Local leaders want no refugees

Pärnu linnapea Romek Rosenkranius.

PHOTO: Urmas Luik / Pärnu Postimees

In August, social protection minister Margus Tsahkna asked parish and city elders if they'd be ready to receive and house refugees. With a few exceptions, the answer is «no».

The minister asked to be answered by yesterday. The main reason, and most understandable, was that the parishes and towns are short with social housing already and the locals stand in line get a place. As at last afternoon, Postimees saw answers by 26 local governments in the social ministry’s documents register. Põlvamaa local governments union had sent a joint letter stating the entire county has readiness to receive 2–3 families. At that, they prefer nonbelievers or Christians, young families with children, where the parents have at least an elementary command of Russian or English.

24 local governments are unable to help the state out with social housing while two took extra time to think it over. A part of the parishes is rather explicitly letting the social ministry know that they are not interested in the refugees. As an example of that, Lääne-Virumaa’s Tamsalu council chairman says straight out that the county fits not. He explains they have enough unemployed people as things stands, the jobs are scarce, problematic families abound, and on top of that they are the county’s leading payer of subsistence benefits per inhabitant. What’s more, the parish lacks any opportunity to provide education in foreign languages. 

As underlined by many a local government, the parishes have no officials who would be able to deal with large numbers of refugees from strange cultural spaces. Hanila Parish, Läänemaa, adds that the region features very few speakers of foreign languages. Lots of parishes echo having no support services from interpreters to support persons.

Private landlords on offer

While small local governments lament dwindling populations, it might seem somewhat strange that vacant apartments are unavailable. On the other hand, the Estonian housing market differs substantially from such as the Scandinavian one. Here, local governments indeed own very few homes, and almost all apartments are in private ownership. A typical small parish has some flats where they house people with low living skills. But even in towns, there are waiting lines to have a home like that. Thus, housing refugees is not as much up to the nonexistent opportunities in parishes and towns, but private owner decisions if they are willing to rent their apartments to the state to accommodate refugees. To Postimees’ knowledge, there’s already quite a bunch of such private owners – why let the flat stay vacant if we could make some money.

Even so, Estonia does feature the occasional towns and parishes with plenty of empty apartments. Lion’s share of these are in the north-easternmost Ida-Virumaa. In Kohtla-Järve, for instance, whole city districts stand empty. For the most part, the apartments do demand major repairs, but are restorable.

Kohtla-Järve vice mayor for social Niina Aleksejeva said apartments are one thing while jobs are a serious problem. «We are worried by the collective layoff at [the fertiliser plant] Nitrofert, and we do not know yet how many people will be having recourse to the city government’s social care department for subsistence benefits,» she said.

Also, the mayor would not deny the townsfolk are rather sceptical regarding receiving refugees. «They are a bit afraid of refugees and that’s the major problem,» she explained. «People are thinking about how the state has not solved lots of social problems locally and now new people are added whose problems are promptly solved.»

Postimees also had conversations with Mayor of Narva and Sillamäe’s vice mayor (with long waiting lines for social housing themselves – N. N.) as well as Jõhvi Parish elder  Aivar Surva who said the parish has accommodation for three refugee families. «These apartments do need major repairs but we have the readiness in principle,» he said. «At previous meetings with social ministry representatives, we have been talking that the government would cover most of the costs from preparing the accommodation to language study. My understanding has been that the local governments will not be laden with additional obligations.» Mr Surva says they also have private persons willing to house refugees.

Narva mayor Eduard East said the locals are rather negatively tuned towards refugees. «We do not see the local environment as sufficiently prepared for such integration processes,» he added.

Of larger cities, Pärnu and Tartu mayors also affirmed to Postimees that they have no vacant flats and people are waiting in lines.

Pärnu mayor Romek Kosenkranius said the city is intending to reply to inquiry by Mr Tsahkna, unlike some other local governments who don’t even plan to do so. «There are no illusions that Pärnu city would have some empty apartments someplace, just waiting for somebody to come and move in,» said Mr Kosenkranius. «Private owners do have such apartments, sure, and an option is for the state to buy or rent private apartments.»

Mr Kosenkranius added that a city has no special obligation to receive refugees, but to assist the townsfolk. «The same would actually apply regarding a refugee: if he finds himself in trouble and is unable to rent a place to stay, the city does have social housing but for these Pärnu has a hundred people queued up,» said Mr Kosenkranius.

Some are volunteering

According to Estonian Refugee Council board member Ingi Mihkelsoo, the state does cover the costs related to housing for refugees. «As the local governments come short on housing, we are currently renting these from free market,» she said. The state will pay refugee rent up to two years. In addition to Estonian Refugee Council, Johannes Mihkelson Centre is helping to seek for apartments.

At the moment, it is largely the refugee who decides which city or parish to move into. «Our principle has been that what’s most important is to find a job and a home according to that,» said Ms Mihkelsoo. With the soon-to-arrive so-called quota refugees that will change. «Then, the main emphasis will be to have the refugees be spread out more, though even then the job will be important.» Ms Mihkelsoo said Estonian Refugee Council gets some two dozen letters daily – from people who want to bless refugees not with money and needed items but also a home.

Social ministry vice chancellor Rait Kuuse said there were some two dozen Christian congregations which have expressed readiness to receive refugees. «The flat must be fit to live in, no luxury,» said Mr Kuuse. «Stove heating is no problem. The state is renting liveable apartments from private market, and is able to help local governments with renovation.» At Mr Kuuse’s estimation, Estonia is in readiness by now to receive the initial 150 refugees.