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Estland Umgang mit Flüchtlingen Flüchtlingszentrum in Vao
Image: DW/I. de Pommereau

Estonia's refugees

Isabelle de Pommereau, Vao, Estonia
September 26, 2015

When Estonia's only refugee center moved to Vao last year, the village mayor felt good. Only a handful of people had sought asylum in Estonia, mostly from the former Soviet Union. Isabelle Pommereau reports from Vao.


Granted, numbers had jumped recently, but most newcomers were Ukrainians fleeing from the conflict in the country's east. "We are used to people talking Russian or Ukrainian: they are of the same culture,"Mayor Indrek Kesküla told DW. "It was friendly and easy here."

That is, until this summer. One day a stone smashed one of the windows of the big rectangular house, home to 60 asylum seekers. A few days earlier hundreds of bikers stormed the village to "show support for the people of Vao," a village of 300 in the Estonian countryside. Then on Sept. 3, residents woke to the smell of fire.

A tiny country tucked in Europe's north-eastern corner near Finland, Estonia is far from the humanitarian catastrophes of refugees flooding Europe's shores. The news early this summer that it too would have to pitch in and take a few refugees hit like a tsunami, and the Vao incidents "indicate how deep this perception of threat is," says political scientist Raivo Vetik of Tallinn Universiy.

After initially joining Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in opposing Brussel's migrant quotas, Tallinn agreed to take in some 500 refugees starting this winter. The debate has been emotional and painful, tainted by old existential fears linked to the country's size and history. It also shows how "the different histories and political memories of members states and their different geographies are shaping the discourse on the refugee crisis in Europe," says Uku Särekanno a former Estonian ministry of the interior turned advisor on immigration issues.

Caught off guard

"This is a new situation for us," Margus Tsahkna, Estonia's social protection minister, conceded recently. At first, his government reacted clumsily. "The message focused on 'we do not agree on the numbers,' but the real problems, the stories of the refugees, was not explained," Eero Janson of the Estonian Refugee Council in Tartu told DW.

copyright: Isabelle de Pommereau
Estonia is trying to work on its image and its culture of welcoming and helping refugeesImage: DW/I. de Pommereau

Unlike many Western European countries with a colonial past, Estonia - and its Baltic sisters, Latvia and Lithuania - was never confronted with waves of refugees coming from the south of Mediterranean shores. If the Ukrainian crisis feels close here, the Syrian conflict has been far from people's minds. In a country of 1.3 million that is the EUs sixth-poorest, populist discourse tapped into people's fears.

"We are seeing a state of civil conflict in some countries of Europe because of immigration," says Martin Helme of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia, whose popularity has risen since entering the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, in March, citing Sweden, France, Greece. "We can't afford to take that risk."

In Estonia "the real issues are multi-layers of fears," argues Helle Tiikmaa of the Estonian Association of Journalists in Tallinn. "We speak about the fears of a small nation, of the loss of its language, of the loss of a culture built on language, of the loss of a national identity."

"We know that it can happen," Tiikmaa says. "We have this Soviet experience, of somebody forcing us to behave differently."

The weight of history

In 1944, the Soviet Army pushed the German Nazis out. But the Soviet victory heralded a dark chapter of Soviet occupation. Many Estonians were displaced - and perished in Siberian labor camps - and were replaced by workers from other Soviet satellite states. The country's ethnic face profoundly changed. "People are afraid because of the history," Kristel Kary-Kletter, a social worker in Tallinn, told DW. "Many feel, 'we have taken in a lot of foreigners and we still have problems, why should we take more?'"

"The government's position has always been to do everything it can to make Estonia as little attractive as possible," says Eero Janson of the Estonian Refugee Council. Since it crafted its asylum policy in 1997, Estonia has officially granted asylum to only 118 migrants. "Most Estonians don't know any refugees, they don't understand what goes on in Syria."

And Estonia, like eastern and central European countries, is often a transit land before refugees move on, to Sweden, Finland, Germany. "Estonia is still a poor country and it's not a lot better off than the country they come off in lots of cases," says Abdul Turay, a Tallinn councillor. "It boils down to, there is no money, no jobs to be had here."

Changing mindsets

The refugee crisis has "brought to the surfaces fears that have been in the society for a long time but that were never addressed," says Eero Janson. It's triggered a new societal debate, about solidarity, about breaking down fears.

Earlier this month, hundreds of Estonians took part in a pro-refugee rally in the Estonian capital that was also about encouraging Estonians to open up, says organizer Helen Sildna. But in towns and villages, fighting reluctance remains an uphill battle. "If you say something good about the refugee subject people say you are stupid," explains Indrek Kesküla, Vao's mayor. "Local politicians are afraid of their own people."

Social Protection Minister Margus Tsahkna is tackling the problem by talking to municipal leaders around the country, he says. Many local leaders say they don't have the infrastructure to welcome refugees. But in Mäetaguse, a small town in northeastern Estonia, mayor Tauno Võhmar, says that although "people are still very concerned about the situation with our Russians," he feels confident they will be willing to house one refugee family fleeing war.

copyright: Isabelle de Pommereau
Vao's mayor says he's trying to encourage more toleranceImage: DW/I. de Pommereau


Younger Estonians are wary about the "occupation card" being used in the refugee discussion. At stake, they say, is solidarity. "People need to understand that this is not occupation, that nobody is going to taking away our houses, our land, our culture," says Sirje Vällmann, a social worker at the Vao refugee center. "It's only a few people who need help."

But in Narva, a Russian-speaking enclave in Estonia's far eastern coast at the Russian border, the refugees issue "has united Estonian and Russian speaking people in Estonia," says Andrus Tamm, chair of the Center Party, which is supported by most Russian speakers here. "Estonians and Russians think the same way: our background is Christianity." And he feels that there could be a time when Estonia could turn to Russia for help.

copyright: Isabelle de Pommereau
A helping hand for those in needImage: DW/I. de Pommereau

Tamm evokes a fictitious scenario in a future where Islamic terrorists have taken over countries like Sweden or Germany that have been generous with refugees. "Lets imagine that Islamic Sweden starts to fight Estonia," he says. "Then Estonia should ask help from Russia."

"This is fantasy of course," he is quick to point out. "But history sometimes repeats itself in different nuances ... You don't know what can happen."

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