Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (After the Soviet Union) - Tip of the iceberg

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1994

The Baltic states fear becoming a transit zone between Russia and the Nordic countries for thousands of asylum-seekers from the Third World who long to leave behind poor living conditions in Russia for a better life in the West.

By Christiane Berthiaume

Hassan had a dream: flee Iraq, where his life was in danger, and make it to Sweden, via Moscow and Estonia.

But his dream ended in an Estonian prison in January 1994. Since then, his life has been a nightmare. "I didn't leave Saddam Hussein's hell to find myself in another hell," he says. "All I want is a place to live in peace and security. Instead, I'm treated as a criminal. I've done nothing wrong. My only crime is to have entered Estonia illegally, without a visa. Does that justify putting someone in jail?"

Hassan lives in Maardu prison, a few kilometres from Estonia's capital, Tallinn, with dozens of other Iraqi asylum-seekers as desperate as he is.

On 19 September, 85 asylum-seekers incarcerated in Estonia in Maardu, Hardu and Parnu prisons began a hunger strike to attract attention to their plight. By the end of October, 20 still refused to eat. Despair led one of Hassan's colleagues to stitch his lips together. For a time, even the 17 children detained in Hardu with their mothers refused any nourishment.

"We have no choice but to imprison these people", explained Juhan Parts, Vice-Chancellor of the Estonian Foreign Ministry. "It's the best way we have to dissuade refugee movements to our country." Hassan's dream is a nightmare to the Baltic countries especially Estonia, because of its proximity to Sweden and Finland.

The Baltic states fear becoming a transit zone between Russia and the Nordic countries for the thousands of asylum-seekers from the Third World who long to leave poor living conditions in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. Though there has been some progress, borders in this part of the world remain porous, and some frontier officials are susceptible to corruption. Moreover, asylum-seekers are easy prey for unscrupulous human smugglers.

The two other Baltic countries Lithuania and Latvia have no refugee policy. Refugees are not jailed, as in Estonia, but they are marginalized. No aid is allotted them, and most struggle to get to the Nordic countries.

Salma is 32 years old. Of Kurdish origin, she lived in Baghdad before she fled with her 53-year-old mother, leaving behind her father, brothers and sisters. They first went to Jordan, then flew to Russia. "I wanted to go to Moscow, because I knew it was the best way to get to Scandinavia," said Salma. "It was easy to get a visa in a travel agency in Amman."

"But I couldn't stay in Moscow: it was too expensive and too dangerous," Salma continued. "The Mafia even broke into the apartment we were living in one day and demanded money. Fortunately, they didn't find anything. But I was so afraid I decided to leave." Salma and her mother got on a train to Tallinn, via Riga, in Latvia. "We didn't have a visa," she said. "We gave $200 to the conductor so he'd close his eyes and let us through."

They arrived in Tallinn on 3 August 1993 and contacted an Iraqi resident in Sweden who promised to transport them there for $2,500 each. But the smuggler left with the money, and they never saw him again. "The police arrested us on 26 August with about 50 other Iraqis, and took us to Maardu," Salma explained. It isn't easy disappearing into a crowd of blond Estonians when your hair is black and curly and your skin is dark. "In the beginning, we were together," Salma continued. But last April other asylum-seekers arrived in Estonia, and families were separated.

"The housing, the food, the health-care, aren't good," said Salma. "But they're probably no worse than for most Estonians. It's the uncertainty and the absence of freedom that are intolerable."

Like the other Baltic countries, Estonia has not acceded to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Asylum-seekers are considered illegal immigrants, and treated as such. They risk the legal penalties: two months' imprisonment, indefinitely renewable.

For now, the Estonian government has no intention of acceding to the Convention, or of drawing up a national law on refugees. "If we did, it would attract other refugees," Parts said. "The simplest solution would be to send them back where they come from: Russia. But we can't. They have no identity papers and Russia won't accept them without proof that they came through Russian territory."

How can a country which itself has complained of human rights abuses while under Soviet occupation justify such an attitude? "There's no reason to keep these people in prison," Parts conceded. "But given our economic difficulties, we don't have a choice."

Three years after independence, Estonia's economic situation is lacklustre. Decades of Soviet occupation transformed this rural country into an industrialized state, with factories now so outdated that some which once employed 13,000 workers now give work to only 4,000. "Raw materials and energy that the USSR once delivered free disappeared overnight along with the Soviet market when the Soviet empire was dismantled," explained Jan Wahlberg, Tallinn representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Salaries are low: $150 a month, on average. Retirees lost their savings when the ruble was replaced by the Estonian crown; pensions are now $30 a month. Unemployment is almost 10 percent, and rising. That rate "would not be catastrophic in a Western country, where the unemployed are looked after by a welfare system," noted Wahlberg. "But in Estonia that system hardly exists. Benefits are so low that most of the unemployed don't even bother to register."

Estonia will need 15 years to attain the living standard of, say, Portugal. "In the 1930s, the Estonian economy was on a par with Finland," Wahlberg said. "In other words, if Estonia had benefited from the same opportunities for development as Finland, it would have the same quality of life today."

Nonetheless, Estonia's economy is still in better shape than Russia's and that of other Baltic countries: hence its drawing-power.

Estonia "has a very conservative monetary policy," said Wahlberg. "There is no budget deficit. The economy is relatively stable. The Swedes are the biggest investors, followed by Finns, Russians, Germans and Canadians. The proximity of Finland, where Estonia has linguistic and cultural ties, is decisive. Estonia has the means to improve its living standards. But it will take time."

With a population composed of one-third Russians who arrived in two successive waves, under Stalin and under Brezhnev, and who have no intention of leaving Estonia the Estonian government considers the problem of asylum-seekers a minor issue in comparison with the influence of ethnic Russians.

"We understand the economic and social problems that Estonia is going through," said Hans Thoolen, UNHCR regional representative for the Nordic countries. "But this policy of dissuasion by detention is intolerable. It is morally unacceptable to imprison asylum-seekers because they have crossed a border illegally. And in any case, in the long term, this policy just doesn't work. When there is even the slightest chance of resettlement in Western countries, you are going to get an influx."

Still, Thoolen feels it would be unrealistic to demand that Estonia ratify the 1951 Convention now. "It would be a good thing, but it isn't a strategic priority for us," he said. "It would take too much time Parliament has so many laws to pass and we need action now. In addition, the example of Russia, which has ratified the Convention and which still mistreats refugees, proves that a signature doesn't solve all the problems."

Resettle the asylum-seekers in the Nordic countries? That's what Salma would like. "There are so few of us," she said. "Why don't they come get us?"

Indeed, there has been strong pressure from the Finnish public and non-governmental organizations, arguing that Finland should accept Estonia's asylum-seekers.

Such a policy "would constitute a pull factor, and the situation could get out of hand quickly," explained Esko Kiuru, who deals with refugee issues at the Finnish Foreign Ministry. "The Estonian question is the tip of an iceberg that's a huge international issue. We cannot let these people hope that they can buy their future with money. We could find ourselves dealing with the thousands of refugees in Moscow. It's Russia's duty to treat its refugees decently."

The Nordic countries have been applying pressure to that end. "The Finnish port authorities help the Estonians," Kiuru said. "There is some improvement. But it's far from perfect. We also help the Russian authorities improve their border service. St. Petersburg also has lots of Third World refugees who would leap at the opportunity to buy a ticket to the West."

Despite its firm policy, Finland did finally propose to take in these asylum-seekers so long as UNHCR makes an official request, and if Estonia agrees. Estonia has still not agreed.

Some asylum-seekers have been luckier than Salma and Hassan: they managed to cross the Baltic Sea, often risking their lives. Last winter, 60 asylum-seekers locked in a container on a ferry between Tallinn and Stockholm almost died. A worker in the ship's hold heard muffled sounds coming from the container, and rescued them; a few hours more, and they would have suffocated. Last September, 128 asylum-seekers from Riga arrived in Sweden as stowaways on boats. It was the twelfth "boat-people" vessel to make the journey in two years.

For some, the risk is worth taking. They know that no Nordic country will send them back to the Baltic states, where there is no system to receive asylum-seekers and where, in Estonia's case, they can even be imprisoned.

UNHCR has proposed a way out of this morass. Get the asylum-seekers out of jail. Install them in a decent residency centre, with the help of the Nordic countries. And give UNHCR access to them for status determination.

"We are eager to help, and so are the Nordic countries," explained Thoolen. "But no one will be able to as long as these people are in jail and their status remains unclear."

"The difficulty is persuading the Baltic governments that opening a centre won't attract a crowd of new asylum-seekers," Thoolen continued. "On the contrary, the message will be clear. Only those who have been determined to be refugees will be able to stay in Estonia; the others will have to be sent back. The attraction of Baltic states as a final destination will be weaker than it is now, when they are considered a transit point for the Nordic countries. They will be a lot less attractive the day asylum-seekers have to look on them as a final destination."

"We can give them the example of Poland," Thoolen added. "Poland has a living standard comparable to Estonia's, and it ceased to become a transit zone for Germany the day it adopted regulations on refugees that allowed Germany to send illegal immigrants back."

Negotiations continue. UNHCR, the Nordic countries and the Estonian government have met several times to try to hammer out a solution to the problem of the detained asylum-seekers.

Some progress was accomplished concerning the treatment of detainees following a meeting in Tallinn October 19. Medical services and food will be improved. Some detainees will be able to reunite with their families in Hardu.

But the UNHCR regional bureau in Stockholm was somewhat disappointed to observe that promises concerning the detention of asylum-seekers that the Prime Minister had made one month before had received no follow-up.

Negotiations continue, for the clock is ticking. The asylum-seekers are determined. "If it was just a question of money, we would go back to Iraq," says Salma. "We'd have an apartment, a job, a salary. But we would never be safe. All we want is a bit of land to live in peace, like human beings. When the Estonian guard shoved my mother because she wanted to leave, because she was suffocating in that centre she couldn't take any more, she just wanted to breathe the air by the lakeside then I felt I was no longer a human being."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (1994)