Legally illegal. A day in the life of homeless Africans

Tiina Kaukvere
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Photo: Sander Ilvest / Postimees

Postimees spent a day with Africans held in Harku Detention Centre for 18 months. Now, the guys are Tallinn's outlaws – impossible to expel and without right to be here. 

A few minutes before 9 am, the four exit Tallinn homeless shelter: Sall, Conde, Traore and Cisse (nicknames – edit). Three are from Guinea, the fourth from Cote d’Ivoire. The shelter has been their dwelling place for two weeks. Till this day, their age is a subject for debate – the boys claim to be minors while expert assessment puts them over 21 years of age.

Tired-looking, Cisse just walks on seeing the camera. Sall has granted interviews to media and now regrets that not understanding what is being written about the four, what is being thought. Walking aimlessly in the streets, they have realised it is not easy, putting it mildly, to disappear in the masses.

«We don’t want to disturb anybody,» says Sall, the best English-speaker of the four. Also, they are worried for their safety. Thus far, none has said a bad word to them, at least not in any language they understand. They say Estonians are friendly.

And that’s the reason they allow Postimees to spend a day with them. We want to see how the men, having been detained for 18 months, now love in the streets of Tallinn – without documents, and as they claim without money.

The first thing they take a bus to Northern prefecture to prove evidence they are still in Estonia and haven’t vanished. They need to show up daily.

Is it better to live like this or behind closed doors yet with a roof over your head and food on the table, I ask Sall on the bus. His eyes turn big: «Freedom is priceless.» The Guinean coughs and says he will ask for some medicine at the police.

The person at the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) reception waves her hand – Sall, Conde, Traore and Cisse are familiar. They take a seat on the sofa. Why hurry. The foyer is warm, a water fountain allows for bottle to be filled. In a moment, person responsible for proceedings comes up, who gets things done there and then – all will have to sigh.

Illegal, not resident

The official is a nice lady but looks strict. «We’d need a green card,» complains Sall, referring to the Tallinn public transport card. «The green card is for residents only. You are here IL-LE-GAL-LY!» emphatically utters the official. «I know, why do you need to say it like that?» says Sall, disappointed.

As the guys ask how they are supposed to come to the police without the card, the lady says walk. «She’s crazy!» comment the others.

From end of 2014, the police has toiled to identify the men who illegally crossed the South-Eastern border – in order to send them back home. In this, they have not succeeded. At that, the men have not made the work any easier for the police. To the contrary: fearing being sent back, PPA says they have refused to cooperate and have given false information. The situation is their own fault, says PPA. Therefore, why pamper them with green card or cough medicine. The official suggests Sall goes and sees a doctor at Harku Detention Centre.

«She is a nice person actually, but the law and the job make her like this,» says Sall regarding the policewoman.

In the very Harku, the need for green card surfaced. From Tallinn, they travelled there for the body lotion Sall needed with no problems, but the bus driver was unwilling to take them back without the card or money. «It was cold outside, we refused to exit,» says Sall.

Sounds funny how the Africans from homeless shelter worry for the green card like that. «We are embarrassed. All have it, all beep it. We enter and all look. We sit down like bums. We don’t want to be like that, leave an impression like that,» says Sall.

«In the beginning, the police came to have a look at the shelter four days, if we went there for the night. Then they said alright let them be. Maybe they thought we’d give up and want to leave Estonia,» says Sall. At least for the time being, they have no such plans. And the young men must have some reason if, instead of returning home, they are willing to sleep with the homeless in Estonia. 

About an hour is spent at the police, on sofa. Then, the four opt to take the trip to a Tallinn shopping centre. To hang out. That’s what they have been busy doing these past 1.5 years of their lives. 

Sorry for journey

«Can you advise us how to behave with Estonians if you want to be polite?» Sall asks on the bus. «Just be as you are. You are great at communicating with Estonians – the best is to not communicate,» I say jokingly, to relate what they already know.  

Indeed, in a couple of weeks the guys have understood us Estonians and while they initially turn heads in public transport,  as they remain quiet they are afterwards not overly noticed. In the shopping centre, they try to «blend in». For that, they do not remain long in same spot. They sit quietly, noses in smartphone. They have purchased Smart call cards for that.

«Welcome! This is my office,» says Conde, smiling and pointing to a bench in the store. All have kept their sense of humour. Still, talking about work, they come across bitter – «you have a job», «you can go to work», «you live in a normal country». I am actually beginning to appreciate this more.

It’s about 12 o’clock and the hanging out is getting on the nerves of both me and the photographer. Waiting around, must be the dullest thing to do. As I point that out, Sall smiles knowingly.

What did they do in Harku, for 18 months? Slept, prayed, watched the clock … and local TV channels. This also being the reason why the Guineans know who is Eston Kohver, what is Estonia’s refugee quota, and who governments of Tallinn and Estonia do not get along.

«Now that I know all of that, I have been very stupid,» says Sall who with help of mediators tried to sneak into Estonia from Russia in November 2014. Just a little while before that, Eston Kohver had been kidnapped and the border therefore especially closely watched by PPA. The whole bunch got caught. The trip to Europe proved much more complicated than promised by human traffickers.

In an hour, we go to another shopping centre – with a good place to charge the telephones. In the bus, Sall points to an elderly man: «He lives with us at the shelter.» This time of the day, all the needy ones draw nigh to the centre where food is distributed. «He is our friend,» says Sall.

«Oh when will they be sent home? Such a nuisance, these guys!» the «friend» asks me as we get off the bus.

The halal noodles

About a 1 pm, the four finally are able to go get their noodles. Muslims, they do not take the soup provided for the homeless as the meat in it is not halal (allowed – edit). The animals have not been slaughtered the Islamic way of letting blood drip out by.  

Traditionally, they take their noodles and canned fish with them and head to Estonian Islamic Centre at Keevise St. «During this time, we only haven’t made it there twice,» says Sall.

Today, however, they eat together with the fellow sufferers in Tallinn. To go to Keevise St later. Instead, knowing the bus stops and routes, they head to the other end of town, to Tallinn Food Bank. To work.

«Good boys, they are,» says Tallinn Food Bank logistics coordinator Agnes Ojakivi. «Came to help here, for the second time.»

In the warehouse, we behold an international company of people – like Mormons from America, and others. Together, they fit food boxes for families in need, then to be heaved to a wall by the Africans.

Ms Ojakivi says a police worker addressed them, wanting to know if the illegal people could have something to do so, after 18 months at the detention centre, the young men could get some practice working. Having assembled the boxes for an hour and a half, the guys het something to munch at – like bananas, the last time.

At about 4 pm, they are finally able to go to the Islamic centre of Mosque and the lads call it. «There we can pray and rest. Be in quiet,» says Sall. At times, they can get some missed sleep there. «In Solaris or at Ülemiste Centre, it wouldn’t be polite…»

But at 6 pm the centre shuts doors and the Africans are outlaws again. So they go for another round at shopping centres as long as they close for the night. Late in the evening, they stroll back to the homeless shelter.

How long can they keep this up? Sall thinks they can go a few weeks more, for sure. The guy who refused to cooperate is of the opinion that PPA will have to come up with some other solution. «We’d like to stay in Estonia, would like to study,» he claims though admits that nearly two years ago Estonia was supposed to be but a transit point to be passed in a day. As they were on their way to Scandinavia, see, where better life was thought to be awaiting.

Meanwhile, the men are not applying for residence permit in Estonia, neither asylum. According to Sall, asking for asylum would equal getting locked up at Harku again.

Thus, a stalemate for Estonian state and the Africans.


The situation in Guinea

  • Former French colony, independent since 1958. Therefore, French is spoken in the country of 11.8 million.
  • Estonian foreign ministry advises not to travel to Guinea without urgent need. Firstly due to Ebola virus though WHO says the epidemic is over in West Africa and its spread contained. Secondly, after military junta came to power, the situation is tense. During a demonstration suppressed in September, many were killed and wounded. In the country, robbery and assaults have increased. Businesses and individuals including foreign tourists have been attacked.