In February 1997, Estonia's parliament ratified Estonia's accession to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, and adopted a national refugee law. Estonia's Refugees Act, signed into law on March 6, became effective on July 9. Two days later, the first asylum seeker submitted an application in Estonia. At year's end, however, the Citizenship and Migration Department was still waiting for parliament to endorse its proposal for an asylum interview for the applicant. The Refugees Act provides for expedited processing of asylum applications at border checkpoints by a government-appointed agency. Following brief interviews to ascertain applicants' credibility, the authenticity of their documents, and their compliance with the grounds for asylum in Estonia, the government agency can decide whether to send applicants to a reception center to certify refugee status. Under the law, asylum applicants and refugees in reception centers are to receive food, medical care, and interpreting services. Refugees have the right to state allowances, employment services, and unemployment benefits equal to those of Estonian citizens. Successful asylum applicants receive temporary residence permits and work authorization for up to two years, and may extend them if conditions that caused the person to flee still persist. At year's end, the government remained undecided about its plan to build a refugee processing center in Illuka, on the border with Russia. Estonia signed readmission agreements with Norway and Sweden in January and March, respectively. As of mid-July, 45 "illegal aliens" were reportedly in detention pending deportation or a court order granting them residence. By year's end, 32 persons remained in detention, most from the former Soviet Union.

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