Juhan Saharov, Anni Säär

Estonia has provided international protection since 1997 when we joined the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967).[1] 349 applications for asylum were submitted to Estonia in the period of 1997–2012, international protection was provided to a total of 83 persons (including family reunions). In 2010 30 applications were submitted to Estonia, in 2011 there were 66 applications, but in 2012 there were 77 applications made (the largest number so far), of which 13 were granted (8 persons received refugee status and 5 persons received subsidiary protection). In addition to them 10 persons were granted residence permit in Estonia in 2012 through reunification of families.[2]

The statistics show that the number of applications for asylum submitted to Estonia is rising year by year. This means that the number of asylum seekers as well as beneficiaries of international protection (at Illuka Reception Center and elsewhere in Estonia) is steadily increasing. Yet the situation where the majority of support services for asylum seekers are offered via activities of various non-profit associations has continued in 2012.

The report of the Tallinn office of the International Organization for Migration compiled in 2012 also remarks that “the residents of the reception centre are being offered support and various activities (to certain extent) predominantly by the civil society, who offers services mainly on project basis and in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs and on the funding of European Refugee Fund and Ministry of Interior Affairs.”[3] Similarly to supporting residents of the reception centre the supporting of beneficiaries of international protection also largely rests of the shoulders of civil organisations.

Political and institutional developments

In 2012 several changes took place in the field of reception conditions of asylum seekers and in offering support to beneficiaries of international protection in comparison to the previous years.

The management of the asylum seekers’ reception centre was handed over to a new custodian AS Hoolekandeteenused (as a result of public procurement). This means among other things that the activity of the reception centre regarding assisting beneficiaries of international protection broadens. The public procurement of the Ministry of Social Affairs states that the new service provider assists beneficiaries of international protection in finding accommodation and concluding the residential lease contract, in interactions with the local government and other administrative agencies, in organising the interpretation services when needed. The amendment also requires that the service provider guarantees beneficiaries of international protection the opportunity to take part in Estonian language courses.[4] The reception centre did not have the aforementioned duties in previous years. The “reception centre” will also be turned into an “accommodation centre” and AS Hoolekandeteenused has the plan to move the accommodation centre from Illuka rural municipality (Jaama village) to Väike-Maarja rural municipality (Vao village).

The Ministry of Social Affairs started giving housing allowance to beneficiaries of international protection (it wasn’t provided in previous years). In 2012 the Ministry of Social Affairs afforded housing allowance to three families (beneficiaries of international protection) in Estonia, which the ministry has not afforded to earlier beneficiaries of protection. All appropriations were done as an exception, as the government has not yet confirmed the draft amending the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (which fixes the sums of corresponding appropriations).

Nearly ten cooperation seminars with representatives of local governments took place in the course of the IOM’s Cap-Co project, the topics of these were: informing the local governments and incorporating them in integration of beneficiaries of international protection (that was also done for the first time in Estonia to this extent). In order for the beneficiary of international protection to start living in the territory of a local government it is also important to do some informative work in local governments. In 2012 the Estonian agency of the IOM and the Ministry of Social Affairs visited nearly ten local governments in the course of the Cap-Co project in order to introduce migration and assist them in preparing for reception of beneficiaries of international protection.[5] If so far the replies to letters of the Ministry of Social Affairs to receive beneficiaries of international protection have been negative, then the attitude of several local governments has become positive as a result of the visits (and there have been agreements to receive refugees), which gives hope that the cooperation can be implemented.

Despite the changes mentioned above the situation of asylum seekers remained problematic in 2012. There were no significant improvements at Illuka Reception Centre in comparison to previous years. The scarce bus connection to the nearest town Jõhvi, irregular Estonian language lessons and availability of medical help accompanied by interpreting services continue to be a problem. Although a precise survey on the condition of the asylum seekers was not conducted in 2012, the shortcomings indicated in the progress report “Services Provided for Asylum Seekers with Special Needs”[6] by the Institute of Baltic Studies concluded in 2011 can be referred to, as nearly all of the problems continued in 2012 as well. The language barrier at the reception centre pointed out in the survey conducted by the institute still exists, which complicates self expression of its residents, filling in petitions/applications in Estonian and explaining the problems to the management of the reception centre. There are still no thorough introductory interviews carried out at the reception centre, which would give its residents an overview of the process of asylum application, of various services that extend to asylum seekers (and those that don’t) and of possible later transitory process once international protection has been gained. This all creates a situation where the asylum seekers expect help outside of the centre, from civil organisations, rather than from within.

When refugee status is granted the person is given a residence permit for three years, with subsidiary protection the permit is given for one year.[7] According to the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens the Ministry of Social Affairs or its subsidiary must organise the settlement of the beneficiary of international protection in a territory of local government within four months from receiving the protection upon agreement with a local government.[8] If the Ministry of Social Affairs and the local government do not come to an agreement within that time those services should be provided by the ministry or the agency of the area of government itself.

9 January 2013 the Chancellor of Justice published a memorandum,[9] which stated that as the result of the proceedings carried out he is of the opinion that the Ministry of Social Affairs has not fulfilled the obligation set by the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens to settle the beneficiaries of international protection in territories of local government after granting of the protection. Neither had the Ministry of Social Affairs provided services according to the second sentence of § 73 subsection 3 of the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens.

None of the members of the target group have been organised accommodation within four months from being given protection in the abovementioned form since adoption of the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (in 2006). The Ministry of Social Affairs has cited reluctance of local governments to cooperate as a reason for this, the local governments, in turn, refer to ambiguity of the law pointing out that the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens does not specifically determine the tasks of local governments nor the size of grants. This has brought about a situation where the local governments have stayed away from implementing § 73 of the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens and the refugees try to receive subsistence benefits from local governments to cover the housing expenses just like other Estonian citizens suffering social hardship.

Organising Estonian language lessons for beneficiaries of international protection has so far been a merely project-based activity. The beneficiaries of international protection cannot take advantage of the main opportunity for learning language aimed at new immigrants from third countries (adaptation and language course for new immigrants offered by the Integration and Migration Foundation Our People) because they are outside the target group of the European Integration Fund. Refugees who have registered as unemployed with Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund have the opportunity to learn Estonian via the Unemployment Insurance Fund, but that opportunity is open only to jobseekers and not the working refugees. Therefore, the (working) refugees are still in a situation where they find it very difficult to find language courses. The 2012 language course (on English as well as on Estonian basis) in Tallinn organised in conjunction with the project of Johannes Mihkelson Centre was, therefore, mainly aimed at refugees who work. About ten refugees took part in the language course and the course was funded by European Refugee Fund and the Ministry of Interior Affairs. There were other providers of language courses – for example the NGO Estonian Refugee Council organised teaching Estonian to refugees with the help of volunteers.

Legislative developments

The most remarkable legislative development in 2012 was the drawing up on the draft 354[10] amending the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens and other relevant acts. This draft intends to unite the refugee’s reception centre with the expulsion centre of the Police and Border Guard Board. In addition the order and rates for covering expenses arising out of settling beneficiaries of international protection in a territory of a local government from the state budget will be established on the level of an act of law, and the content of the provision delegating authority that establishes the reception centre’s internal procedure rules will be specified, also the authority for establishing the rules will be handed over to the Minister of Social Affairs instead of the manager of the centre. This draft partially considers the recommendations of Chancellor of Justice brought in the 17 May 2010 memorandum[11] to the Minister of Interior Affairs and the Minister of Social Affairs, but unfortunately completely ignores the opinion concerning § 33 subparagraph 1 of the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. It should also be noted that the situation of unaccompanied minors who are asylum seekers has not been improved to any degree by this draft act. The special treatment due to vulnerability of minors should also be prescribed by the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens.

The state should seriously think about accommodating unaccompanied minors who are asylum seekers. Children have described the employees of the centre where they reside as the nearest and most important people to them and the employees of the centre are also the main people offering support to asylum seekers.[12] The people who work there are as important as the place where children are accommodated. These employees give asylum seekers necessary information and support and are the first point of contact in the member state. It has been detected that in common households housing male and female persons, such as Illuka reception centre, there may be cases of sexual harassment. The victims have later placed the blame on the contact person who did not do his job properly and guarantee that persons of opposite sex have different bedrooms.[13] The unaccompanied minors who are asylum seekers, especially considering their mental, but often physical conditions, are an easy target for human traffickers. According to articles 34-37 of Convention on the Rights of the Child the member states have the duty to protect children from all forms of exploitation harming the wellbeing of the child (including sexual exploitation) and abuse, and the states are obliged to take measures to avoid it. Therefore the state should seriously consider whether Estonia needs another reception centre or that the unaccompanied minors who are asylum seekers should be placed in a suitable child welfare institution, where the employees are aware of the problems that may arise and employ workers who have completed appropriate training.

Good practices

Various civil organisations have offered their services at the reception centre. In 2012 regular project based visits to the reception centre were made by legal experts and trainees of the Estonian Human Rights Centre and the support persons of Johannes Mihkelson Centre.[14] The trainees of the Estonian Human Rights Centre’s legal clinic visit the reception centre and offer asylum seekers legal assistance (including help with finding a representative). In 2012 Estonian Human Rights Centre offered counselling to 34 members of the target group; 10 cases were carried over to 2013. One of the beneficiaries of international protection has turned to court regarding covering his expenses for the period spent at the expulsion centre with the help of Estonian Human Rights Centre. Tallinn Administrative Court made its decision 11 November 2011, which changed the practice and the refugees / asylum seekers are no longer required to pay for expenses accrued while being kept at the expulsion centre during asylum proceedings. The decision was appealed concerning financial claims for the time preceding asylum proceedings. The circuit court did not amend the judgment of the administrative court, but the Supreme Court accepted the appeal 25 September 2012.

Support persons from Johannes Mihkelson Centre try to acquaint the residents of the centre with the state where the asylum seekers are staying in, the proceedings process, help with transport when needed, etc. The first function of the support person is to create an environment of trust and the second is to provide necessary information. In 2012 the total number of members of target group counselled was 50 (they included asylum seekers as well as refugees and members of their families).

The practice of projects of the Estonian Human Rights Centre and Johannes Mihkelson Centre in 2012 indicates that the aforementioned services are very important for the target group. In legal as well as social questions the trainees of Estonian Human Rights Centre and support persons from Johannes Mihkelson Centre have to often provide primary information about the proceedings process, repeat the house rules of the reception centre and later introduce the functioning of Estonia’s national systems (for example applying for subsistence benefit, the work of Unemployment Insurance Fund and the Health Insurance Fund).

A dense schedule of recreational activities was set up in the course of a project of Johannes Mihkelson Centre in 2012, which was aimed at the residents of the reception centre as well as beneficiaries of international protection and was intended to offer activities for the residents to do in their free time. Members of the target group were included in various bees and integration camps, farm work was done, connections with entrepreneurs were made (counselling was also offered on how to found a company in Estonia), excursions to vocational schools were made, and many other activities were carried out. A total of 16 recreational activities took place in the course of projects of Johannes Mihkelson Centre, which were carried out by NGO ETNA Estonia, NGO Estonian Refugee Council and NGO Best Opportunities.[15]

In addition to the abovementioned projects, in 2012 courses on cultural orientation in the course of the Cap-CO project organised by the IOM’s Tallinn representation took place at the reception centre, which were to give asylum seekers an overview of Estonian society, history and culture, but also more practical information about Estonia’s educational, medical and social services. IOM Tallinn, in cooperation with the Estonian association of journalists, also compiled guidance material for journalists on the topic of refugees and Estonian media.[16] This guidance material wrote about how to interview refugees, about Estonia’s migration and asylum politics, how asylum is sought in Estonia and about many other things, which help increase journalists’ awareness of the topic. This is particularly important because journalists take the stories to the wider public and it is necessary that they know their way around in this area.

An example of good practice in 2012 was organising regular roundtables of NGOs active in refugees’ issues. Estonian Refugee Council was the initiator of that idea.[17] The charity event “I support refugees” organised by Estonian Human Rights Centre and Estonian Refugee Council on International Human Rights Day (December 10th) raising money to organise language studies for refugees and to cover the costs relating to their job-seeking was a commendable one.[18]

A series of lectures took place at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences from 16th of February to 12th of April called “Migration, refugees, media”, which gave an overview of migration and the asylum topic in general and specifically handled the effect of media on shaping the views of people in covering sensitive issues.[19]

Human rights and refugee organisations organised a joint refugee week for the first time 18-22 June 2012 to raise the public’s awareness in the field. In the second half of 2012 the Estonian Human Rights Centre initiated the project on raising awareness of international refugees in Estonian society. This project is one of the largest and most widespread in Estonian society raising tolerance of refugees in the whole society. More than 8000 persons have watched films about refugees in Tallinn and in Tartu in cooperation with the Black Nights Film Festival. More than 30 journalists have participated in the study trip as well as seminars. More than 100 students in Tallinn University, Tartu University and Tallinn University of Technology take the subject “International Refugees”. There are also plans to organise the first national campaign in 2013 notifying of existence of refugees and on Refugees’ Day there will be a special annex published with Postimees about international refugees.

Noteworthy public discussions

In the beginning of the year the refugee topics were kept in the public’s eye by Kadri Ibrus, journalist of Eesti Päevaleht, who published various stories about asylum seekers in Estonia, for example: “Estonia does not want to offer asylum to Ukraine’s political refugees”.[20] It raised wider debate over what should be the bases for applying for asylum.

The same journalist brought up the problems of underage asylum seekers in the beginning of summer, which revealed the fact that the Police and Border Guard Board as well as the court found that underage girls must be sent to Harku expulsion centre which usually houses persons posing threat to Estonia’s internal security.[21] The expulsion centre is essentially a prison surrounded by barbed wire. The article inspired debate over children’s rights as well as reasons for detaining someone at the expulsion centre.

In autumn Rait Maruste’s article titled “It’s time for a new refugee politics”[22] sparked intense debate about definition of refugees and their rights. Kristina Kallas pointed out that Maruste’s view that refugee politics is immigration politics is faulty. Asylum is given to persons who are persecuted in their home states, whose lives are in danger, whose human rights have been violated and who cannot return to their homeland because of it.[23] The right to seek asylum is one of the human rights and no limitations can be set to them.

It is also important to point out the fact that discussion on refugee topics significantly increased in Russian language media in 2012, particularly thanks to Russian Delfi, which reported on various activities aimed at raising awareness of journalists organised in the course of the Estonian Human Rights Centre’s project on raising the awareness of international refugees in the Estonian society.

Trends in 2012

Due to the location of the reception centre of asylum seekers communication with them and forwarding materials to them continued to pose a complication. The conditions of reception and the national services prescribed for the asylum seekers (especially asylum seekers with special needs) and refugees are faulty and even if they are prescribed by law they largely do not function in reality.

The asylum seekers with special needs are still not guaranteed all services by the state which are stated in acts of law. Living conditions of underage children at the reception centre, access to medical care and availability of necessary information are not guaranteed. The integration of refugees into society continues to need more investing into.

In public discussions refugees are often confused with economic migrants, which in turn indicates a low level of awareness of the society regarding refugees.

Civil organisations continue to be active, cooperating among themselves in protection of rights of this target group, informing the public and helping refugees integrate into Estonia’s society.


  • The Ministry of Social Affairs should pay more attention to actual coping of beneficiaries of international protection, arranging of accommodation and sorting out the relevant legislation.
  • National resources should be found to provide Estonian language courses to beneficiaries of international protection.
  • Republic of Estonia could set up a monitoring on the border in cooperation with the UNHCR and the Estonian Human Rights Centre to guarantee independent monitoring, assuring that the procedure of asylum applications is in accordance with acts of law of Estonia and its international obligations.
  • Compile informational material in several languages for beneficiaries of international protection about their rights and obligations along with the necessary contact information.
  • Bring Estonia’s legislation into concordance with European Union directives and internationally acknowledged practice, and always ask the opinion of non-governmental organisations closely involved with the relevant topic as well as the UNHCR in processing draft acts.
  • Continue with informative campaigns about refugees, thereby raising awareness of the public about the refugee topics.
  • Offer the option of health check up for asylum seekers at the reception centre.


[1] Pagulasseisundi konventsioon [UN Convention on the Status of Refugees]. Available at: https://www.riigiteataja.ee/akt/78623.

[2] Statistics from of Police and Border Guard Board’s citizenship and migration department’s office of determining status for international protection chief specialist. 31.01.2013.

[3] Rahvusvahelise kaitse saanud isikute integratsioon Eesti ühiskonda: hetkeolukorra kaardistus ning ettepanekud integratsiooni toetavate meetmete täiustamiseks. IOM Tallinn. 2012. Page 12.

[4] Procurement of Ministry of Social Affairs. Varjupaigataotlejate vastuvõtukeskuse teenuse ja rahvusvahelise kaitse saajate kohalikesse omavalitsustesse elama asumise korraldamine [Organisation of service of reception centre of asylum seekers and settling the beneficiaries in local governments]. 2012.

[5] Rahvusvahelise kaitse saanud isikute integratsioon Eesti ühiskonda: hetkeolukorra kaardistus ning ettepanekud integratsiooni toetavate meetmete täiustamiseks. IOM Tallinn. 2012.

[6] Available at: http://www.ibs.ee/et/publikatsioonid/item/105-erivajadustega-varjupaigataotlejatele-pakutavad-teenused.

[7] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens, § 37-38.

[8] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens, § 73.

[9] Memorandum of Chancellor of Justice 09.01.2012 6-2/111418/1105245. Available at: http://oiguskantsler.ee/sites/default/files/field_document2/6iguskantsleri_margukiri_rahvusvahelise_kaitse_saanud_isikute_vastuvotmine_0.pdf.

[10] Available at: http://www.riigikogu.ee/?op=ems&page=eelnou&eid=edbf43bb-d819-468a-bff5-f9d90e95b166&. The opinion of the UNHCR on the draft legislation and Estonian Human Rights Centre’s stance are also available on the website.

[11] Memorandum of Chancellor of Justice 17.05.2010 6-10/100790/1002838. Available at: http://oiguskantsler.ee/sites/default/files/field_document2/6iguskantsleri_margukiri_valismaalsele_rahvusvahelise_kaitse_andmine.pdf. 29.oktoober 2012.

[12] Mels, C. et al. Social support in unaccompanied asylum-seeking boys: a case study. Child: Care, Health and Development. Vol. 34, Issue 6, 2008. Page 760.

[13] Lay, M., Papadopoulos, I. Sexual maltreatment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors from the Horn of Africa: A mixed method study focusing on vulnerability and prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect. Vol.33. Issue 10, 2009. Pages 731-73.

[14] These are projects backed by the European Refugee fund and the Ministry of Interior Affairs “Varjupaigataotlejatele õigusabi osutamine” [Providing legal aid for asylum seekers] (Estonian Human Rights Centre) and “Varjupaigataotlejate ja rahvusvahelise kaitse saanud isikute vastuvõtutingimuste parandamine läbi kombineeritud tugiteenuste” [Improving reception conditions of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection through combined support services] (Johannes Mihkelson Centre).

[15] See the 2012 plan for free time activities aimed at asylum seekers and refugees. Available at: www.jmk.ee.

[16] IOM Tallinn (2012). Pagulased ja Eesti meedia: juhendmaterjal ajakirjanikele [Refugees and Estonian media: guidance materials for journalists]. Available at: http://www.eal.ee/index.php?article_id=1785&page=30&action=article&.

[17] Available at: http://www.pagulasabi.ee/toimus-esimene-pagulastega-tegelevate-organisatsioonide-umarlaud/.

[18] Available at: http://www.pagulasabi.ee/tana-tahistatakse-rahvusvahelist-inimoiguste-paeva/.

[19] Estonian Academy of Security Sciences. Series of lectures „Migration, Refugees, Media“. Available at: http://www.sisekaitse.ee/ska/uudised/loengutesari-migration-refugees-media-sisekaitseakadeemias/.

[20] K. Irbus. „Eesti ei taha Ukraina poliitilistele pagulastele asüüli pakkuda“ [Estonia does not want to offer asylum to Ukraine’s political refugees]. Eesti Päevaleht (25.04.2012) Available at: www.epl.ee/news/eesti/eesti-ei-taha-ukraina-poliitilistele-pagulastele-asuuli-pakkuda.d?id=64302917.

[21] K. Irbus. „Eesti riik pidas Somaaliast pärit saatjata last kurjategijaks“ [State of Estonia considered an unaccompanied child from Somalia a criminal]. 03.07.2012. Available at: www.epl.ee/news/eesti/taismahus-eesti-riik-pidas-somaaliast-parit-saatjata-last-kurjategijaks.d?id=64624838.

[22] „Aeg nõuab uut asüülipoliitikat“. Eesti Päevaleht. 02.10.2012. Available at: www.epl.ee/news/arvamus/rait-maruste-aeg-nouab-uut-asuulipoliitikat.d?id=65046514.

[23] „Inimõigused vaid tõesti itimeestele?“ [Human rights only for IT-workers]. Eesti Päevaleht. 09.10.2012. Available at: www.epl.ee/news/arvamus/kristina-kallas-inimoigused-vaid-toesti-itimeestele.d?id=65081588.