Asylum in Estonia does not come easy

Tiina Kaukvere
, Eesti uudiste päevatoimetaja
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Estonia has hundreds of entries a year from third countries. Illegal entrants with no documents and likely to just «transit» through are put into Harku Detention Centre by Police and Border Guard Board (PPA). Those applying for asylum may usually lodge at liberty, at the shelter in Vao Village. 

During ten months of this year, 133 foreigners have been placed in Harku Detention Centre, half of whom have also applied for asylum. During the same period of time, a total of 208 asylum applications were filed. Meanwhile, 71 were granted international protection.

For many, hopes are disappointed – after months of waiting behind barbed wire, or at liberty, most are sent back.

All these people are trying, some more some less, to learn about our culture and the language. Increasingly, people we would never imagine would know anything of the tiny and faraway Estonia have memories and opinions about us.

In Interview, PPA foreigners department head Liis Valk is explaining why lion’s share gets sent back home.

-In ten months, 133 foreigners have been placed in Harku. Is that a small or a big number?

At the moment, this is the largest number historically. The number is also up because the law amendment in 2013 pursuant to which those applying for asylum can now be apprehended as well.

Estonia’s peculiarity is that here those to be expelled and those applying for protection share the same establishment. For the most part, the establishments are separate and under various ministries. Considering the smallness of Estonia, it has been concluded that this would not make economic sense.

-Do you know of anyone to have ever received asylum in the detention centre?

There has been no such situation of individuals having to be releases having been awarded protection. There are single cases where people have been detained part of the time and then it has been concluded this was no longer necessary. They are placed into asylum seekers shelter and in the end the decision is positive – the protection is awarded. Usually, however, their applications get no positive end.

-Why then do part of the people wait there for over a year when asylum will not be granted anyway?

No maximal date has been set regarding the detention of an asylum seeker. The court grants permission to detain an individual for two months at a time but irrespective of that PPA keeps constantly checking if the detention is still justified.

The time may stretch long because once PPA has decided, this can be contested in court. This takes time. Only after the decision has fully entered into force can we take definite steps to arrange the individual’s expulsion.

-Who pays the court costs in such cases?

It’s still the state that pays. It is impossible to collect the costs from the individual himself.

-In Vao, at liberty though, there dwells an Albanian family who have been applying for asylum for three years already. One of the children speaks pure Estonian, the other is born in Estonia.

This is a special case. The procedure has been concluded, the decision has been made. The decision has been contested in court and the court has concluded that PPA must process the application anew. A new decision must be made.

-What fault did the court find with PPA?

I cannot go into details as the procedure isn’t public, but the court found that all PPA opinions were not sufficiently substantiated.

-If during the court battle the situation drastically changes – they do learn the Estonian language, find a job – then the appropriate thing to do is review the decision?  

In the sense of awarding protection, it makes no difference how long the individual has stayed here, how well he has adapted, how much he likes it here. When awarding protection, we must assess if his life is in danger in country of origin. Awarding international protection in Estonia «for humanitarian reasons» isn’t possible; thus the fact that the people have settled here does not affect the decision.

-Sounds rather cruel.

This does not necessarily mean that they could not live in the land on some other legal basis. For instance, we have foreigners coming here every day to work, to study… But to be granted residence permit there are highly specific conditions; for instance, if an individual wishes to come work here, there are specific requirements to the job and to the enterprise. Not with just any job can one apply for residence permit.

This definite family is applying specifically for international protection in Estonia and the issue is whether the protection would be justified as considering the family’s situation in Albania.

-What, then, are the main options that asylum seekers are using in order to remain in Estonia?

There have been plenty of cases where they develop some other right for a basis to stay, and they waive their application for protection. Like marrying a resident of Estonia.  

-Recently, there was this incident in Harju Detention Centre with an asylum seeker from Congo who could not forbear the court decision that he was to wait in the centre for at least two more months. Do we expel him for that?

These are two separate topics: one being if an individual fails to keep the rules of an accommodation establishment or detention centre. The processing of his application for international protection is a different topic altogether. Though all offences will be taken into account, they do not come with automatic consequences – that an individual resisted the officials will not mean that his application is automatically rejected.

-It seems next to impossible to verify if the live of a specific person is really endangered in Congo, Ghana or Pakistan.

True, this isn’t easy. First in line, all will be based on statements by the individual, the evidence and their credibility. It is forbidden for PPA to communicate with the country of origin because the country of origin may not know they their citizen is applying international protection someplace.

Thus we need to collect information from other objective sources. Like when the individual left a specific religious sect, we will investigate if his faith may lead to persecution. Lots of European nations actually have separate units or agencies involved with collection of information and arranging even missions into other nations to personally analyse the situation.

-Must an individual prove, for instance, of having been attacked or threatened?

That a danger is substantiated will not necessarily mean that anything already happened to an individual. The danger of being persecuted for political views, faith or race is sufficient reason to be awarded protection. But we may also conclude that though it is dangerous for an individual in the homeplace, he may move to another region in his country of origin and then again the application gets a negative response.

-Despite of everything, lots of people in Estonia illegally and stuck in Harku do not wish to remain in Estonia not apply for asylum.

When people have left their homeland, there is usually a clear reason why they do not want to return. But international protection is still meant for those whose lives are in danger.

-The people facing expulsion must not be too cooperative then.

Yes, there are cases of a foreigner obstructing expulsion by presenting false information regarding their identity, for instance.

There are the exceptional cases where the detention has been drawn out because we are not successful in cooperating with country of origin. There are also the cases where we have difficulty identifying the persons.

There is no reason to assume the country of origin is delaying out of ill will, but they are not convinced the individual is their citizen. And all that we have is what the individual is saying who he is while we haven’t seen any documents. Often, people alter their testimony: today they say they are this person, tomorrow they are born on another date and hail from a different country.

We are using various expert assessments – like language and age assessment. But it all takes time.

For expulsion purposes, the maximal time to detain an individual is 18 months. If during that time a member state is unable to expel an individual, then there is no right to detain him.

-Has it ever happened in Estonia that the time has run out?

Yes, there are a couple of cases. The main reason is difficulties with dealings with the country of origin. In some cases, the country takes the stand that to issue a document the individual will have to apply personally. When the individual expresses no desire to apply for the document, the country also refuses to issue it.

-What will happen with these people?

We need to release them and, if needed, to ensure other means of monitoring, But the state will no longer be actively dealing with their expulsion but the individual will have to arrange his departure having no legal basis to stay in the country.

-How many such problematic ones does Estonia currently have?

These are single cases. The exact number is not known.