IWB for Refugees: Estonia

Summary of the national legislation on refugees

The Constitution of Estonia does not have provisions on refugees or asylum, however a number of rights apply “equally to citizens of Estonia and to citizens of foreign States and stateless persons in Estonia”. Among these rights are, for example, freedom from discrimination, the right to protection of health and the right to education.

In 1997 Estonia ratified both the Geneva Refugee Convention 1951 and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 (ECHR). Ratification of the Geneva Refugee Convention means that Estonia has taken an international obligation to protect aliens who fulfil requirements set in the document (are eligible for Convention status). The convention’s basic principle is that refugees should not be returned to a country where there is a serious threat to their lives or freedoms.

National asylum institutions were established in 1997 with the Refugee Act. The Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (AGIPA) replaced the Refugee Act in 2006. AGIPA is the main piece of national legislation relevant to asylum policy and the protection of refugees in Estonia. The Act contains principles of the Geneva Convention and principles from EU directives.

In Estonia, the Ministry of the Interior’s Citizenship and Migration Policy Department (Siseministeeriumi kodakondsus- ja rändepoliitika osakond), together with the Police and Border Guard Board (PBGB) and the Ministry of Social Affairs, are in charge of asylum seekers’ processes and procedures.[i]

According to the AGIPA §4(1), an alien who fears to be persecuted, and where the fear is founded by objective circumstances and related to race, nationality, religion, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is recognized as a refugee by the PBGB.

An asylum seeker is an alien who has submitted an application for asylum in Estonia. The status of the asylum seeker extends until a court or a PBGB decision enters into force.

A refugee is an alien who conforms with provisions set in the Geneva Convention 1951 and to whom PBGB granted the status of a refugee.

A person eligible for subsidiary protection is an alien who does not qualify as a refugee, but where there are significant reasons to believe that his/her return to the country of origin may result in imprisonment, torture, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, or the death penalty, including individual threat to life or civilians’ life or violence caused by international or internal armed conflict. In that case an alien is treated as a person enjoying subsidiary protection.[ii]

A person enjoying international protection is an alien who is recognized as a refugee, a person enjoying subsidiary protection, a person enjoying temporary protection or a person who has been granted Estonian residence permit.

Duration of the residence permit

According to the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens §37, §38, applicants with regard to whom refugee status or subsidiary protection status is established, are granted international protection and a residence permit. A resident permit for a refugee is issued for three years, and a person enjoying subsidiary protection gets a residence permit for one year. UNHCR’s report on Integration of Refugees in Estonia raises concerns regarding shorter duration residence permits for subsidiary protection beneficiaries. According to the report there is no reason to expect that beneficiaries of subsidiary protection need shorter protection. The report recommends considering the possibility to extend the duration of the residence permit for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection from 1 to 3 years, allowing access to similar rights as those of Convention refugees, and facilitating early participation and contribution to Estonian society.[iii]

Residence permits and Estonian language

The AGIPA contains provisions on residence permits (Article 39), participation in the adaptation programme (Article 47), language training (Articles 73 and 75), etc. There were a number of amendments in 2016 to AGIPA which detailed certain provisions.[iv] Incorporation of the principle of the best interest of the child at all stages of the refugee status determination procedure was included. Amendments limited the amount of financial support provided to refugees and set mandatory obligations such as the obligation to learn Estonian language and to participate in the adaptation programme.

According to the AGIPA, the beneficiaries of international protection of working age have the obligation to take part in Estonian language studies. The residence permit of a person enjoying international protection may be extended for 2 or 3 years, subject to fulfilment of the integration requirements such as Estonian language skills and participation in the adaptation course (AGIPA Article 75).[v]

A person granted refugee status is required to obtain A2 level in Estonian language (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages CEFR) after 2 years. A person enjoying international protection is required to have B1 level after 5 years.[vi]

The Estonian Refugee Council has criticized the amendment which requires refugees to learn Estonian language as it contradicts the principle of non-refoulement.[vii] The application of this provision is unclear, taking into account that neither international nor European laws allow termination of protection based on faulty integration in the host country.[viii]

A member of the Constitutional Committee assured in 2016, after amendments was made, that Estonia guarantees not to reject anyone who needs international protection because of lack of language proficiency.

In March 2016 The Supreme Court of Estonia ruled that asylum seekers who receive a negative decision on their application immediately lose their status of asylum seeker. That leads to legal uncertainty and complication in accessing services. Access to legal aid for asylum seekers who are held in detention raised concerns as well. Racially motivated crimes against refugees and migrants on some occasions were not investigated carefully.[ix]

[i] Republic of Estonia Ministry of the Interior, Updated 22.2.2019. Accessed 5.3.2019 https://www.siseministeerium.ee/et/siseturvalisuse-valdkond/kodakondsus-ja-ranne

[ii] https://www2.politsei.ee/en/teenused/international-protection/applying-for-asylum/index.dot

[iii] Integration of refugees in Estonia Participation and Empowerment. Understanding Integration in Estonia through the participation of refugees, integration stakeholders’ experiences, and research. UNHCR. https://www.valitsus.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/failid/unhcr-print_version_estonia-integration_mapping.pdf

[iv] https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/530102013009/consolide

[v] https://www.pagulasabi.ee/en/node/10

[vi] https://www.postimees.ee/3620871/kaitset-vajavat-inimest-ei-saa-keeleoskamatuse-parast-eestit-valja-saata

[vii] https://www.postimees.ee/3620871/kaitset-vajavat-inimest-ei-saa-keeleoskamatuse-parast-eestit-valja-saata

[viii] Integration of refugees in Estonia Participation and Empowerment. Understanding Integration in Estonia through the participation of refugees, integration stakeholders’ experiences, and research. UNHCR. https://www.valitsus.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/failid/unhcr-print_version_estonia-integration_mapping.pdf

[ix] https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/estonia/report-estonia/

Refugee life in Estonia

Until 2015 integration of refugees was not a notable field in Estonia due to low numbers of applicants for international protection. From 1997 to 2018, 1101 persons applied for international protection in Estonia and 481 persons were granted such status. The largest number of people granted international protection have come from Syria (165 persons), Ukraine (88), Iraq (34), Sudan (26), Russia (26), Afghanistan (25).[i]

According to the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (AGIPA) §32(2) the Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for performing functions in the reception of asylum seekers. These functions include accommodation, provision of food, essential clothing, health services, transportation and translation. Alternatively, these services can be substituted by a monetary benefit. (AGIPA §36(1))[ii]

The Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for arranging the settlement of refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection into the territory of a local municipality. Local governments (municipalities) are primarily responsible for housing, provision of social and health services, organisation of interpretation and Estonian language instruction, dissemination of information concerning refugees’ rights and duties and resolving other issues.

In Estonia, refugees are issued with, and are required to have, a residence permit card. The residence permit card is an identity document that can be used within Estonia and to access various e-services.

In April 2016, it was reported that the government of Estonia made a decision to allocate additional €2.5m to ministries dealing with refugees, namely the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Interior. The reasoning behind the extra funding was the novelty of an issue for the country and the fact that Estonia agreed to receive 550 refugees through the EU refugee quota scheme. Additional funds aimed were to cover greater financial burden and need for additional staff.[iii]

Accommodation centres

As of 4 March 2019 there are in total 43 persons living in two accommodation centers. 26 of them are aliens seeking asylum and 19 have been granted international protection.

Accommodation centers provide housing, clothing, health services, language instruction and financial support of 130 euros monthly for an adult person (as of 2016). In September 2016 it was announced that 350,000 euro were allocated for renovation of two accommodation centers which can accommodate up to 84 persons. The renovation was successfully concluded to offer adequate living conditions.[iv]

NGO's role

The Estonian Roundtable for Refugee Organisations includes The Estonian Human Rights Center (EHRC), The Estonian Refugee Council (ERC), The Estonian office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM Estonia) and the Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC). NGOs provide comments on policy and legal initiatives, engage in joint advocacy and represent refugee interests, provide support, integration, welcoming and leisure time activities.

The Estonian Refugee Council assists with getting an Estonian ID-card, public transportation card and to sort out others issues, especially during the first days in Estonia. Quota refugees reported that reception services in Estonia were better for them than in other EU countries which are overwhelmed with large influx of refugees.[v]

Legal status

Refugee status means legal rights equal to permanent residents of Estonia, including the right to receive state pension, family benefits, freedom of movement, access to education and labor market services, social benefits and health services. After an applicant is granted refugee status, he gets access to all these rights. While the legal framework provides an opportunity to access these rights and services, however, in practice, there are difficulties in doing so.[vi]

Beneficiaries of subsidiary protection are granted residence permits for a duration of one year which may in practice limit the opportunity to accessing rights. Holders of a residence permit based on subsidiary protection for the duration of one year experience difficulties accessing housing and obtaining telecommunication service contracts.

A UNHCR report states that there is no reason to grant shorter duration protection for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection than to those who are eligible for refugee status under 1951 Refugee Convention. Subsidiary protection beneficiaries’ access to the same rights as Convention refugees, would facilitate their participation and contribution to the host society.[vii]

Labor market participation

Refugees have the right to work in Estonia. Asylum-seekers can work during the asylum procedure if no decision has been made one year after the submission of application for international protection. Certain levels of knowledge of Estonian language may be required.

Language requirements may be an obstacle to participate in the labour market for those refugees who have not yet acquired the necessary language proficiency. Employers repeatedly raised concerns with insufficient language levels of refugees and need for additional resources to guide and integrate refugees into work places. Since September 2017 employers have the right to receive a subsidy when recruiting a beneficiary of international protection and to be reimbursed for translation services related to the training and employment of refugees.[viii]

Among other factors which prevent refugees from accessing the labor market is an absence of individual labour inclusion plans which consider individual qualifications, experience and preferences. Also more labour market oriented cultural orientation sessions for employers and refugee employees are required.


The remote and isolated location of housing provided by local governments has created difficulties in communication between asylum seekers, their legal representatives and interpreters. Accessing health care, as well as difficulties arranging language classes and providing social support were also among issues of remote and isolated location.

From apartments in Estonia to refugee camps in Germnay

Significant numbers of refugees who come to Estonia through EU refugee quota scheme do not stay in Estonia. Refugees who are resettled in Estonia according to the EU quota scheme are leaving the country due to dissatisfaction with their lives in Estonia.

Despite free housing and income support for 2 years together with language courses, translators, assistance in finding employment, many refugees still choose to leave Estonia permanently.

Refugees depart from Estonia primarily to Germany and France. In Estonia, numerous refugees were concerned with their lives as they felt isolated and could not live their usual lives.

There were numerous reports of refugees who were granted international protection in Estonia leaving to Germany. For example, in June 2017 a Syrian family left their apartment in the city of Rakvere to relocate to Germany and stay in a refugee camp there, despite having an apartment in the city of Rakvere and possibility for children to attend school. At the same time some families who were placed in small towns in Estonia such as Kunda with a population of around 3000 wished to move to the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn, for better employment opportunities. In a small town, employment seemed to be impossible. Feelings of isolation and the language barrier were among major reasons to leave Estonia. Half of 550 quota refugees were reported not to be in Estonia in July 2017.

In Germany or France, where there are large ethnic and religious minorities, refugees could interact with their compatriots, practice religion, and have better employment prospects.[ix]

In Spring 2018 it was announced that the Ministry of Social Affairs would allow refugees to choose freely the city where they would like to stay in Estonia.[x]

Discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance

In a European Network Against Racism report issued in 2016, persons of African descent and black Europeans commented on attitudes of the police in Estonia as generally to be good, although some reports of racist behaviour by police were recorded. Hate speech, verbal abuse and racial attacks were reported by interviewed refugees from Africa. Also workplace discrimination based on race was mentioned.[xi]

Despite additional funds from the government and involvement of different stakeholders, refugees still experienced difficulties in finding housing. Discrimination and xenophobia were reported; deficient provision of information about rights and obligations of refugees in Estonia are among issues which raise concerns.

[i] https://www.pagulasabi.ee/en/node/10

[ii] https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/530102013009/consolide

[iii] https://www.postimees.ee/3646867/valitsus-eraldas-reservist-pagulastega-seotud-kulude-katmiseks-2-5-miljonit-eurot

[iv] https://www.postimees.ee/3600147/ettevote-saab-vao-ja-vageva-majutuskeskuste-renoveerimiseks-350-000-eurot

[v] https://leht.postimees.ee/3832569/usutlus-eestisse-toodud-pogenikega-suurim-probleem-on-see-et-paistame-siin-valja?_ga=2.61162156.1224099478.1554364575-1314342820.1548246547

[vi] https://www.valitsus.ee/et/pagulased#aktuaalne

[vii] Integration of refugees in Estonia Participation and Empowerment. Understanding Integration in Estonia through the participation of refugees, integration stakeholders’ experiences, and research. UNHCR. https://www.valitsus.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/failid/unhcr-print_version_estonia-integration_mapping.pdf

[viii] https://virumaateataja.postimees.ee/4153545/tolm-jalgelt-pagulased-on-rakverest-lainud-kunda-omad-pakivad?_ga=2.13761587.567171693.1554705765-1314342820.1548246547

[ix] https://www.postimees.ee/4190015/pagulasabi-juht-pagulased-lahkuvad-isoleerituse-ja-toopuuduse-parast


[x] https://www.postimees.ee/4493344/pagulased-saavad-nuud-eestis-ise-endale-kodulinna-valida

[xi] European Network Against Racism, Shadow Report on Afrophobia 2014–2015, Available at: http://goo.gl/TqgYBJ

The legal process

Application submission

There are two ways to submit an application for asylum in Estonia. At the state border, applications can be submitted to a border guard official. This option shall be used when an alien has no valid visa, travel document or Estonian residence permit. Another option shall be used when an alien is in Estonia. In that case, the application for asylum shall be submitted to the International Protection Division of the Police and Border Guard Board (PBGB).[i]

Asylum application can be rejected if a) an applicant already received international protection in another country or b) country of origin is considered to be safe country or c) arrival to Estonia was through a safe third country, which in case of Estonia is often Russia. Rejection of an asylum application can be appealed to the Estonian Administrative Court.

Accommodation and detention centers

If Estonia agrees to process the asylum application, the PBGB starts proceedings during which an applicant usually stays in an accommodation center. In some cases, an asylum applicant may be also placed in a detention center. The basis for holding an applicant in detention is listed in the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (AGIPA) and include the following provisions:

1) identification of the person or verification of the identity;

2) verification or identification of the citizenship of the person;

3) verification of the legal bases of the entry into and the stay in the state of a person;

6) protection of the security of state or public order

The PBGB may keep an asylum seeker without the permission of an administrative court for up to 48 hours in a detention center. With the permission from administrative court such detention may be up to 2 month or until the grounds for the applicant to be held in detention cease to exist. In its report on human rights in Estonia (2016-2017), the Estonian Human Rights Centre (EHRC) specifies that the evaluation of basis for detention is not carried out properly which is why some applicants were held in detention for a maximum amount of time.[ii]

Substantive proceedings

After an application is submitted, there is a process of determination on EU Member State responsibility to examine the application submitted by a third-country national, according to Council Regulation (EC) No 343/2003 of 18 February 2003.[iii] If it has been determined that Estonia is responsible for examining the asylum application, the PBGB initiates substantive proceedings. The duration of the substantive proceedings is limited to 6 months. The PBGB reviews each asylum application individually, impartially and verifies the correctness of the provided evidence and information. The PBGB determines why the alien is applying for asylum in Estonia and his or her arrival route to Estonia. If the encounter between asylum seeker and state authorities takes place at the state border, explanation regarding circumstances which constitute the basis for application for asylum is collected. Circumstances in the country of origin of an applicant such as the human rights situation are taken into account. An applicant shall submit an explanation related to circumstances which have essential importance in person, either orally or in written form. If it is not possible for the PBGB to make a decision regarding an application for asylum within six months from submission date, the applicant must be notified about the delay and the expected time when a decision will be made (AGIPA § 15).[iv]

According to the Act on Granting International Protection to Aliens (AGIPA), an asylum seeker has the right during asylum proceedings to receive information regarding rights and obligations in a language which he or she understands. Applicants have a duty to cooperate with the PBGB, for example allow officials to take a photo, fingerprints and DNA probes as well as cooperate in obtaining evidence presented in the application for asylum.

There is at least one interview with an asylum applicant (translator is provided if required) to explain details regarding the application. Applicants have a right to free legal aid and representation during asylum procedures provided by the State Legal Aid. The Estonian Human Rights Centre received numerous complaints from asylum seekers dissatisfied with the quality of legal aid during the asylum application process and the subsequent judicial proceedings.[v]

In case international protection is not granted, there is a right to appeal the decision to the administrative court within 10 days. There is a possibility to appeal for a second time if the first appeal decision is not satisfying.

After PBGB has carried out asylum procedures, if there are grounds for international protection, a resident permit for 3 years is granted for refugee status and a resident permit for 1 year is granted in case of subsidiary protection. Both can be extended.

Family reunification

UNHCR Report 2016 points out that there is a lack of information for refugees regarding the family reunification process in Estonia. Instructions regarding requirements, information and documents which are requested by PBGB to initiate processing of applications are not always accessible. Refugees abroad also experienced challenges in initiating family reunification applications due to difficulty accessing Estonian embassies as these not have a wide network of consular representations abroad. It is challenging to travel to the nearest consular representation of Estonia or to Estonia because it requires funds for visas, flight tickets and accommodation. A possible solution would be to waive administrative and visa fees for family members of refugees and provide financial support to cover cost of travel to Estonia.

The report also suggests that the definition of family could be broader, for example, to include same-sex partners.[vi]

[i] https://www2.politsei.ee/en/teenused/international-protection/applying-for-asylum

[ii] https://humanrights.ee/en/materials/inimoigused-eestis-2016-2017/18774-2/#_ftn9

[iii] https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX%3A32003R0343

[iv] https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/530102013009/consolide

[v] https://www2.politsei.ee/dotAsset/311132.pdf

[vi] Integration of refugees in Estonia. Participation and Empowerment. UNHCR 2016


Description of what happens if they do not receive the refugee status

After reviewing an application for asylum, the Police and Border Guard Board(PBGB) issues a written decision saying whether residence permit is granted or refused (AGIPA § 41 (1)). In case of refusal, the alien is issued a precept to leave. The decision to refuse to grant a residence permit and issue of a precept to leave may be contested with an administrative court within ten days from notification of the decision. (AGIPA§ 41 (3)) A precept to leave cannot be executed in case the decision is contested until such a decision is adopted by an administrative court of first instance.[i]

In case officials have a reason to believe that an alien will not voluntarily comply with the precept to leave, an alien may be placed in a detention center until expulsion with a permission of an administrative court.

If an alien does not qualify as a refugee, but there are significant reasons to believe that her return to the country of origin may result in imposition or execution of death penalty or torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, individual threat to life or civilians’ life or violence towards her or civilians by reason of international or internal armed conflict, the alien is treated as a person enjoying subsidiary protection and granted residence permit in Estonia for 1 year, with the possibility of further extension.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides support for applicants who contest negative asylum decisions in an administrative court and to refugees who want to return to their country of origin voluntarily.[ii]

In 2018 90 persons applied for international protection in Estonia (17 were granted international protection). In 2017 there were 108 applications (16 were granted). In 2016 the number of applications was 84 (64 were granted).

Numerous refugees choose to leave Estonia even if granted refugee status in the country.

[i] https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/530102013009/consolide

[ii] https://www2.politsei.ee/dotAsset/311132.pdf

Analysis of how the media depicts the refugees in Estonia

In the past 5 years refugees and asylum seekers have been a topic which has received intensified media attention in Estonia. Increasing numbers of asylum seekers coming to Europe in general and to Estonia in particular, echoed in increased coverage of the immigration subject in Estonia’s mainstream media outlets.

Estonian society has limited experience and exposure to foreign cultures. The presence of refugees may result in fear and insecurity in parts of Estonian society which is stimulated by the media.

The media bears a responsibility to provide the public with a serious and profound analysis of the refugee crisis. According to International Federation of Journalists “Principles on the Conduct of Journalists”, “The journalist shall be aware of the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media, and shall do the utmost to avoid facilitating such discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, and national or social origins.”[i]

Some Estonian media outlets sustain negative narratives in their coverage of asylum-seekers and refugees, and serve as a platform for xenophobic, sometimes even racist statements by politicians and opinion makers.

In Estonian media there were plenty of polarizing opinions, especially in 2015 when the European Commission revealed its plan regarding refugee quota scheme. There was criticism of the proposed EU Commission plan in Estonian media and concerns whether Estonia would be capable of accommodating large amount of refugees with its limited capacity at the time. There were fears and concerns in Estonian society over accepting large numbers of refugees. In 2015 anti-immigrant positions were dismissed by Prime Minister stating that “accepting 100 refugees annually does not correspond to mass immigration.”

Prominent politicians reminded Estonians that in the year 1944 around 80,000 Estonians refugees fled to Sweden in boats, crossing the Baltic Sea in fear of advancing Soviet troops, just like African refugees crossing Mediterranean nowadays to flee war. Among them was the 4th President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was born in Sweden because his family fled Estonia in 1944. Publicly, Ilves said that he is empathetic to refugees.

Anti-immigration articles from the European extreme-right websites can be found in Estonian language on social media and the Internet. Articles in which refugees are portrayed as lazy social support seekers or Islamic terrorists who would destroy Estonian culture and identity, have been shared widely.[ii]

It is suggested that negative attitudes and positions in media partly culminated in September 2015, when Vao accommodation center for asylum seekers in Estonia was set on fire during the night by an unknown person with 70 people inside it. The Prime Minister at the time visited the center after the incident, and the President demanded that all parliamentary parties condemn the incident. One year later the investigation was closed without finding those responsible.[iii]

Polls, statistics

In 2015 the majority of the population felt that refugees are likely to have a negative impact on Estonia. The most common reasons for this negativity is the belief that refugees would be a burden on the Estonian social system, increase unemployment, and constitute a threat to the national security, language and culture.

In 2015 there was a significant drop in the number of Estonians who agreed with welcoming refugees. In just 2 month in 2015 the proportion of Estonians who were positive about receiving refugees went down from 41% to 22%. Among reasons which lead to worsened attitudes, experts have named the deepening of the immigration crisis in Europe, insufficient government communication and people’s desire to believe their fears.[iv]

75% of the participants of another poll believed that people have the right to freely migrate and 56% favoured accepting people who are in trouble. The same figures for June 2015 were 63% and 43% respectively. According to the same poll, 30% of the general population was extremely critical of refugees in 2016. In 2015 this figure had been nearly 40%.[v]

The criticism towards refugees started to decrease already in 2016 and the general attitude of Estonia residents towards migration and refugees has improved. In 2016, over 90% of respondents agreed that it is important that refugees work, accept Estonian culture, values and language. Public opinion poll revealed that Estonia’s citizens’ general attitude towards migration and refugees has significantly improved within a year. As the polls demonstrate, the overall attitudes towards refugees depend on the social, economic and political positions of the respondents: less educated people and elderly social groups were more sceptical of refugees.[vi]

[i] https://www.ifj.org/who/rules-and-policy/principles-on-conduct-of-journalism.html

[ii] https://news.err.ee/115897/migration-crisis-polarizes-opinions-in-estonia

[iii] https://leht.postimees.ee/3869053/vao-keskuse-suutamise-uurimine-lopetati-tulemuseta

[iv] https://epl.delfi.ee/eesti/pagulasvastasus-kasvas-suvega-pea-poole-vorra?id=72363563

[v] https://humanrights.ee/en/materials/inimoigused-eestis-2016-2017/18774-2/

[vi] https://www.valitsus.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/failid/arvamusuuring_eesti_elanike_hoiakutest_pagulastesse_nov.2016.pdf

Follow-up on the refugee crisis

Estonia has the lowest number of asylum applications among EU Member States, in absolute and relative terms. Estonia’s asylum system is relatively inexperienced compared to many other EU member states. Due to the novelty of the issue in Estonia, it was challenging to accommodate refugees and to make their lives comfortable, living alongside the receiving population from the beginning of the refugee crisis in Europe.

There is also a wide-spread view in Estonian society that first the local vulnerable groups among the permanent residents in Estonia need to be supported. What is more, in light of the current refugee crisis, when “calculating” the refugee quota, the EU has not taken into account country-specific factors such as high numbers of permanent residents in Estonia that hold the status of “person with undefined citizenship”.

Interesting aspect of attitudes towards asylum seekers in Estonia were highlighted by journalist Vahur Koorits who suggests that Estonia is going through an American-style culture war – a conflict between traditionalist, conservative values and progressive, liberal values. Estonia has its own liberal class – people who are usually well educated, relatively wealthy, have traveled a lot, and usually live in an urban bubble such as Tallinn or Tartu. They are more likely to support more liberal asylum policies. At the other end of the scale, there are 'rural people' – less educated, less traveled, and protective of 'traditional Estonia', who also form a voter base for conservative political party EKRE (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia). “Rural” people are against any immigration.[i]

Hostility crimes

The Estonian Ministry of Justice registered 26 cases of hostile offence whose motive was victims’ origin, race, beliefs or sexual orientation between 2014 and 2018. According to Human Rights NGOs, the registered number of hostile attacks does not reflect reality.[ii] The Ministry of Justice press attaché admits that there is no complete overview of all hostile incidents. One of the reasons for this is that Estonia’s policemen are not trained to recognize crimes of hostility.

Estonia is among 5 EU member countries together with Poland, Hungary, Ireland and the Netherlands where the penal code does not recognize attacking someone based on religion, sexual orientation or origin as an aggravating circumstance. Such crimes are not punished more severely unlike in most of the EU member states.

In December 2018, a Pakistani person was attacked by an Estonian who punched him several times with his fists in the face at the reception of a gym club. One day prior to the incident, the attacker posted on his social media page that “my fists are waiting for them” referring to his hostile attitude towards immigrants. Another episode took place in May 2018 where a drunk man was threatening to kill his African neighbour with a knife.[iii]

Parliamentary elections March 2019

The far-right conservative EKRE (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia) received 17,8 % of votes in the parliamentary election in March 2019, and formed the coalition government together with other 2 parties. Some observers comment that the coalition is living in la-la land when it comes to principles of economics, politics, as well as immigration policy.[iv]

EKRE’s chairman, who is also Minister of the Interior, commented on the increased number of immigrants in Estonia that "The amount of Negros in Tallinn has grown explosively", in the cabinet which was formed after the parliamentary elections in March 2019.[v]

EKRE was accused of misinforming the public and providing false facts. The chairman of the party stated that 22,000 came to Estonia illegally in 2018, with the figure set to rise by 50% for 2019. In fact, these people were not illegal immigrants, but had come to Estonia legally, as registered migrant labour. These numbers may create concerns among some parts of the population because 22,000 is a big number of people for a country like Estonia with a total population standing at 1.3 million.[vi]

Private sector initiatives

There were several private sector initiatives to bring together Estonian society and refugees. Many refugees are actively seeking to contribute to Estonian society which gave them international protection. In 2017 and 2018 two restaurants were hiring refugees for International Refugee Day on 20 June, so they could cook their traditional cuisine. That was an opportunity to eat together, share experiences and to let Estonians get to know refugees and their countries of origin through their cuisine. This event was primarily for Syrian refugees. These kinds of initiatives are important to create awareness and to bring together Estonians and refugees; however, they do not lead to employment of refugees.[vii]

[i] https://news.err.ee/115897/migration-crisis-polarizes-opinions-in-estonia

[ii] https://leht.postimees.ee/6556553/mu-rusikad-ootavad-neid-postitas-mees-ja-peksis-immigrandi-labi?_ga=2.108002690.1456100829.1557215109-1314342820.1548246547

[iii] https://leht.postimees.ee/6556553/mu-rusikad-ootavad-neid-postitas-mees-ja-peksis-immigrandi-labi?_ga=2.108002690.1456100829.1557215109-1314342820.1548246547

[iv] https://news.err.ee/928393/digest-proposed-coalition-meets-with-more-criticism-and-some-praise

[v] https://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/eesti/mart-helme-vihakone-koosolekul-tallinnas-on-plahvatuslikult-kasvanud-neegrite-hulk-kui-neile-vastu-pead-koputada-siis-see-on-oonespuit?id=82522277

[vi] https://news.err.ee/928393/digest-proposed-coalition-meets-with-more-criticism-and-some-praise

[vii] http://omamaitse.delfi.ee/toidutrendid/pagulastest-kulaliskokad-votavad-tana-ule-restoranide-nop-ja-kuldmokk-koogid?id=82712007

The subjective perspective

Estonia has committed itself under the EU emergency relocation and resettlement scheme to receive and integrate refugees. Estonia made a significant effort to strengthen the institutional coordination and capacity. Numerous measures were implemented to facilitate reception of refugees such as availability of services.

In the beginning of 2015, Estonia had a lack of resources, knowledge and experience which resulted in some parts of the population demanding a more conservative refugee policy. The decision of the government to relocate 550 refugees to Estonia posed a significant challenge in Estonian society. To this date (April 2019), Estonia has received 200 refugees through the EU relocation quota. However, 100 refugees already left Estonia voluntarily, most of them to Germany and France, some back to their countries of origin.

Increased numbers of arrivals obligate Estonia to intensify efforts in establishing and maintaining efficient reception and integration systems. At the beginning of the crisis, in 2015, there was observable lack of cooperation in reception of increased number of refugees between the public sector institutions, local authorities, the private sector and civil society partners, due to their lack of experience.[i]

Several areas are considered to be especially important for refugees’ ability to integrate. Among these are humane reception conditions, opportunity to spend time in a purposeful manner while being in the asylum procedure, post-recognition integration support, financial assistance, language learning, a secure legal status, duration of residence permit, validation of academic and professional qualifications, access to employment, housing, education, family reunification, social integration and protection against discrimination and xenophobia.

The lack of financial resources, experience and skills, combined with the low public support and the lack of unanimity in the Estonian political landscape, were the challenges which partly were reversed since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Lack of resources and skills significantly reduces the chances of successful integration and increases security risks at the local level. Estonians have still not found the common ground on refugee policy necessary to avoid a large-scale confrontation in society.[ii]


The media may create perceptions of immigrants as one homogenous group. It plays a role in differentiating between persons coming to Estonia illegally, short-term foreign workers and refugees. Many times the difference between these groups is not made clear to the public. The media plays its part to reduce unfounded fear.

Part of Estonia’s population may feel that immigration leads to increased crime rates. Benefits of immigration and immigrants should be illustrated to society as well, not only perceived negative aspects. Tolerance needs to be increased which affect positive attitudes to accept immigrants. Racist notions need to be reduced.[iii]

A protest in Freedom Square against the UN Global Compact for Migration in December 2018 took place in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. Speakers at the protest criticised the Estonian government for migration-related decisions. Some attendants at the protest resorted to hate speech.[iv]

Parliament Elections in March 2019

The result of the parliamentary elections in March 2019 may pose a risk to Estonia’s capacity building efforts and provision of an environment conducive for integration.

Right wing political movements have been increasingly successful in elections across the European Union in recent years. Following that trend in Europe, it does not come as a surprise that EKRE (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia) gained 17,8% of votes which is equivalent to 19 seats (increased from seven seats in 2015 parliamentary elections) in the Parliament of Estonia. EKRE is often characterized as being Eurosceptic, populist and against immigration from outside the European Union. In EKRE’s opinion, liberal governments of Estonia allowed immigration that would “alter the ethnic makeup of Estonia”.[v]

Chairman of EKRE and Minister of the Interior, Mart Helme, stated in a recent interview that “We (Estonia) have big problems with migration”.[vi]

Towards better integration

International law lacks definition of refugee integration. Integration may be understood as a process with different dimensions such as legal, economic and socio-cultural. Integration requires host society and its public institutions to meet the needs of diverse people and possibility of refugees to adapt into the host society without giving up their own cultural identity.

The Refugee Convention suggests that as time passes by, refugees should be able to enjoy a wider selection of rights as their ties with the host country grow stronger. An effective asylum system includes an integration programme which provides the means for refugees to achieve legal, political, economic, socio- cultural and civil integration. Estonia has not fully achieved a position where refugees are able to contribute to the social life of Estonia without exploitation and discrimination.[vii]

Refugees in Estonia show motivation to integrate, to get to work and to be useful for Estonian society and to give something back. Refugees are willing to contribute to the society and economy, learn the language, become self-sufficient and socially integrated. Some refugees, however, showed little interest in integrating into Estonia. Absence of a refugee diaspora and the inability in many cases to communicate with persons coming from similar cultural backgrounds were some of the reasons why around 100 refugees left Estonia for Germany or France.

Integration barriers

Among factors which create a significant barrier to integrate in Estonia, is the short duration of residence permits for beneficiaries of subsidiary protection (issued for one year). Long-term residence permits would facilitate integration, decrease stress, provide sense of security and ease psychological impact. It is possible to apply for a permanent residence permit after five years of continuous legal residence in Estonia.

Part of Estonian society seems to be still developing the understanding that leaving one’s own country because of persecution and war is difficult in itself, let alone starting a new life as a refugee in a new society. Refugees in Estonia feel gratitude for the protection provided by Estonia and comment that they did not come to Estonia for a better financial situation, but because of dangerous and unbearable situation back home.

As an attempt to bring together refugees and Estonia’s population, the accommodation centre for refugees Vao and its kitchen offer catering services with the aid of asylum seekers. The goal is to use the cuisine to create connections between locals and asylum seekers. The cooks there are rotated and food has been offered from Sudanese, Ukrainian, Albanian, Georgian, Dagestan, Iranian as well as Sri Lankan kitchens.[viii]

Possibly, Estonia is not yet ready to adopt a significant number of displaced persons for two reasons – first, the opinion leaders and NGOs need to do more to lessen prejudice against genuine migrants and second, to build more facilities to accommodate refugees, as integration into a new society does take time.[ix]

[i] https://news.err.ee/903559/reinsalu-last-year-s-resettlement-quota-not-to-roll-over-to-2019

[ii] https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/jobs.2015.1.issue-2/jobs-2016-0020/jobs-2016-0020.pdf

[iii] Estonia, Tartu University, Eesti elanikkonna hoiakud kolmandatest riikidest sisserändajate suhtes Euroopa Sotsiaaluuringu andmetes, 2016, available at: http://goo.gl/2PojP8

[iv] https://news.err.ee/883573/gallery-anti-migration-compact-protest-held-in-tallinn

[v] https://www.ekre.ee/ekre-programm-riigikogu-valimisteks-2019/

[vi] https://arvamus.postimees.ee/6564229/katri-raik-harra-helme-illegaalid-luhiajaline-tootamine-renditoojoud-ja-sisserande-erandid-on-neli-erinevat-asja?_ga=2.44495268.1456100829.1557215109-1314342820.1548246547

[vii] https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10

[viii] http://www.err.ee/616524/vao-kook-toob-varjupaiga-elanikud-eestlaste-sekka

[ix] https://news.err.ee/115897/migration-crisis-polarizes-opinions-in-estonia


Capital: Talinn
Location: Eastern Europe
EU-member since 2004
Currency: Euro
Population: 1,324,800
Min. wage:
Poverty line:
Population under poverty line:


IWB researchers

Jan Demidovitš

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"Refugee crisis in Europe has provided challenging issue for government and policy makers in Estonia. The amount of refugees received by Estonia challenged society on many levels. Estonia managed its part of refugee crisis relatively well, nevertheless mistakes were done as well. Many refugees left Estonia to settle in Germany and France appealing to uneasy situation circumstances.


Estonia provides an interesting case to all EU member states. Size of the country and novelty of the refugee issue allows Estonian government to experiment with different solutions which can be later adopted by other EU member states as a best approach policies after they have proven to be operational in a smaller scale."



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