Kari Käsper and Karolis Žibas: The number of refugees coming to Estonia is decreasing. We should do more to welcome them.
At a local Christmas Market where refugees and Estonians came together to celebrate the occasion.
In the past decade, global forced displacement has increased in scale and complexity. 1% of humanity or about 80 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of violence, persecution and conflicts. That is 60 times the population of Estonia. Each one of these represents a complex and unique life story, but the common thread is that for every single one of them, the ties to their families, their friends, their home, their neighbourhoods were abruptly and violently cut off by an external force, with no fault of their own.
Contrary to what is often portrayed, the majority of persons forced to flee from their homes stay in their own or flee to the immediate neighbouring countries, and not to Europe. Developing regions are hosting 85 per cent of displaced persons globally, with the least developed countries providing protection for one-third of the global total.Only 17% of the world’s refugees are hosted in high-income countries.
Many Estonians’ grandparents and great-parents were impacted by similar forced displacement and deportations. Estonian collective memory knows well the feeling of losing your sense of belonging, and having to rebuild it, sometimes again and again. It is tough, and emotionally and physically draining. Many Estonian refugees who fled for their lives got international protection and a chance for a new life thanks to the generosity of many countries around the world, from close by in Sweden to Australia and Canada. This helped them rebuild their lives in their country of asylum and, in the process, forge new ties with new neighbours, new neighbourhoods, and the society in which they now lived in.
For today’s refugees, such as the families who have had to flee from the war in Syria, those escaping from human rights abuses in Afghanistan and other countries, the same sense of belonging has been lost. Helping to forge these ties with the new society is what helps them to rebuild their lives and continue pursuing their dreams, like everyone else.
Estonia is a remarkable success story in restarting and establishing a democracy with accountable public institutions, respect for human rights and thriving economy. Thanks to this progress Estonia has become an active participant in international affairs and welcomed refugees already for more than 20 years. Although the number of refugees living in Estonia is small, in recent years considerable achievements have been made in building up a system to welcome and integrate refugees.
The integration of refugees into a new country is a “two-way” process between refugees and their host communities, which poses both challenges and opportunities. While Estonia and its people provide a welcoming environment that allow refugees to enjoy their basis human rights just as other citizens, the refugees on the other hand participate in integration programs, and comply with the laws of their host country. There are a number of important ways how both the State and the people of Estonia – young and old alike – can make refugees more welcome, ranging from the more practical issues such as housing, employment and social support, to citizenship, sociocultural orientation and language learning. In Estonia, each refugee or a refugee family benefit from a range of support measures, including a support person that facilitates settling in.
Last year, UNHCR asked refugees in Estonia for their views on how they were welcomed and what their plans are. It can be seen that the measures Estonia have in place do contribute to an increased sense of belonging in Estonia. Indeed, more than three-fourths of close to 40 respondents are planning to stay in Estonia. In addition to potential of long-term residence, almost 70% agreed that obtaining Estonian citizenship is important to promote and improve integration. Even bigger share of surveyed refugees emphasized the importance of learning the local language, develop new skills to find employment, enroll in sociocultural courses and build ties with the local population.
Such data show that refugees’ perceptions on integration are not just about long-term expectations or permanent residence in the country. It is about becoming integral part of the local population by learning the language, culture and social norms, as well as building bridges with local institutions and grassroots societies. This momentum should be used by further strengthening integration efforts at both national and local levels.
In a world that is undergoing a major pandemic, while violent conflicts and persecution have not stopped, more help is needed for those who are displaced – in the countries next to conflict areas, to which Estonia generously contributes, but also to give a new life chance to those most vulnerable refugees in need of resettlement. Estonia has invested a lot over the years in developing refugee integration, but statistics show that fewer and fewer refugees are able to benefit from it. Considering the increasingly dire situation of refugees, now is the time to show solidarity. Everyone can make a difference, every action counts.
UNHCR hosts a panel discussion on Saturday, 15th August at 13.00 at the Equal Treatment Stage at the Opinion Festival where refugees discuss their identity and belonging since they have received asylum in Estonia.