PPA admits Estonia used to be too rough on refugee families

Harku Detention Center.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

No country in Europe allows children under the age of ten to be put in prison. Strangely enough, that does not apply to children of asylum seekers who have been kept in detention centers irrespective of their age all over Europe, including in Estonia.

According to the UN convention for child rights that Estonia and all other European countries have joined, minors cannot be detained for the purposes of controlling migration. And yet, an Investigate Europe report, with participation from Postimees journalists, reveals how tens of thousands of asylum seekers’ children are kept in European detention centers.

The Estonian asylum system was strongly criticized in the foreign press for inhumane treatment of families with children seeking asylum and no attention paid to child rights only a few years ago. Head of the Police and Border Guard Board's (PPA) Citizenship and International Protection Bureau Kristiina Raidla-Puhm now admits that the police tended to be too rough on asylum seekers and families with children.

“We lacked good practice at the time, while Europe and Estonia came under strong migration pressure,” she explained, adding that there was uncertainty and insecurity among officials.

Raidla-Puhm said that it was believed everyone who came to Estonia needed to be processed under supervision. This practice has allegedly changed by now, and it has been understood that families with children generally do not pose a security risk. Estonia has even become a model in terms of fair treatment of minors compared to other European countries.

If Estonia has detained 40 minors over the past decade, in Poland, authorities detain 100-200 immigrant children every year. The containers and tents of the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos are home to nearly 5,000 minors. Greece has other centers where asylum seekers are detained along with their children.

While it is clear that the living conditions in the Greek center for 17,000 people and Estonia’s detention center that currently has 13 detainees are very different, all detention centers have one thing in common. They take away people’s liberty. The movement of asylum seekers inside high concrete walls covered in barbed wire is monitored by guards.

Because publicly available information on children has been controversial, Investigate Europe journalists decided to look into matters themselves. It turned out that many European countries have incomplete records on detained children and more minors have been detained than official statistics would lead one to believe. Journalists are generally not allowed to visit detention centers. Estonia and the Moria center in Greece were the only ones journalists were allowed to visit.

Two-year-old detainee

Even though Estonia has improved its attitude toward asylum seekers and the number of children taken to the detention center (KPK) has fallen to 0-1 a year, detaining children of asylum seekers is still not illegal. The detention center near Tallinn held a two-year-old and their Armenian mother a few months ago.

The woman, who was deemed a flight risk by both the police and the court, and her child were detained for a period of two months. The PPA sought to detain the family for another two months, but the court ordered their release from the center. Tallinn Administrative Court judge Kadriann Ikkonen said that current judicial practice provides no grounds for placing minors in detention centers.

“It might happen only under extremely extraordinary circumstances. The court did not satisfy the PPA’s application for continued detention and the child and her mother were released from the center. My position is that placing minors in detention centers is rather out of the question,” the judge said.

The Armenian woman left Estonia with the child the day after their release, which is why it is impossible to know how the experience affected the child. No matter how good the conditions at the detention center, both the justice chancellor and the Estonian Human Rights Center find that KPK is not somewhere children should ever end up.

“Detention of minors is allowed only as an extreme measure and minors should not generally be detained for the purposes of controlling migration,” the justice chancellor wrote after a visit to the detention center in 2013.

The European Initiative for Children in Migration confirms that even short-term detention in good conditions leaves a mark on children.

The initiative wrote in March that detention for the purposes of migration control is a radical measure and one that has long-term negative effects on children. Medical workers have found that children in detention centers suffer from depression, anxiety, sleep and behavioral disorders and lack of appetite.

The case of the Armenian woman and her child is luckily a singular one. KPK did not hold a single child in 2018 and was home to the one in 2019 as a result of new PPA and court practice. The center had 21 minors in 2015 which is the most children it has held at one time. KPK has held a total of 40 minors over the past ten years.

Children kept behind high walls and a wire fence attracted both local and international press attention at the time. The Guardian wrote about a Yazidi family running from ISIS where the mother went into labor straight from the detention center. Even the birth of little Warda did not send PPA officials looking for alternative accommodation for the family for the duration of the asylum process. The effect of the detention on the mental health of the children remains unknown as the family was expelled.

Not monsters

Today, asylum seekers are usually taken straight to the asylum seekers accommodation center where people have free movement and a much more pleasant living environment.

The justice chancellor visited the KPK again during the 2015 migration wave and sharply criticized the detention of minors and their living conditions at the center. Raidla-Puhm said that the PPA has adopted a policy of not taking unaccompanied minors to the KPK and only placing families with children in the center in extreme cases from 2016. She emphasized that being sent to the detention center is always an exception and requires a well-weighed decision that must have court approval.

“We are not monsters here at the police. We are doing it in the best interests of children and it is important for us not to traumatize families with children who come here,” Raidla-Puhm said. She added that Estonia has been lucky in that the people who have come here have largely been people who really need international protection.

“Yes, we are a little suspicious and always look at who we are getting and why. But we are trying to be humane and sensible. It also matters to us,” she emphasized.

Fifteen-year-old Deniz (name changed) from Turkey told Postimees about her positive experience with the Estonian asylum system. The family has been given refugee status in Estonia. Deniz came to Estonia with her father and never went to the detention center.

“Estonians have been very friendly with us. Even police officers greeted us in a friendly manner,” she is still surprised. She explained that before coming to Estonia, they spent four months in a Swiss refugee camp from where they were sent to Estonia. After a night at the airport, they were moved to the accommodation center in Vao.

While Deniz admits she was bored at the center from time to time, she has no complaints.

“I have seen conditions in a Swiss refugee camp, and they are very different. Things are much better in Estonia. A lot of people came to the center in Switzerland every day, it was very crowded. We were moved from one camp to another. The children could not attend school. They were not very caring,” she recalls. Deniz said that she was sent to the Kiltsi School where other children living at the center went just two weeks after arriving at Vao.

“The people at Vao are super friendly. Especially the director, Jana. Really, super nice,” she said.

Fine for crossing the border

The Estonian Human Rights Center has a number of complaints for the PPA in its 2019 report. The PPA punishes refugees and asylum seekers with fines for illegal border crossing that is contrary to international law.

The PPA tends not to extend the residence permits of people whose country of origin has seen an improvement according to official information. The human rights center believes that does not always mean the situation is now safe for people given asylum.

The center has also received several complaints of PPA officials trying to convince people to return to their country of origin or refusing to accept asylum applications on the border.

“We have had one case this year where a person’s asylum application was not registered at the airport and preparations were made for returning them to their country of origin. After we got involved, their asylum application was processed and they were allowed in the country,” said Liina Laanpere, a lawyer for the human rights center.

Raidla-Puhm says that the case has not reached her bureau and the claim itself is questionable.

“I really believe we do not exhibit such behavior on the border. If a person seeks international protection, their application must be received no questions asked,” she said, adding that the PPA was audited by Schengen experts last year and any such cases would have surely been identified. “The only criticism for us was that our officials should be more proactive. In other words, that border guards would suggest the possibility of applying for international protection.

Estonia not a destination country

The main reason why minors and asylum seekers in general are treated better in Estonia is that there are just so few of them. Estonia sees fewer than 100 asylum seekers in an average year, while Eurostat puts the figure in thousands for Nordic countries and up to 100,000 in popular migration destinations like France or Germany.

Estonia is a transit country and most of the people who come here do not wish to stay. Raidla-Puhm said this is why people caught by border guards sometimes tend to lie. “They want to reach Finland or Sweden and pretend to be underage in hopes of being treated better,” she said, pointing to two unaccompanied minors at KPK this year who turned out to be adults. She emphasized that if there is any reason to believe the person might really be underage, they are taken to a substitute home instead.

When a person claims to be underage, a medical analysis is required, even when the person clearly looks older. Most of those who have undergone the checkup have turned out to be over 20, while a 37-year-old man has also tried to claim they were underage.

People who want to stay in Estonia are usually Russian-speakers from the territory of the former Soviet Union. “Because they have a community here, a familiar cultural environment,” Raidla-Puhm said.

People from more exotic places come to Estonia hoping not to find their community waiting for them. “They come here knowingly and say they know they do not have a community here which is why they’ve come,” she said but did not agree to give examples of countries. “I will not be divulging that information because these people have come here not to be found. They have all been given international protection,” she added.

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