Estonia – Ultima Thule for the refugees

The European Union does not control all the variables for resolving the refugee problem, which makes this crisis unique. Today’s Europe needs greater mutual trust between the governments of member states and, with that, also a sense of standing for common values, writes migration expert Uku Särekanno.

This summer’s refugee debate was like a bucket of ice-cold water for the Estonian society. Looking at the local Estonian media, one might think we are the tiny island of Lampedusa, where hundreds and hundreds of immigrants come ashore daily. Propositions are flying around about banning the burka and there is serious discussion about the growing threat from terrorism, problems arising from polygamy and the distribution of large numbers of refugees. Estonia is presented almost as a major colonial power with countless former colonies, whose inhabitants are now trying to get to their motherland by the thousand.

The numbers, of course, tell a different story. There were 285 illegal crossings over the Estonian border last year and a total of 147 applications for asylum were lodged here. In the same period there were a total of 283,532 illegal border crossings and 626,000 applications for asylum lodged in the European Union as a whole. By the end of this year, the Police and Border Guard Board anticipates an all-time record number of applicants – 230. This number is supplemented by a promise to take in over 500 additional refugees in the two subsequent years to help Italy and Greece. Altogether, this is equal to the number of refugees that landed on the island of Lesvos in a single day a few weeks ago.

The only country contributing less to resolving the crisis than Estonia is Malta, but the number of people arriving there is many times larger. It is therefore clear that there will be no masses coming to Estonia today or tomorrow. We are not a popular destination, because we do not have a suitable community or linguistic context. For the refugees, Estonia is Ultima Thule, an island at the end of the world. As President Lennart Meri once said, “Estonia is almost an island and most definitely a peninsula, which is why migrations of people have never reached Estonia and have left us alone with our nature, our flat land, our ice-age boulder fields, our big trees and springs for the last 130 centuries.”

“The only country contributing less to resolving the crisis than Estonia is Malta, but the number of people arriving there is many times larger. It is therefore clear that there will be no masses coming to Estonia today or tomorrow. We are not a popular destination, because we do not have a suitable community or linguistic context.”

So why this furore and fluster all of a sudden? First, because immigration is a topic easily spun into many stories, attracting many newspaper readers in a short period of time and making it possible to mobilise a large proportion of voters by emphasising nationalist feelings. It is sweet nectar to all those who do not have to take responsibility for any political choices and can say anything that crosses their mind. There is no doubt that the whole topic in Estonia is blown out of proportion precisely for political reasons. And there are plenty of similar role models in Europe today – the Finns’ Party, UKIP, Jobbik, the Front National and others. Anti-immigration messages provide an easy ride to high politics, but it gets more complicated thenceforth. Take, for example, the Finns’ Party, whose members have become significantly more restrained since being elected to the Finnish parliament – one could almost say they have buttoned their lips. Reaching a position of leadership usually means becoming aware of the sad truth that the hands of politicians are tied and the only choice is between a poor scenario, a bad one and a really bad one.

“For the refugees, Estonia is Ultima Thule, an island at the end of the world.”

The second important reason for frustration is the unpleasant realisation that we cannot cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, and that its consequences will reach our homes too. And what is more, they arrive here in the form of actual people made of flesh and bone who look different from us and have a different cultural background. Interestingly enough, we were not brought to this realisation by the opening of borders after the Soviet occupation, but instead by the quota proposal made by the European Commission this spring. The fact that the migrants have somehow been distributed across Europe for the last couple of decades did not attract any significant interest at that point. The announced 1,064 refugees gave the Estonian public a proper scare. And although our prime ministers have handled the situation in a way that excludes the imposition of obligations upon us by third parties, the discomforting feeling had already arrived that in a borderless Europe one has to accept responsibility as well as receiving the common benefits.

The crisis continues

Even though heated debates have taken place in Brussels, quotas distributed and declarations made, the situation in the Mediterranean is far from satisfactory. The number of migrants is setting new records and there is potential for significantly higher numbers still to come. As a reminder, the slow-burning crisis reached its high point on 19 April this year, when a ship carrying 900 refugees sank near the island of Lampedusa. There were children among the drowned and only 28 people survived, including the traffickers. The International Organisation for Migration predicted at the beginning of May that, at this rate, more than 30,000 people will have drowned in the Mediterranean by the end of the year. The crisis thus reached its peak, followed by an extraordinary meeting of European heads of government and proposals from the European Commission for resolving the crisis, including the imposition of quotas.

Three months later, a large number of rescue boats have been sent to the Mediterranean and one of the biggest joint operations by the border guard in recent history, Triton, has been launched. Warships and volunteers are active at sea, as well. Refugees are also picked up by ordinary cargo ships and fishing vessels. The number of incidents remains high and rescue operations have shifted more and more towards the immediate proximity of Libyan territorial waters. The number of people rescued at sea has risen and the number drowned has decreased significantly, but there are reports of serious incidents every week. On 6 August, the Italian Coastguard reported that it had saved 399 people from a sinking ship, but that there had probably been up to 600 people aboard. Just over 67,000 refugees have come to Europe from the central Mediterranean during the first half of this year, significantly less than was feared and almost as many as the previous year.

Trafficking people across the sea is big business and those who operate it are well informed of events in Europe. Since June, refugees of Eritrean origin have been the most numerous among those arriving in Italy. One can assume that a large proportion of the asylum applicants presenting themselves as Eritreans only do so because it gives them a better chance of receiving protection. The number of women and children has also risen, although most arriving refugees are still young men. Traffickers have also modified their modus operandi in the knowledge that there are vessels at sea that pick up the refugees even before they reach the Libyan search and rescue area. Thus they use less fuel, the ride is shorter and the risks are lower.

Refugees often wait weeks for transport in dark bunkers built close to the coast, and the vessels are then packed to the brim with people. They are not allowed to move during the journey, which lasts for hours, because it is likely that the vessel will capsize. When a patrol vessel is near, an emergency signal is sent out and the migrants’ boat is often sunk. There have also been cases of people being kept in the hold for better balance, with doors locked or welded shut. The captain is usually one of the refugees who has been given a crash course in navigation. Everything has a monetary value – food, drink, cabins, rescue equipment and living conditions, including making a lone woman or a little girl spend weeks in a dark bunker with strange men. People are capable of doing awful things to get money – it is a life that one would not even wish on an enemy.

The centre of gravity is shifting towards the Turkish border again

According to the EU border management agency FRONTEX, in the first half of this year more than 225,000 illegal entries were registered in Europe, twice as many as during the same period in 2014. More migrants arrive from the eastern Mediterranean than from the Libya-to-Italy route – over 79,000 in total. But this more than fivefold rise is only the tip of the iceberg considering that, according to UNHCR, there are 1.7 million refugees in Turkey. Today, 217,000 of these live in underfunded tented camps. It is more than clear that the number of refugees heading towards Europe will only rise as the conflicts continue.

And, once again, it seems that Greece is putting the mutual trust and patience of other European countries to the test. In the midst of the last big immigration crisis, the European Court of Human Rights halted the enforced return of asylum applicants to Greece, because the country was unable to ensure a treatment of applicants that would correspond to the standards laid down by the European Convention on Human Rights. In other words, the Court found that a European country was not able to ensure the protection of fundamental rights and was thus not a safe place for asylum applicants. This decision crippled the functioning of the whole Common European Asylum System for many years.

At that time, 90% of all illegal border crossings into the Schengen area took place on the Greek-Turkish border. And from Greece they kept moving forward towards the rest of Europe. There were thousands of immigrants, just like today. In recent months, more than 67,000 refugees have arrived on Hungary’s border from Greece through the western Balkans. And the corridors of Brussels are once again abuzz with discussions of whether and how a member state should be thrown out of Schengen when it fails to meet the conditions.

It is easy to condemn the Greeks or Hungarians, but let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. What would Estonia do if we received tens of thousands of immigrants at once? Would we greet them with open arms, register them, accommodate them, fingerprint them, and with that take on the responsibility of continuing to take care of them? Or would we just let things run their course and hope they leave at the first chance they get?

Secondary movements are one of the main causes of concern for wealthier western European countries. Both Bulgaria and Romania have been left out of the Schengen area precisely because the opening up of new immigration channels from Turkey and loss of control over secondary movements are feared. This train of thought helps to shed some light upon today’s situation, where a number of northern European countries demand from Italy and Greece the proper registration and fingerprinting of refugees.

Another step forward, which also helps us to understand why Germany, the Netherlands, France and many other member states were all of a sudden willing to change their mind and agree to the redistribution of refugees. Solidarity played an important role, but it was also logical to assume that the refugees who arrive will continue moving forward and will do so illegally, uncontrolled and without papers. It is better to take the path of voluntarily admitting a certain number of immigrants, receiving money from EU coffers and, in exchange, demanding that the border countries put things in order. This is how it went; there have been some complaints but there is also hope that things will eventually work out. Estonia decided on a modest and rather symbolic, but also necessary, contribution.

Are the borders not holding up?

During every crisis, the first thing ministers of the interior do is promise to strengthen surveillance on external borders. It is a reassuring message to voters, because the initial impression is always that there is a huge gap somewhere that could be blocked. In the last decade, major investments have been made in border security and, as a result, Europe’s borders are now more closely guarded than ever before. According to FRONTEX, the border guard technology of the Mediterranean countries could cover the whole area twice over. Every year, tens of millions of euro are spent on joint operations, and many pan-European rapid reaction units (RABIT), a joint border monitoring system (EUROSUR) and a register of joint instruments (CRATE) have been launched.

The problem thus does not lie in inadequate surveillance of borders. Where there is a will, there is nowadays a way to capture most of the illegal border-crossers. The problem really lies in the fact that there is nothing to be done with the detainees. No one wants to take these people in and there are not enough detention facilities to accommodate them all. In 2014, a total of 441,780 illegal immigrants were registered in Europe and 252,003 removal orders were issued, but only 161,309 people were expelled. Expulsion is a very complicated and expensive process. It requires a whole army of officials and great expense to find out the origin of the person, to draw up papers, to reach agreement over the expulsion with the receiving state and, finally, to escort the person back by plane, along with accompanying officials.

Just as with border surveillance, it is effective cooperation (or lack thereof) that influences expulsions the most. If cooperation is good, like that between Spain and Morocco, it is already very difficult for immigrants to reach the EU border, and the figures for illegal border crossings are modest. But if the cooperation is halting, like that between Libya and Italy or Greece and Turkey today, it results in a huge number of immigrants and almost an impossibility of sending anyone back.

In practice, things are not always so simple that a person who crosses the Turkish border can be sent back to Turkey straightaway. If the Turks do not agree to accept the person, a long and complicated dispute begins involving the provision of evidence and so on. And why should the Turks even be motivated to help, when the person is not a citizen of Turkey and has also passed through their country illegally? They have bigger problems, for example the 1.7 million refugees.

That is why the most important challenge for Europe is not border surveillance, but rather the development of an effective expulsion policy. Europe has taken the path of sugar daddy. Neighbours are being offered money and visa waivers to guard their borders more closely and to take back their own citizens as well as people from the developing world as quickly as possible. For example, the price of the readmission agreement between the EU and Russia was the waiver of visas for holders of Russian diplomatic passports, which was difficult for the Estonian security forces to swallow.

To date, readmission agreements have been established with all the countries on the eastern border and also with many countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean and more remote countries of origin (eg Tunisia, Pakistan). Some progress has also been made concerning expulsions, but the whole process remains complicated and expensive. And often it is not enough that something has been written down in a contract somewhere. For example, Article 13 of the Cotonou Agreement creates obligations for the readmission of persons to African countries, but its implementation depends on individual countries and the agreements established with each of them – to be more exact, on money and relations.

Pay more attention to the reasons for coming here

Another big challenge is to establish an effective asylum policy and legal immigration policy in Europe. Today’s Europe faces the simultaneous problems of underemployment and a shortage of workers. There is a visible demand for immigrant workers and also a large number of people who would like to come and work in Europe. Although the supply and demand will certainly not completely coincide, all immigration experts agree that demand in Europe has a significant effect on immigration flows heading here. In the depth of the economic crisis in 2009, the number of illegal crossings of European borders decreased by more than 30% and the number of illegal immigrants by more than 20%. There was no point in moving to Europe, as there were no jobs here.

The problem lies in the fact that legal immigration to Europe is currently complicated, if not impossible. The rules are fragmented and member states (with a few exceptions) have moved towards a policy that ignores the needs of the labour market. As a result, people come here illegally, for example taking advantage of the asylum system. While every asylum application must be processed, it is a convenient way of getting one’s foot in the door via illegal entry. The statistics show that less than half of asylum applicants will end up receiving protection. The number of abuses is thus huge, grows every year and will overshadow all those people who are actually trying to escape the horrors of war.

“The problem lies in the fact that legal immigration to Europe is currently complicated, if not impossible. The rules are fragmented and member states (with a few exceptions) have moved towards a policy that ignores the needs of the labour market.”

The European Commission has promised to try to reduce the number of abuses and make some changes in its procedures, which were recommended for consideration by Estonia a few years ago – for example, using selected secure countries in an urgent procedure that would enable, among other things, the rapid rejection of thousands of groundless applications. For a small country like Estonia, it would also be extremely useful to expand the number of services provided by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), which would enable expertise from different countries to be used and accelerate procedures and reduce costs through the cross-use of interpreters. Can Europe handle the crisis? Over the last 60 years, Europe has faced one crisis after another, grown stronger as a result of the experience and corrected its mistakes. But the immigration crisis is unique, because a large number of variables are outside the control of the governments of member states. In order to handle the crisis successfully, a lot of groundwork needs to be done – to reinforce the current expulsion policy, to ensure that the needs of the labour market are taken into consideration more when issuing residence and work permits, and to make the current asylum policy more effective.

On the other hand, many aspects of handling the crisis depend on an active EU foreign policy and the overall situation in international relations. For example, will bringing Iran out of its isolation help achieve stability in the Middle East, how will the African Union handle local conflicts, and how will things work out in Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere?

More than anything, today’s Europe needs greater mutual trust between the governments of member states and, with that, also a sense of standing for common values. Without this, Europe will be weak in its internal and foreign policies and will head towards decline. And therein lies the reason the Estonian government decided to take part voluntarily in efforts to resolve the Mediterranean crisis, which may acquire a completely new and symbolic significance after a couple of decades.


This article was first published by Diplomaatiathe largest foreign and security policy monthly in the Baltics. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Thule as Tile on the Carta Marina of 1539 by Olaus Magnus, with a “monster, seen in 1537”.

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