Social Insurance Board threatens to deprive hundreds of Ukrainian refugees of shelter

Merike Lees
, majandusajakirjanik
Those who fled the war from Ukraine have already established their lives more permanently in the Mäepealnes house, and a support group also meets there. But now their lives are once again in danger of falling apart.
Those who fled the war from Ukraine have already established their lives more permanently in the Mäepealnes house, and a support group also meets there. But now their lives are once again in danger of falling apart. Photo: Madis Veltman
  • The refugees are willing to pay for housing but the state cannot accept the money.
  • Contradictory information about eviction has made the refugees’ life very stressful.
  • The minister assures that the state will keep its initial promise.

Hundreds of Ukrainian war refugees are threatened with the loss of their hard-established homes in Estonia as the Social Insurance Board (SKA) demands that the already notorious Mäepealse and Kopli apartment buildings in Tallinn must be vacated by the end of the year.

In March, the Ukrainian refugees were housed from temporary accommodations to a permanent residence in the Mäepealse and Kopli apartment buildings, property of the State Defense Investment Center (RKIK) without a certificate of occupancy. The State Real Estate Company (RKAS) wanted to begin renting out the apartments to refugees at a higher-than-average market price, but eventually decided to have nothing to do with the houses without occupancy certificates.

Long-term plan failed

RKIK gave the houses to SKA for free accommodation of war refugees for a year, i.e. until March 31 of the next year. The Ukrainians have reckoned with this time. However, at a briefing held in Mäepealse house on the Independence Day of Ukraine on August 24, they learned from the SKA officials that they have to vacate the building by January 1.

Shortening the deadline by three months places the refugees in a fragile situation, because their barely established life is once again thrown into disarray: employment is arranged in relation to the place of residence, and the trial periods, which in many cases promise to bring a salary increase, are coming to an end; children have been placed in kindergartens and schools close to home. If they move out, they will have to start building their whole life from scratch again. Altogether nearly 400 people are thus affected.

“Unfortunately, the initial plan according to which the houses in Kopli and Mäepealse will become long-term accommodation, where people can pay rent and utility costs, did not materialize,” explained Vadim Ivanov, SKA's head of crisis management and operations. "Regrettably, previous decisions must be reviewed in the light of new circumstances during a crisis and the situation must be handled as flexibly as possible. Thus the original plan had to be abandoned, and therefore the Mäepealse and Kopli houses are places for short-term accommodation.”

The refugees have been able to use this accommodation for free since they moved in, but not due to their unwillingness or inability to pay, but because of the Estonian laws.

According to Signe Riisalo, the Minister of Social Protection, the existing law does not allow requesting people in short-term accommodation to pay for utility costs. “Cooperating with the Ministry of the Interior we are preparing a law amendment so that the refugees with income could compensate for the costs of the state-provided accommodation,” Riisalo said.

According to Liina-Jaanika Seisler, crisis communication advisor of the SKA, it is not actually clear at present what will become of the Kopli and Mäepealse buildings next year as the state budget has not been adopted, but the SKA no longer has the money to pay for the utility costs of these houses. The RKIK also allegedly wanted to have the buildings back for national defense purposes.

According to Tambet Tõnisson, head of state property in RKIK, they have released their Kopli and Mäepealse buildings for the use of the Ministry of Social Affairs until 31 March next year and are not claiming them before that date.

Minister: the state will keep its promise

The Ukrainians had a legal expectation in the spring that they would be able to live in these buildings until the allowed deadline, but now the SKA has broken the promise. Riisalo confirms that the state keeps its promise. “The refugees in these buildings who have been promised that they can live there until March 31, 2023, can do so – the state will not break this promise,” she asserted.

“If a contract with a temporary accommodation expires, we will relocate the people at the expense of the state to another temporary accommodation and will continue to support them as they begin their independent life,” Ivanov promised. “Now that Mäepealse and Kopli are designated as short-term accommodation, we can start supporting the residents there in finding work and residence.”

This help means that their next place of residence may be located many kilometers away from their current residence and workplace, school and kindergarten; or even in another municipality.

In March, when the refugees were moved from the temporary accommodation in a cruise ship and hotels to the Kopli and Mäepealse buildings, these were offered as a permanent residence for the Ukrainians and the rundown apartments were repaired with the help of volunteers and fitted with furniture.

“We recognize the contribution of volunteers who have helped the people to settle down. The state can compensate for their costs which have been agreed in advance,” Ivanov noted.

Neither the volunteers nor the Ukrainians could reckon with such coordination when they were moved into the buildings. “People were placed in empty apartments where there were no kitchen utensils, no furniture, no bedding. It was necessary to act right away because there were young children there, and no one had time to coordinate,” recalled volunteer Inessa Josing.

Finding large apartments is an impossible mission

Inessa Josing, volunteer

Many of the Mäepealse residents go to work. The ones staying at home are the elderly, families with many children or with young children who have no kindergarten place; plus some other exceptions.

I have helped the Ukrainians find apartments. You can find apartments for a small family. But finding a home for a family of six or seven is an impossible mission. Such large apartments are rare and if you do find one, the rent is high. But a large family does not mean more working people, but on the contrary: small children and the elderly who do not work. But the children go to school, some for the second year. I support a six-member family where the only wage-earner is the oldest daughter who works as a dishwasher; otherwise they would not be able to meet the costs.

Many Ukrainians receive a minimum wage, 4.50 euros per hour. It was promised to increase the wage to 6 euros per hour after the probation period and this is a big deal for them. They look forward to this moment. Why cannot they place the recently arriving refugees into temporary dwellings across the country? It would be easier for them because they are not yet linked to their workplaces and schools and have not contributed to improving and furnishing their apartments.