The situation has improved.
- 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. This is a single strategy which is based on several previous development documents. 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’, 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’, ‘Global Estonianness’, and ‘Smart Census’ programmes are also being developed.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Another important judgement concerned same-sex rights. 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. 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, 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. 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. Estonia significantly improved its competitiveness, rising from 27th place (in 2019) to 19th place (with Lithuania being in 27th place and Latvia in 33rd).
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Additionally, a project which started in September 2021 focuses on raising the awareness of young people about refugees in Estonia.
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, 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. 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, control of the Latvian-Estonian border and ports was strengthened, and levels of preparedness on the eastern border were raised.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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, or even in applying for it.
- 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.
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