No one has been granted asylum in Estonia to date. During the year, 21 asylum seekers submitted applications. They arrived from Afghanistan (7), Pakistan (6), Sierra Leone (2), Turkmenistan (2), and one each from Ukraine, Somalia, Turkey, and Russia.

During 1999, Estonia issued ten first-instance decisions, all rejections. In the appeals stage, the Estonian courts upheld one rejection and ruled in favor of the applicant in six cases. Because the courts do not issue merits-based decisions but rule only on questions of law, however, the six applicants did not receive refugee status but were required to undergo new refugee status determinations. At year's end, 27 asylum seekers had cases pending either in the first instance or the appeals stage.

Asylum Procedure

Estonia's parliament ratified Estonia's accession to the UN Refugee Convention and adopted a national refugee law in February 1997. The Refugees Act came into effect on July 9, 1997. Several amendments to the act passed the parliament in February 1999 and took effect on September 1. In addition, an amendment to the Aliens Law introduced a new ground for temporary residence permits in October.

The amended Refugee Act transferred responsibility for deciding refugee claims from the Estonian Cabinet of Ministers to the Citizenship and Migration Board (CMB). The CMB can now conduct expedited processing of asylum applications at border checkpoints and in areas within Estonia proper. The CMB may place the asylum claims of applicants who arrive from a "safe country of origin," a "safe third country," or are "manifestly unfounded" in the accelerated procedure. The amended law states that Estonia should follow UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) guidelines when applying the safe third country principle.

The CMB interviews applicants to ascertain their credibility, the authenticity of their documents, and their compliance with the grounds for asylum in Estonia before deciding whether to allow them to enter the normal refugee status determination procedure or to begin deportation proceedings.

Other amendments that also took effect in September establish a national register of asylum seekers and refugees and allow asylum seekers ten days to appeal negative decisions.

The CMB requires all asylum seekers subject to the accelerated procedure to reside in a temporary reception facility in the town of Aa, in northeast Estonia. Other asylum seekers not in the accelerated procedure may opt to stay in private accommodations as long as they have the means to support themselves. In May 1998, the government began building a refugee processing center in Illuka, on the border with Russia, which the government expects to be fully functioning by 2001.

Currently, asylum applicants and refugees receive food, medical care, and interpretation services. The government subsidizes legal counsel for asylum seekers during the appeals stage of the refugee status determination procedure, and increasingly, in the first instance. Recognized refugees receive temporary residence permits and work authorization for up to two years, which may be extended if the conditions that caused them to flee persist. Refugees also have the right to state allowances, employment services, and unemployment benefits equal to those of citizens.

The October amendment to Estonia's Aliens Act introduced a new ground for applying for temporary residence permits, allowing persons to apply on humanitarian grounds. Because aliens usually must apply for residence permits at Estonian missions abroad, persons within Estonia, such as rejected asylum seekers, must obtain permission from the Interior Minister to apply for this type of residence permit. This permit may offer certain denied asylum seekers who cannot return to their countries of origin the means to obtain legal status.

UNHCR noted several limitations of the new temporary residence scheme, however. Because the status is not part of the regular asylum procedure, UNHCR said it does not adequately substitute for the lack of a humanitarian status for asylum seekers who do not meet the refugee definition but are in need of protection. In addition, how the authorities would interpret the amendment remains unclear, because it does not specify the international agreements that would serve as a basis for granting residence permits. Finally, UNHCR said that persons granted temporary residence permits under the amendment would not receive social assistance.

Restrictive Measures

In addition to long-standing readmission agreements with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has signed readmission agreements with France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland. Estonia has also signed visa-free travel agreements with Finland, Norway, and Sweden containing provisions regarding the readmission of third-country nationals.

Estonia and the Ukraine reportedly plan to tighten controls along their shared border, a major transit point for migrants headed to Western Europe.


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