Kristi Toodo

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”[1] Estonia joined the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 New York Protocol in 1997, taking upon itself an international obligation to offer asylum to foreigners who correspond to requirements stated in the convention and who ask Estonia for protection.

The process for applying for asylum and other questions pertaining to person that have international protection is regulated in Estonia mainly by the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens[2], which takes relevant EU as well as UN legislation into consideration.

Statistics including the whole of Europe (including EU Member States) published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) establishes Estonia as the least popular state among asylum seekers. In 2009 there were 40 persons seeking asylum in Estonia, which is more than half as in the previous twelve years. In 2010 there were 33 persons seeking asylum in Estonia. There are still few people who have the clear objective of coming to Estonia and staying here. Probably because of the small social benefits the asylum seekers want to travel on to Finland and Sweden. Many asylum seekers have remained in Estonia from fate’s will; there have been cases where the person applied for asylum on the impression that he was already in Finland and withdrew the application when he realised he was in Estonia.

Reception of asylum seekers

The housing and essential services to the asylum seekers during the asylum proceedings are provided and organised by Illuka Reception Center for Asylum Seekers. The reception center is a state agency administered by the Ministry of Social Affairs that operates pursuant to the Constitution, the relevant acts and other current legislation. The reception centre is located in a forest behind Jaama village in the rural municipality of Illuka in Ida-Viru County, about 220 km from Tallinn. The nearest town Jõhvi, is located 50 km from the centre. Any connection to the reception center is complicated because of its isolated and remote location and that fact has been the cause of criticism for years, from Estonian and international organisations both. Providing services prescribed by law to the asylum seekers is highly irregular or completely absent because of the poor accessibility of the reception center. There is a lack of legal, psychological and social counsellors; the prescribed Estonian language lessons take place irregularly because of lack of teachers.[3] The availability of the service of interpretation is also insufficient, including in getting medical help, communicating with the personnel of the reception center and explaining the asylum seeker his or her rights and obligations.

At the moment the service of support persons is offered to the asylum seekers and persons afforded international protection by the Johannes Mihkelson Centre in Tartu on a project basis. In 2011 a project of the Estonian Human Rights Centre commenced, which is to create a legal counselling clinic for the asylum seekers to supply legal help and represent them in a court of law if need be. The Ministry of Justice has also promised to commence with language lessons taking place twice a week to facilitate speedier integration into Estonian society and faster entry into labour market of persons who have been afforded international protection.

Another problem in addition to the remoteness of the location of the reception center, which hinders from providing asylum seekers sufficient amount of services is the centre’s extremely modest budget. The budget of the reception center located near the Russian border should be increased to ensure implementation of legal obligations and the provision of services to the asylum seekers. The topic of changing the location of the reception center has once again risen in the Ministry of Social Affairs as well as in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It is most preferable to move the reception center closer to Tallinn as the Police and Border Guard’s Citizenship and Migration Bureau’s Status Determination Bureau that performs the asylum proceedings is also located in Tallinn.

Asylum proceedings

Concern is continuously being expressed by various international organisations: UNHCR[4] and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)[5] regarding the so-called speedy review of asylum claims at the border, which impedes the asylum seekers’ full ability to put their case at the border and present sufficient evidence about the need for an asylum. The rejection of the claim and deportation of the asylum seeker from Estonia may put the asylum seeker’s life at risk.[6] The asylum seekers have to be guaranteed humane treatment and housing conditions and the possibility to communicate with UNHCR as well as various local non-governmental organisations in order to receive well rounded help and counselling during review of their asylum claims at the border.

Training has been organised for the border guards to provide this, funded on a project basis as well as from the state budget, but since there are few asylum claims the border guards have few occasions for using their training in practice. At the moment the possibility of monitoring asylum claims at the border and carrying out additional training and counselling of the border officials is being discussed.[7]

One of the most important issues when requesting protection from another state is the asylum seeker’s right to receive within fifteen days as of the submission of the application for asylum or residence permit oral and written information concerning his or her rights and obligations and the consequences of the failure to perform the obligations in the asylum proceedings.[8] In 2010 the office of the Chancellor of Justice paid a monitoring visit to the reception center, which resulted in several findings of shortcomings in this area.

Introduction of rights and obligations to the asylum seekers at the moment is unsatisfactory. The asylum seekers are introduced to the behavioural guide, however, these materials do not cover other rights and obligations of the asylum seeker stemming from legislation. The information material given to asylum seekers does not contain information on bases for payment of benefits or the size of benefits, on interpreting, health services that are provided, organisation of transport or any other services. Neither does the information material cover the house rules that the asylum seekers have to follow at the reception center and the conditions allowing the asylum seeker to live outside the reception center.

An order should be established regarding execution of relevant rights in order to efficiently use all of the rights; it should also be clearly defined who the asylum seeker should address with a specific question. Neither do these materials provide a clear answer as to who the asylum seeker has the right to turn to with complaints regarding the use of his or her rights. It is necessary to determine and distinguish the options of making complaints within the institution and without the institution (Ministry of Social Affairs, Chancellor of Justice, administrative courts).[9]

The unsatisfactory legal counselling, interpretation service and level of information make it impossible for the asylum seeker to know the particularities of the Estonian legal system, including the fact that he has to apply for a stay of deportation for the duration of the appeal prior to lodging an appeal contesting a negative decision. This is an important aspect as the contestation of the decision to reject an application for asylum does not postpone expulsion, unless the court has not suspended the execution of the precept to leave.[10] Ignorance of this fact may mean that the asylum seeker cannot stay in the state during his or her appeal proceedings, which, however, is one of the basic rights. That right is prescribed in § 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia, which states that everyone has the right to be tried in his or her presence.

The asylum seekers are generally not placed in custodial institutions, including expulsion centres, but if the asylum seeker submitted an application for asylum during his or her stay at the expulsion centre, in a prison or a house of detention, he will remain at the expulsion centre, in the prison or a house of detention, respectively, until the termination of the asylum proceedings.[11] The applicant may, according to legislation, be accommodated at the initial reception centre or the offices of the Police and Border Guard. The applicant may be detained at the initial reception centre or the offices of the Police and Board Guard for primary performance of acts in the asylum proceedings but not for longer than 48 hours; in cases determined by legislation an extension may be given by an administrative court judge.[12]

The greatest change of 2010 is the creation of the unified office of the Police and Border Guard on January 1st, 2010 and passing over of the asylum proceedings to the Status Determination Bureau’s International Protection Division in that office. The officials have noted improvement in cooperation between different units after the creation of the unified Police and Border Guard. Several cooperation agreements have been set, including with the Migration Surveillance Bureau and the Border Guard Department; the area of asylum proceedings has now been introduced to the Public Order Police Department officials. The quality and speed of the proceedings have always been the main priorities. There has been no change in that regard in 2010, the decisions are still being made as fast as possible. Even though the number of employees in the department in 2010 is significantly smaller than in the department of refugees in the office of Citizenship and Migration in 2009, the speed of proceedings can still be considered good.[13]

Persons who have been afforded international protection or refugees and persons afforded temporary protection

Most people who have been given refugee status in Estonia will leave the country and there are several reasons for it. This raises the question of whether one reason isn’t the lack of sufficient help from local government units in integrating the persons who have received international protection into the society.

Most of the persons who have been given international protection have waited at the reception center for several months after receiving a residence permit for the organisation of their accommodation in a local government unit as is stated by legislation. The negotiations with local governments have not been successful so far and an administrative agreement, which would be the basis of accepting a person who has been given international protection into a local government unit and also covering the associated costs, has not been adopted.

The absence of regular language lessons during the asylum proceedings and the lack of Estonian-speaking environment stemming from the remoteness of the reception center mean that the person who has been given protection does not speak a word of Estonian, which in turn complicates his or her entrance into labour market. In practice various non-governmental organisations have helped the persons who have been given protection to find work and accommodation in Estonia for the past few years; the third sector has also supported refugees’ language, trade or supplementary training and execution of various adaptation courses.

Conclusion

One might say that the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens that entered into force in 2006 is in accordance with most of the EU legislation concerning right to applying for international protection as well as obtaining it. The issue of asylum does not have priority in Estonia because of the small number of asylum seekers, neither is there much experience in solving various situations and questions. The availability of many legal services is hindered by lack of money and the state’s burden is shared by the third sector via various funders and projects.

Recommendations

–          Continue efforts in moving the reception center closer to Tallinn and increase its budget in order to ensure the state’s obligations to asylum seekers are fulfilled.

–          Analyse and implement the recommendations of international organisations to Estonia regarding asylum proceedings, including the border guards’ rights to so-called speedy review of asylum claims at the border and the monitoring of it.

–          Increase efforts in enabling the person who have been given protection to leave the reception center and settle down somewhere else.

 


[1] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/217 (10.12.1948). Art 14(1).

[2] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. RT I 2006, 2, 3 … RT I, 9.12.2010, 1.

[3] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2010). Compilation prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in accordance with paragraph 15(b) of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 5/1: Estonia. A/HRC/WG.6/10/EST/2 (10.11.2010). Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/PAGES/EESession10.aspx

[4] UNHCR (2010).

[5] European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2010). ECRI report on Estonia (fourth monitoring cycle). CRI(2010)3. Available at: http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/ecri/country-by-country/estonia/EST-CbC-IV-2010-003-ENG.pdf.

[6] UNHCR (2010).

[7] ECRI recommendations 2010.

[8] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. § 10(2).

[9] Kontrollkäik Illuka Varjupaigataotlejate Vastuvõtukeskusesse [Monitoring visit to the Illuka Reception Center].

[10] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. § 26(4).

[11] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. § 33(1).

[12] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. § 32.

[13] Police and Border Guard (2011). Information from an official of the Police and Border Guard’s Status Determination Bureau’s International Protection Division. 16.02.2011.

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