Kari Käsper: Estonia’s refugee debate

In Estonia, the European migrant/refugee crisis has resonated particularly strongly. This is somewhat surprising at the first glance, but actually quite expected, because it calls upon issues that are extremely important, but with which Estonia at the same time struggles. Here I underline the reasons why.

1. The acceptance of liberal democratic (or Western) values of tolerance.

Historically, European liberal social values have been accepted by the Estonian political elite only superficially. Human rights and tolerance in particular have not become entrenched due to the lack of will by the political powers to deal with the topic (partly due to their own world view). Perhaps it is true that Estonia also was admitted to the EU too soon, and only because it promised to do certain things and legislated others, but has no real intention to take European values seriously. The refugee issue forces us to overtly choose between universal moral and legal values prescribed by international human rights and nativism/nationalism.

2. The large Russian minority in Estonia.

The usual counter argument from the conservative politicians (and many others) is that there already are 30% of non-Estonians living in Estonia and we should not increase that percentage. This is offensive to the Estonian Russians, basically stating  they are second class citizens and that it would be better for them to leave. It also tells us that the integration policies so far have been a failure, since the poisonous discourse of the Estonian Russians as not being a part of “us Estonians” still hangs on. The decision to accept migrants would help deconstruct this damaging discourse.

3. Facing up against racism and islamophobia.

I included racism and islamophobia here, because there seems to be much more willingness to accept Ukrainian refugees than Arab or African ones, which in my opinion is not only related to the geographic and relative proximity of Ukraine, but also to the skin colour and religion of the different refugees. There is a strong undercurrent of racism and islamophobia in Estonia, which is fuelled by the lack of direct contact with people from Muslim background or people with a black skin colour combined with negative media portrayals and stereotypes. The debate makes it easier to fight these negative stereotypes, especially thanks to the Estonian journalists who have sought out refugees who have come to Europe both in Italy, Greece and Sweden and who help telling their very human stories.

4. The sovereignty and borders issue.

Refugees and other migrants symbolise the impossibility of having closed borders in today’s globalised, interdependent world. Borders have become and should be porous, says Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish-American philosopher and professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale Universityand I agree. “Fortress Europe” is an endeavour that was doomed from the start. Keeping people from moving from one country to another is not morally or ethically compatible with how we live our lives today and the refugee crisis forces us to recognise this. It also means sovereignty must be and is gradually transformed from a national one to cosmopolitan one, if we want to preserve and grow peace and prosperity. In Estonia, the strong rhetoric of keeping our borders secure and the criminalisation of irregular border crossings are completely wrong things to say or do.

5. The raison d’etre of Estonian statehood.

Partly because of neoliberal thinking, we have created in Estonia a state with the wrong values. In Estonia, even more so than in other Western countries, the state must be foremost a well-oiled machine that efficiently delivers services (and protects us from Russian invasion). Although the Estonian constitution prescribes a strong liberal Western state, the actual state that we have is more of a value-neutral, almost a nihilistic one (except the nationalist streak which only seems to be strong in the national defence and interior realms). Overall the Estonian political elite has not taken moral stands on value issues, delegating authority and responsibility for these values to Europe. Now, with the refugee crisis, the Estonian government is faced with a moral decision (much like with the civil partnership law last year), in which it has to clearly make a choice. It forces our pragmatic party politicians to make a moral leadership decision.

So, the European refugee crisis is also at the same time an Estonian identity crisis. The voluntary acceptance of a number of refugees by resettlement from refugee camps outside of Europe and participation in the burden sharing for asylum seekers (although I do not think it is helpful or humane to characterise asylum seekers as a “burden”) will contribute to the slow untangling of all of those issues and hopefully make Estonia a better society for all of us. In 2018, Estonia will take on the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU (and also celebrate 100 years of the Estonian independence), which means we will be in the centre stage in Europe and the world, and we have to be able to deal with and lead on all kinds of issues, but migration is surely going to be one of them. It will be an important test of whether we are mature enough to lead on these moral issues.

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Cover: Estonian refugees fleeing to Sweden in September 1944, to escape the Soviet terror.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. The article was first published by Kari Käsper on his website

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About the author: Kari Käsper

Kari Käsper is one of the founders of the Estonian Human Rights Centre and manages its activities. He takes part in the work of refugee and equal treatment programmes.