia.[32] As Alli did not do so, she erroneously became a citizen of the republic of Estonia, according to this approach.

In 2018, the extension of her Estonian passport came into question. To clarify the circumstances, the PBGB issued a temporary passport for two years, acknowledging that the issuance of citizenship in 2012 was erroneous. This is despite the fact that Alli’s son and daughter now both live in Estonia and have also acquired Estonian citizenship by birth.

In 2020, the Chancellor of Justice spoke to resolve the problem, noting that a citizen who has already been declared as such by birth must not be deprived of their citizenship due to incorrect decisions being taken by the state. In other words, people are not responsible for mistakes which are made by the state if such mistakes jeopardise their legal status. As a result, Alli’s temporary passport was extended for a further ten years and her situation was successfully resolved. However, the problem regarding several hundred other Abkhaz Estonians has been left hanging in the air, as they face legal and bureaucratic difficulties in retaining their Estonian citizenship,[33] or even in applying for it.[34]

Recommendations

  • Estonia needs to implement a more effective equal opportunities policy. Although progress is being made in terms of integration, familiar problems still need to be addressed in various parts of Estonia, such as the school system and the language of instruction, immigration and quotas for foreign workers, and integration and language learning opportunities.
  • When creating public and adaptation-supporting services, it is necessary to pay attention to different target groups so that people with similar needs but different levels of language and integration are not left without information and services.
  • Instead of employing emotional arguments, Estonia needs a fact-based and constructive political discussion. There are still signs of opposition between Russians and Estonians. The issue of seasonal workers and new immigrants from abroad is also more politicised than need be in debates.
  • In matters of national minorities and integration, a political and social consensus must be sought, one which will help to shape the shared narrative of Estonia as a country in which it is good both for locals and foreigners to live, study, and work. We recommend systematic discussions be held on citizenship and migration, and more attention be paid to people who have been able to successfully adapt to Estonia.

[1] Siseministeerium. 2021. Sidusa Eesti arengukava 2030. Eelnõu.

[2] Nendeks on „Lõimuv Eesti 200“, „Siseturvalisuse arengukava 2015-2020“, „Kodanikuühiskonna arengukava 2015-2020“ ja „Rahvuskaaslaste programm aastateks 2014-2020“.

[3]  Siseministeerium. 2021. Sidusa Eesti arengukava 2030. Eelnõu.

[4] Siseministeerium. 2021. Kodanikuühiskonna programm “Tugev kodanikuühiskond” 2021-2024.

[5] Välisministeerium. 2021. Välisministreerium tutvustas ülemaailmse eestluse tulevikuplaane, 10.06.2021.

[6] Siseministeerium. 2021. Programm “Nutikas rahvastikuarvestus 2021-2024”. Eelnõu.

[7] Riigi Teataja. 2021. Välismaalaste seadus, 01.10.2010.

[8] ETIAS. 2021. Digital Nomad Visas in EU Countries.

[9] Riigikogu. 2020. Kodakondsuse seaduse muutmise seadus 58 SE.

[10] Riigikogu. 2020. Kodakondsuse seaduse §28 täiendamise seadus 217 SE.

[11] Riigikohus. 2021. Välismaalasel on õigus viisavabalt Eestis viibimise lõpetamist kohtus vaidlustada, 20.04.2021.

[12] Riigikohus. 2019. Eesti kodaniku samast soost registreeritud elukaaslasele elamisloa mitteandmine on põhiseadusvastane, 21.06.2019.

[13] Riigikohus. 2021. Riigikohus tunnistas põhiseadusevastaseks samast soost paari Eestis elamist piiranud seaduse, 28.09.2021.

[14] Praxis, Balti Uuringute Instituut, Tallinna Ülikool, Tartu Ülikool, Turu-uuringute AS. 2020. Eesti ühiskonna lõimumismonitooring 2020.

[15] MIPEX. 2020. Migrant Integration Policy Index – Estonia.

[16] IMD. 2021. World Talent Ranking.

[17] EAS. 2021. Eesti tegi välistalentide aruandes võimsa tõusu, 27.04.2021.

[18] RAKE. 2020. Rahvusvahelise kaugtöö uuring.

[19] Siseministeerium. 2020. Rändestatistika ülevaade 2016-2020.

[20] Akkadian. 2020. Eestis elavate välismaalaste eriolukorra teadlikkuse uuring 2020.

[21] INSA. 2020. Eesti pärimuskultuuri kursus eesti keele majades, 03.10.2020.

[22] INSA. 2021. Uus praktikaprogramm tõi riigiasutustesse eesti keelest erineva emakeelega tudengid, 07.05.2021.

[23] IBS. 2020. Kraadiõppuritest kolmandatest riikidest välistudengitele Eesti tööturu võimaluste tutvustamise koolitused ja ühisüritused.

[24] Pagulaskeskus. 2021. Lastega töötavate spetsialistide toetamine lõimiva keskkonna loomisel.

[25] Pagulaskeskus. 2021. Pagulasnoorte võimestamine ja teadlikkuse tõstmine pagulastest Eestis.

[26] Raudvere, R. jt. 2020. Võõrtööjõu keelamise tagajärg: maasikate hind tõuseb ja enamik saagist jääb põllule, Maaleht, 20.05.2020.

[27] Vabariigi Valitsus. 2021. Valitsus otsustas Eestisse vastu võtta kuni 30 meie ja liitlastega koostööd teinud afgaani, 19.08.2021.

[28] PPA. 2021. PPA lähetab Leetu politseiüksuse ESTPOL5, 05.07.2021.

[29] Pott, T.. 2021. Eesti on tõstnud Leedu kriisi tõttu piiril ning sadamates valmisolekut, ERR, 10.07.2021.

[30] PPA. 2020. Välismaalased esitasid elamisloa taotlusi Eestis ettevõtluseks ja töötamiseks sisserände piirarvust rohkem, 07.01.2020.

[31] Eilat, T. 2020. Abhaasia eestlane Alli Rutto sai lõpuks passi, 11.11.2020.

[32] Riigikohus. 2018. Eesti kodakondsusse opteerumise viis lõpule ümberasumine Eesti Vabariiki, 02.03.2018.

[33] Eilat, T. 2019. „Pealtnägija”: ausus maksab teenekale õpetajale Eesti kodakondsuse, ERR, 06.02.2019.

[34] Piirsalu, J. 2021. Abhaasia eestlane paneb proovile põhiseaduse. Postimees, 27.09.2021.

The situation has remained the same.

Key issues

  • The first elections after 2005 took place when the ban on outdoor political advertising had been lifted, with this ban having previously and unreasonably restricted freedom of expression.
  • Nothing has been done to lift the restriction for all prisoners on the right to vote.
  • Discussions have been regurgitated regarding the security and accessibility of e-elections.

Political and institutional developments

Local government elections took place in Estonia during the reporting period. For the first time, the voter list was electronic, so voters were no longer affiliated with a particular polling station and voters had more flexibility to vote.[1] The polling station was not pre-determined and everyone could go to the polling station of their choice within their district; e-voters were given the opportunity to change their vote on election day itself.[2]

Several previous human rights reports have indicated that the right to vote for all prisoners should not automatically be restricted. There was no discussion at the national level regarding this, but such discussions certainly did take place at the international level. For example, in a shadow report which was submitted by the Estonian Equal Treatment Network to the UN Human Rights Council, human rights NGOs in Estonia suggested that the ban for prisoners regarding their right to vote should be lifted.[3] During the UN Human Rights Council’s regular review of Estonia, both Canada and Sweden proposed that the total ban on elections be lifted.[4] Estonia’s response to the proposal was not promising, stating that the Ministry of Justice would analyse whether the current restrictions should be changed and how that might be achieved.[5] Therefore the situation is not expected to improve in the near future.

In the autumn of 2021, Eduard Odinets, a member of the Riigikogu, addressed the Chancellor of Justice, raising the issue of the political neutrality of educational institutions during local elections. More specifically, the director of the Narva Language Lyceum had sent out a call to parents to support his candidacy in the election, using the schoolchildren to take a letter home and giving the children chocolate for doing so. The Chancellor of Justice found that candidates were not prohibited from presenting their political goals and election promises via an educational institution. At the same time, the Chancellor of Justice also referred to the fact that advertising in the school building is generally prohibited and that the Consumer Protection and Technical Surveillance Authority can assess the act.[6]

At the end of 2021, after several failures, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications found a bidder to analyse the implementation of proposals for ensuring security and raising public awareness of the system, as proposed by the Electronic Voting System and Electronic Voting Task Group which has been convened in 2019 by the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology.[7]

Legislative developments

The local government elections of 2021 were the first after 2005 to lift the ban on outdoor advertising, which unreasonably restricts freedom of expression.[8] Candidates were allowed to campaign anywhere on election day except in the polling station itself. Since the introduction of the ban, the Estonian Centre for Human Rights has emphasised in various reports the fact that the ban was disproportionate.[9] It was also criticised by the Chancellor of Justice, who in 2017 asked the Riigikogu to lift the ban.[10]

Case law

The Electoral Commission and the courts were, for the most part, approached due to problems which were related to e-voting. For example, the Constitutional Review Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected a complaint by EKRE and Silver Kuusik regarding the claim that e-votes should be cancelled in certain elevation district constituencies because the translation application changed the names of candidates on the election website; the courts considered that a translation problem could not significantly affect the electronic voting result.[11]

The Supreme Court also dismissed a complaint in which the complainant requested that electronic voting not be initiated. A complaint was lodged with the Electoral Commission, in which the complainant asked the commission not to start up electronic voting on 11 October.[12] The complainant alleged, inter alia, that electronic voting was not sufficiently secure or reliable because the voting software and the voter application had not been audited. The Electoral Committee did not agree with this complaint, and the Supreme Court also considered that no circumstances had arisen which would have provided any relevant reason for cancelling electronic voting.[13] Still, the Supreme Court recommended that the organisers of the elections be more transparent, and that they also consider the possibility of disclosing audits and analyses of the system where these were carried out before the start of any electronic voting, and within such a scope which would not compromise security considerations due to that disclosure.[14]

Statistics and surveys

In 2020, the possibility of being able to conduct e-voting with a mobile phone was studied, in research which had been commissioned by the state. The analysis found that e-voting by telephone is technically possible, but various risks needed to be mitigated before it could be implemented. For example, devices which are running iOS and Android could use m-voting, although they must have the latest version of the software installed. Additionally, general cyber hygiene was pointed out as a threat (hackers, and the possibility of m-voting making it easier to vote on behalf of someone else).[15]

The analysis of facial recognition technology which was commissioned by the State Information System Board (RIA), and which was carried out by AS Cybernetica, found that facial recognition is a technically complex issue, one which requires sweeping technical changes. Adding it would increase the risk of e-voting failures, while also significantly increasing the system’s performance requirements, whereas it would be impossible to reduce the error rate to zero. The study found that the e-voting service would become more inconvenient for the user, as it would require the presence of equipment which includes a proper camera and the requisite ability to use it, as well as additional privacy breaches. In conclusion, it has been found that instead of providing facial recognition, there are lighter measures which can be installed with which to combat attacks against e-voting. These include informing the person by email or text message that a vote has been cast on their behalf, as well as creating good practice for nursing homes when it comes to their being able to store ID cards.[16]

Promises and good practice

In order to involve various groups of people and to share information, the National Electoral Committee, in co-operation with the Alarm Centre, opened a 24-hour election hotline on the +372 631 6633 number. The hotline provided answers to general questions which were related to the elections. In the period between 7-18 October, a total of 3,395 calls were answered via the election hotline. The highest number of those calls involved questions regarding how to take part in e-voting, along with the contents of the election information sheet, the location of the voting booth in the relevant polling station, and the right to vote.[17] The helpline was available for callers between 7 October and 18 October 2021, and questions were answered in Estonian, Russian, and English.[18]

Major public debates

Since the first availability of e-elections, various technical issues which have interfered with the e-voting processes have attracted a degree of public attention. This election itself did not progress without there being some level of error. As soon as the elections began, people who voted using the latest macOS operating system found they were having problems, receiving an error message and not being able to vote. The problem was fixed on the same day as the error was discovered.[19] The election application also displayed incorrect information to the first e-voters, as if their vote had not been taken into account, with the application displaying a message that it was a test vote.[20] The reason for the incorrect information being displayed via the e-voting voter application was incorrect server programming which concerned the time at which the message was displayed; however, all votes which were cast were indeed counted.[21]

There were also problems and bottlenecks in terms of the accessibility of e-voting. A problem which arose had already been highlighted. This concerned the 2019 Riigikogu elections and European Parliament elections, where the attention of the Electoral Committee was drawn to the fact that the screen reader cannot read the text in the election application using the macOS operating system. A representative from the Electoral Committee admitted that the matter had been investigated; nevertheless, the application was not improved during the next two years.[22]

Another issue which limited the user-friendliness and availability of the election application arose in the local elections of 2021. The election application is only available in Estonian. However, everyone who permanently resides in Estonia is allowed to participate in local government elections, although they may not all understand Estonian.[23] According to the State Electoral Service, there are currently no plans in place to add the option for the voter application to be made available in English or Russian.[24]

Case study

On 13 October, the newspaper Postimees published a piece which stated that the translation application changed the names of those candidates whose names were being displayed on the election website.[25] In fact the names only changed if someone used the Google Chrome web browser and had the automatic translation feature turned on. For example, Hõbe Kuusik was displayed instead of Silver Kuusik.[26] On the same day a software patch was made available via valimised.ee, which eliminated the shortcoming.[27]

On 14 October, the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and Silver Kuusik, a candidate who is on their list, filed a complaint with the National Electoral Committee, asking them to cancel the results of electronic voting in those election districts which had been affected by the translation problem.[28] The Electoral Committee did not satisfy the complaint, responding that there were only any problems with automatic translation on the ‘valimised.ee’ website.[29] The same group appealed against the decision via the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s Constitutional Review Chamber dismissed this appeal by EKRE and Silver Kuusik because the translation problem could not significantly affect the results of electronic voting.[30] According to the court, it is arguable in principle whether the party which was responsible for displaying the names in translated form is the voter who set up automatic translation in their browser or the National Election Service which did not exclude the possibility on their website of it being translated.

According to the Supreme Court, the Electoral Service violated the right of applicants to stand as a candidate by failing to ensure that the act of displaying the list of candidates on its website was not in some way distorted. The fact that the correct list was displayed in the voter application also does not invalidate this conclusion. At the same time, the Supreme Court did not annul the results of electronic voting because the probability that someone did not vote for the desired candidate due to the Election Service’s failure to act is so small that the results could not significantly be affected.[31]

Recommendations

  • Amend the relevant legal acts so that the ban on elections applies only to prisoners to whom this ban has been applied as an additional form of punishment.
  • Contribute to the accessibility of polling stations and e-elections.

[1] Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon. 2021. Valijate nimekiri.

[2] Ploompuu, A. 2021. Kohalikud valimised tulevad mitmete muudatustega, Postimees, 14.06.2021.

[3] Eesti võrdse kohtlemise võrgustik. 2020. Ühisaruanne Eesti kolmanda üldise korralise ülevaatuse (UPR) jaoks.

[4] UN General Assembly. 2021. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – Estonia (A/HRC/48/7).

[5] UN General Assembly. 2021. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – Estonia, Addendum (A/HRC/48/7/Add.1).

[6] Õiguskantsler. 2021. Valimisreklaam koolis, 15.10.2021.

[7] Liive, R. 2021. Riik tellis auditi, mis selgitab välja, kuidas on Kert Kingo e-valimiste töörühma ettepanekuid rakendatud, Digigeenius, 28.10.2021.

[8] Riigi Teataja. Euroopa Parlamendi valimise seaduse, kohaliku omavalitsuse volikogu valimise seaduse, Riigikogu valimise seaduse, rahvahääletuse seaduse ja karistusseadustiku muutmise seadus (valimispäeval valimisagitatsiooni piirangu ja välireklaami keelu kaotamine), 13.01.2020.

[9] E. Rünne. 2015. Inimõigused Eestis 2014 – 2015, õigus vabadele valimistele.

[10] Õiguskantsler. 2019. Euroopa Parlamendi valimise seaduse, kohaliku omavalitsuse volikogu valimise seaduse, Riigikogu valimise seaduse ja karistusseadustiku muutmise eelnõu, 17.06.2019.

[11] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 28.10.2021. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 5-21-16.

[12] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 21.10.2021. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 5-21-15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cybernetica. 2020. Mobile voting feasibility study and risk analysis.

[16] ERR. 2021. Uuring näotuvastust e-hääletamisel veel ei soovita, 15.07.2021.

[17] Riigi valimisteenistus, e-kiri, 01.10.2021.

[18] Lomp, L. 2021. Sügisel nõustab valijaid infotelefon, Postimees, 27.05.2021.

[19] Alas, B.. 2021. E-valimisi häirisid esimesed tehnilised rikked, Postimees, 11.10.2021.

[20] Pau, A. 2021. E-hääletamine algas tehnilise praagiga: 900 kasutajale anti teada, et nende hääl ei lähe arvesse, Delfi, 11.10.2021.

[21] Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon. 2021. Kõigi kell 9 e-hääletanute hääled läksid arvesse, 11.10.2021.

[22] Koitmäe, A. ja Arm, M. 2021. Kas tulevikus saab valimistel hääletada ka mobiiltelefonis? Vikerraadio.

[23] Riives. A. 2021. Kes on Hõbe Meikar või Sipelga Hilving? Tõlkerakendus muudab valimiste veebilehel kandidaatide nimesid, Postimees, 13.10.2021.

[24] Riigi valimisteenistus, e-kiri, 01.10.2021.

[25] Riives. A. 2021. Kes on Hõbe Meikar või Sipelga Hilving? Tõlkerakendus muudab valimiste veebilehel kandidaatide nimesid, Postimees, 13.10.2021

[26] Pau, A. 2021. Taas probleem: kandidaadid Silver Meikar ja Silver Kuusik moonduvad valimiste veebilehel Hõbe Meikariks ja Hõbe Kuusikuks, Delfi, 13.10.2021.

[27] Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon. 2021. Automaattõlge ei mõjutanud kandidaatide nimede kuvamist valijarakenduses, 15.10.2021.

[28] Delfi. 2021. EKRE nõuab e-hääletuse tühistamist: kandidaadid, kelle nime väänas tõlkeprogramm, on ebavõrdses seisus, 15.10.2021.

[29] Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon. 2021. Vabariigi Valimiskomisjon jättis rahuldamata kaks e-hääletamisega seotud kaebust, 15.10.2021.

[30] Riigikohtu põhiseaduslikkuse järelevalve kolleegiumi 28.10.2021. a otsus kohtuasjas nr 5-21-16.

[31] Riigikohus. 2021. Riigikohus jättis rahuldamata kaks e-hääletamist puudutanud kaebust, 28.10.2021.

Cart
  • No products in the cart.