Kristi Toodo

Compared to the year before the number of asylum seekers in 2011 rose 50% in Estonia. There were 33 asylum applications filed in 2010,[1] in 2011 the number of applications was 67 (see the table).[2] The largest number of applications came from persons from the Democratic Republic of Congo (eleven) and from Afghanistan (eight).[3] In 2011 eight persons were given asylum or the status of a refugee (this means three years’ residence permit) and three persons were given supplementary protection[4] (this means one year’s residence permit); six members of the family of persons who’d been afforded international protection were also given residence permits.[5]

67 asylum application were filed 01.01–31.12.2011, which were divided in terms of citizenship as follows:
Congo DV 11
Afghanistan 8
Armenia 7
Georgia 6
Belarus 4
Russia 4
Cameroon 3
Stateless persons 3
Libya 3
Somalia 3
Uzbekistan 3
Iraq 2
Occupied territory of Palestine 2
Ukraine 2
Côte d’Ivoire 1
Guinea 1
India 1
Kirgizstan 1
Turkey 1
Bangladesh 1
TOTAL 67

There were no important changes in the relevant legislation and the relatively conservative migration policy in 2011. Ministry of Social Affairs prepared an in-house work plan regulating activities and cooperation of various governmental authorities in case of a possible vawe of mass immigration.[6]

Reception of asylum seekers

Illuka Reception Center for Asylum Seekers under the administration of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which opened in 2000 is the only such centre in Estonia. Its remote and isolated location is the reason the centre comes under the criticism of the media, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and non-governmental organisations dealing with asylum seekers, year in and year out.[7] No essential changes or amendments to reception conditions were made in 2011. The poor bus connection with the nearest town Jõhvi is still a problem, as is the irregularity of Estonian language lessons and dearth of hobby/free time activities and the availability of medical help. Estonian Human Rights Centre has made an inquiry about the medical help to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Office of Chancellor of Justice was informed of a specific case. The biggest change in 2011 came in the form of an Estonian Human Rights Centre pilot project on providing asylum seekers legal help, which is cofunded by the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the European Refugee Fund. This project provided asylum seekers with primary legal counselling and a lawyer to represent them in court if needed.[8] Councelling and representation was provided to a total of fifteen asylum seekers in the first four months and there was a great need for this service. This project will continue in 2012. Institute of Baltic Studies prepared a report on services provided to asylum seekers with special needs in 2011, which confirmed the shortcomings regarding reception circumstances that had already been mentioned before and the poor accesibility and irregularity of the services.[9] The report also pointed out the language barrier as a great general problem, which results in difficulty of expression for the persons who have been granted international protection, problems with filling out applications in Estonian and problems in communication with representatives of official authorities and non-governmental organisations. Similar problems are also stated by all auxiliary organisations that have contact with the target group. In 2011 there have been asylum seekers who communicate in languages that are very difficult to find an interpreter for in Estonia. This has further complicated communication with the asylum seekers. Years of criticism resulted in the preparatory actions for reorganising the reception centre making it into the work plan of the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2011.[10] The analysis gathered the opinions about the circumstances of the reception centre of everybody involved as well as international practice. The inquiry of the Human Rights Centre to the Ministry of Social Affairs yielded that preparatory actions were taken in 2011 and that procurement for finding the provider of services offered at the reception centre would be carried out in the first half of 2012.

Asylum seekers at Harku Expulsion Centre

An alien is placed at Harku Expulsion Centre until his expulsion if his expulsion cannot be carried out within 48 hours.[11] According to the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens, an applicant who has submitted an application for asylum during his or her stay at the expulsion centre, in a prison or house of detention, or in the course of execution of the expulsion procedure shall not be placed in the initial reception centre.[12] Such applicant shall remain at the expulsion centre, in the prison or house of detention until termination of the asylum proceedings. This situation poses a problem from the point of view of human rights. Expulsion proceedings about the asylum applicant have been terminated and the asylum proceedings have been initiated, which means that his detention for the purpose of expulsion is not justified, as an applicant in asylum proceedings cannot be expulsed from the state. In actuality it is not clearly know how long the asylum proceedings of a person may take and therefore the length of his detention is also not known. The situation where the asylum seeker does not know the length of his detention is not permissible, neither is it proportional according the experts of Estonian Human Rights Centre. The lawyers of the Human Rights Centre’s pilot project have attempted to transfer the asylum seekers from Harku Expulsion Centre to Illuka Reception Centre on three occasions in court, whereas, in one case the applicant was a minor, but the court dismissed this request referring to the paragraph, which allows to detain the applicant until the end of asylum proceedings.[13] A month later the court decided to release the minor and to place him in an appropriate social welfare institution.[14] One of the reasons for detaining asylum seekers at expulsion centres is that § 12 of Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens foresees initial reception centres for detaining asylum seekers in cases stated by law, but such centres do not exist and therefore the asylum seekers are held at reception centres. Detention of asylum seekers has also been criticised by UNHCR, which referred to provisions of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees banning detention and punishment of asylum seekers on the grounds that the refugee has no legal basis for staying in the country.[15] Estonian Human Rights Centre will continue to request in 2012 that the court move the asylum seekers to Illuka Reception Centre or some other appropriate accommodation (for example that minors without accompanying adults are moved to appropriate welfare institutions) until the end of asylum proceedings, which may take years in some instances.

Persons who have been granted international protection – refugees and persons who have been granted supplementary protection – and their lives in Estonia

In case of establishing refugee status the person is given a residence permit for three years, a residence permit for one year is given in case of supplementary protection.[16] The Ministry of Social Affairs or an agency within the area of government of the Ministry shall organise the settlement of persons enjoying international protection into territories of local government in agreement with local governments in four months starting from the moment of being afforded protection.[17] It must be done while taking into account the state of health of the persons enjoying international protection, the location of the residence of the relatives by blood or marriage and other significant circumstances, and considering the housing and employment opportunities, including the proportional allocation of persons enjoying international protection among the local governments. Reality, however, proves that it is largely up to the persons enjoying international protection to move out of the reception centre and find a job. In some cases some of the organisation in touch with the target group have managed to help them with this. Chancellor of Justice reached a similar conclusion in his proceedings that took place in 2011 regarding two applications concerning the activity of Ministry of Social Affairs in organising the settlement of persons enjoying international protection in local government units and providing them services. Chancellor of Justice found that the Ministry of Social Affairs has not fulfilled its obligation set by the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens to organise the settlement into a local government unit of a person who has requested help after being granted international protection. Neither had the Ministry of Social Affairs provided the petitioner several services prescribed by law. Therefore, the Chancellor of Justice had reached the conclusion that the inactivity of  the Ministry of Social affairs had been unlawful in that regard.[18] Estonian Refugee Council became active again in 2011. The council deals with day to day assistance of persons enjoying international protection and helps them settle into their lives in Estonia. “Since May of 2011 we have helped five persons find a job or a place to live, to get an oculist appointment or sort out the documents of their family members or their own in Estonia. We will carry on with these activities in the future and try to help as much as we can.”[19] Similar support services are also being offered by the Johannes Mihkelson Centre and together they are trying to afford these persons the rights stated by law and to better integrate them into Estonian society. In addition to observations and recommendations of the Chancellor of Justice, the Institute of Baltic Studies has also written down its conclusions and propositions in its 2011 survey on the current situation of persons enjoying international protection in Estonia and the level of their integration into Estonian society.[20]

Conclusion

It can be said as a conclusion that 2011 went by with few changes taking place. No material chances took place in legislation or the circumstances of persons enjoying international protection. The organisations dealing with the target group are continuing with their day to day work on a project basis, trying to improve the reception conditions at Illuka Reception Center as well as the leaving and integration process. Estonian Human Rights Centre’s legal councelling, even though it has been active for a relatively short time, has already revealed several contradictions between Estonian legislation and universally accepted international norms. Yet most of the court cases have not been decided yet and it is therefore early to make any conclusions. Even though Chancellor of Justice did not permorm any monitoring visits to Illuka Reception Center in 2011, he did process several petitions from the target group as well as auxiliary organisations. 

Recommendations

  • Continue with the efforts to bring Illuka Reception Center closer to Tallinn as the state authority carrying out the asylum proceedings is located in Tallin. Also guarantee consistency, quality and precision of the required services.
  • Introduce necessary amendments into legislation which would allow for transfer of asylum seekers from Harku Expulsion Centre to Illuka Reception Center.
  • Increase efforts to enable persons enjoying international protection to leave Illuka Reception Center and to live elsewhere, find a job and entirely integrate into Estonian society.


[1] Varjupaigastatistika [Asylum statistics]. Available at: http://www.politsei.ee/et/organisatsioon/avalik-teave/statistika/index.dot.

[2] Statistics from analysis department of citizenship and migration bureau of the Police and Border Guard Board. 19.01.2012.

[3] Statistics from the head specialist of international protectin department of citizenship and migration bureau of the Police and Border Guard Board. 22.12.2011.

[4] According to § 4(3) of the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (RT I 2006, 2, 3 … RT I, 09.12.2010, 1): Person enjoying subsidiary protection is an alien who does not quality as a refugee and with regard to whom no circumstance exists which would preclude granting of subsidiary protection and in respect of whom substantial grounds have shown for believing that his or her return or expulsion to his or her country of origin may result in a serious risk in the specified country, including: 1) imposition or execution of death penalty to him or her, or 2) torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of him or her, or 3) individual threat to his or her life or civilians’ life or violence towards him or her or civilians by reason of international or internal conflict.

[5] Statistics from the head specialist of international protectin department of citizenship and migration bureau of the Police and Border Guard Board.

[6] Pors, Merje (2011). „Riigil valmis plaan massilise sisserändega toimetulekuks“ [The state prepared a plan for coping with a mass vawe of immigration]. Postimees. 03.08.2011. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/518750/riigil-valmis-plaan-massilise-sisserandega-toimetulekuks/.

[7] Also see, for example: A. Raun. „Eesti oma Siber?“ [Estonia’s own Siberia?]. Postimees. 04.06.2011. Available at: http://arvamus.postimees.ee/459920/alo-raun-eesti-oma-siber/. And A. Raun. „Sotsiaalministeerium: plaanime parandada Eestisse põgenenute elutingimusi“ [Ministry of Social Affairs: we are intending to improve living conditions of refugees in Estonia]. Postimees. 27.05.2011. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/451718/sotsministeerium-plaanime-parandada-eestisse-pogenenute-elutingimusi/.

[8] See the website of the Human Rights Centre for more information on this project: https://humanrights/keskus/projektid/pagulasabi-projekt/.

[10] Raun, A. „Sotsiaalministeerium: plaanime parandada Eestisse põgenenute elutingimusi“.

[11] Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act, RT I 1998, 98, 1575 … RT I, 22.12.2011, 3, § 33.

[12] Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens. § 33.

[13] Information gathered in the course of Estonian Human Rights Centre’s pilot project for providing asylum seekers legal help.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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

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

[18] Chancellor of Justice. „Soovitused õiguspärasuse ja hea halduse tava järgimiseks ning märgukiri õigusaktide eelnõude algatamiseks“ [Recommendations for following good practice of administration and a memorandum for initiating draft acts]. 6-2/111418/1105245 (09.01.2012). Available at: http://oiguskantsler.ee/sites/default/files/field_document2/6iguskantsleri_soovitus_rahvusvahelise_kaitse_saanud_isikute_vastuvotmine.pdf.

[19] NGO Estonian Refugee Council http://www.pagulasabi.ee/tegevus/.

[20] Eestis rahvusvahelise kaitse saanud isikute hetkeolukord ning integreeritus Eesti ühiskonda [The current situation of persons enjoying international protection and the level of their integration into Estonian society]. Available at: http://www.ibs.ee/et/publikatsioonid/item/106-rahvusvahelise-kaitse-saanud-isikute-integreeritus.

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