The Estonian route: while trying to get to Europe, thousands of Ukrainian refugees are forced to go East to avoid the fighting

Children of Ukrainian refugees play on board ferry Isabelle in Tallinn's harbor, Estonia, 07 March 2022.
© EPA-EFE/VALDA KALNINA   |   Children of Ukrainian refugees play on board ferry Isabelle in Tallinn's harbor, Estonia, 07 March 2022.

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Estonian city Narva and Russia’s Ivangorod are connected by a Friendship Bridge, a name that sounds quite ironic nowadays when many Ukrainian refugees use the bridge to make their way to Europe. They had to go East, then North, as their route West was blocked by the fighting. A network of Russian and Estonian volunteers has been helping these refugees. While some continue towards other European countries, many decided to stay in the small Baltic country, which is starting to feel overwhelmed.

Russian Ivangorod on the left, Estonian Narva on the right. Russian volunteers deliver Ukrainian refugees to the border bridge. In Narva and Tallinn they are received by local volunteers. Photo: Olesja Lagashina

Estonian Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets: "we are at the limit of our capabilities"

As the Russian barbaric bombardments destroy civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, another massive wave of refugees was expected this winter. This, however, did not happen. At the same time, the burden caused by the flow of Ukrainian refugees is already high in Estonia. Since the start of the war, about 120,000 Ukrainians have crossed the Estonian border, and less than half of them have transited to other countries.

For Estonia, this means significant costs to cover the living expenses and social services for the Ukrainian refugees, and the EU is in no hurry to finance them to the extent that the Estonian authorities hoped for. Tallinn will receive no more than 10 million euros from the EU to compensate for the related costs, which is ten times less than the amount that was expected.

Proportionally, Estonia ranks first in Europe in terms of the amount of support it provides to Ukraine: this year, the Baltic country spent about 1.6% of its GDP to help Ukrainians in their resistance. About 0.5% of Estonia's GDP was allocated to help Ukrainian refugees. And this despite the rampant inflation and the economic crisis caused by the galloping energy prices (at its peak in August, the inflation rate in Estonia, according to Eurostat, was the highest in the EU and amounted to 25.2%).

The reason for such massive support is obvious: the destiny of sovereign Estonia depends on the victory of Ukraine in the war against Russia. Simply put, it is widely believed that if Ukraine fails, the Baltic States could become the next victims of Russian imperial ambitions. Any assistance to Ukraine, including humanitarian assistance to refugees, is perceived here as part of the overall struggle for the future. However, the possibilities of a small state are quickly exhausted.

"Frankly, we are at the limit of our capabilities. Of course, we will continue to accept all those in need, but the main question is: will we be able to offer them any help in the near future?" said Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets in early December.

The hurdles faced by Ukrainians trying to get to Estonia, from lack of housing and jobs to suspicious border guards

The main problem faced by Ukrainian refugees in Estonia is the lack of housing. Many of them are still settled on the Tallink ferry in the port of Tallinn. There is not enough free housing in the Estonian capital, and the owners are not too willing to rent apartments to refugees as they doubt that they will be able to pay. At the same time, the lack of permanent housing prevents refugees from finding legal work, which creates a kind of vicious circle; as a result, only 23% of refugees are employed in Estonia.

Baby carriages on a ferry where refugees live. Photo: Olesja Lagashina

According to a survey conducted by the University of Tartu in November-December among refugees, 70% of war refugees live in a separate apartment, 8% in a hotel or hostel, and the rest share an apartment with someone else or find shelter with hospitable local residents. Only 60% of refugees pay for housing on their own or with the help of relatives. For the rest, this is done in whole or in part by the Estonian state.

In search of a solution, the Estonian government began negotiations with the Finnish authorities, who announced at the end of December that Finland was ready to accept 50–100 Ukrainian refugees from Estonia per week. The Finnish authorities stress that this will be a temporary solution.

Another problem with Ukrainian war refugees lies in the area of security. Since active hostilities are taking place mainly in the east and south of Ukraine, many Ukrainian citizens do not have the opportunity to safely enter Europe directly. They are forced to flee to the east, ending up on the territory of Russia, and from there they are trying to get into the EU. This makes the situation especially problematic, since countries bordering Russia are very distrustful of anyone coming from that country, and especially cautious when it comes to young men of military age who have been on the territory of the Russian Federation for a long time.

For refugees fleeing eastern Ukraine, this means additional obstacles. Estonian journalists had the occasion to communicate with some of those who tried to cross the European border in Narva, were refused by Estonian border guards and were forced to make their way to Europe in a roundabout way.

For instance, 22-year-old Donetsk resident Robert, in order to get to his parents in Bulgaria, made an impressive route through Moscow, St. Petersburg, the checkpoint in Narva, and from there back to St. Petersburg, Smolensk, and Poland. The former boxer seemed suspicious to the Estonian border guards, so they didn’t let him through even in transit, despite the fact that he had already purchased air tickets from Estonia to Bulgaria. The border guards of Poland and Bulgaria treated him much more condescendingly, as a result of which the young man managed to reunite with his family.

This is just one of many cases that Russian and Estonian volunteers are facing as they try to help refugees reach safer countries. And often, representatives of civil society effectively solve problems that the state does not always quickly cope with.

The Russian and Estonian network of volunteers that is helping Ukrainian refugees to get to the EU

In Russia, volunteering to help Ukrainian refugees has become a kind of internal resistance to the Putin regime. The collection of money and the most necessary things, the organization of temporary housing and transport fall on the shoulders of ordinary people who are experiencing the tragedy of Ukraine as their own and helping Ukrainian citizens (many of whom are actually of Russian origin) flee from the Russian Federation.

Organizing "rescue operations" is not so easy, especially when it comes to transporting bedridden patients - and such Ukrainian refugees also cross the Estonian border. In December, volunteers managed to evacuate a 91-year-old woman from Donetsk with a fractured femoral neck. Through Russia and Estonia, the woman was delivered to her son in Germany. This evacuation cost the volunteers 150,000 rubles, and it required the cooperation of the Estonian and German Red Crosses, Russian and Estonian volunteers, and, of course, Estonian border guards.

"It was important for me to understand that she had a good prognosis for treatment. And, most importantly, the family really fought for her," says volunteer Ekaterina from St. Petersburg, who was responsible for organizing the Russian stage of this difficult journey.

According to her, not many refugees go to Estonia with the intention of staying. "But many people still travel through it, although the flow is less compared to the summer. About 300 people travelled through Estonia with my help," she says.

Volunteers took the first blow when official institutions had not yet had time to organize work with refugees. There were three volunteer hostels operating in Narva during the period of the maximum influx. "Someone helped with laundry, someone bought water and juices for the trip, someone helped financially, and someone brought clothes, as best they could. It was especially difficult in the spring, when the Department of Social Insurance and the IOM (International Organization for Migration) had no points of contact. They opened only at the end of July, when the flow of refugees decreased, after that, it became easier. The IOM began to help with hygiene and children's products, household goods, and since the fall with food for transit refugees," recalls Marina Koreshkova, a volunteer from Narva.

First of all, refugees need information. Photo: Olesja Lagashina

„When there was a large flow of refugees, we had such a system in place that Russian volunteers took people to the Estonian border, and then we took them upon ourselves. At first, it was difficult to establish relations with the Estonian authorities and draw attention to the fact that people who do not want to stay in Estonia, but go further in transit, also need help. This problem was solved by June, after special premises appeared with the help of the Department of Social Insurance, where transit refugees can stay," recalls Alexandra Averyanova, coordinator of the volunteer group Friends of Mariupol in Estonia.

The organization has been working mainly in Tallinn and Narva since the beginning of April and employs about 65 people. Volunteers, among whom are both Estonian and Russian citizens living here, help refugees who travel through Russia to Estonia and further to Europe. Working closely with the Estonian Department of Social Insurance, they meet with representatives of the Narva city government and the border guard, informing refugees about where and how they can go further, laying routes, and buying tickets.

“Nowhere for them to return”. The refugee crisis is bound to go on

During these months, Friends of Mariupol in Estonia received more than 5,000 refugees.
Most of all, Alexandra Averyanova remembered the cases when she had to organize the delivery of the wounded to European hospitals. "It was difficult to find help for someone to transport across the border bridge a person who cannot even sit. We had several dozen of them, and now the most pleasant thing is when people send us a video where they start walking after rehabilitation, when they already have a comfortable prosthesis," says Averyanova.

The most difficult part, according to her, was the psychological burden on the volunteers. "We saw all these people who spent a month under the bombing in the basements and made a very difficult path, trying to get to a safe place. This greatly influenced the condition of the volunteers," she admits.

Most often, refugees wanted to go further, to Poland and Germany, but now volunteers are trying to send them to Norway, Sweden, and Finland. "They have good programs for refugees, and these countries are not yet as overpopulated as Germany, from where people write to us that they have had to live in a gym for several months," Averyanova explains.

Although the worst fears of the Estonian authorities on the influx of refugees have not materialized yet, the war is not over, which means that the work of volunteers and officials will continue as long as necessary.

According to a survey by the University of Tartu, three-quarters of adult war refugees granted temporary asylum in Estonia hope to return to Ukraine. About 5% are expected to remain in Estonia. 20% have not yet decided on their future plans; among them are many who used to live in areas that were most affected by hostilities. At the moment, there is nowhere for them to return.

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Olesja Lagashina

Olesja Lagashina

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