Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Estonia
Estonia’s integration into the EU immigration, asylum and border security system
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: With less than 0,003% of the total asylum applications lodged in the European Union, the Republic of Estonia is not a traditional country of asylum. However, in view of the obligation for the first country of arrival in the EU to examine all asylum requests, in addition to issues of burden sharing, Estonia will be likely to see a gradual increase in its asylum figures. Taking also account of Estonia’s new Refugee Act which entered into force in January 2003, how well equipped do you consider your services to be, in terms of fully operational asylum processing systems and resources, including as regards reception centres, to fulfil increased responsibilities within the EU asylum and protection system?
Ü Minister Margus Leivo: So far the actual number of asylum seekers applying to stay in Estonia has been low compared to other member states of the EU. However, Estonia has devised new action plans in the field of asylum on the assumption that that these figures would somewhat increase after Estonia’s membership of the EU on 1 May 2004. Accordingly, new investments in both relevant infrastructure and human resources have been planned.
Since Estonia became a member of the EU, the Dublin II procedure, which determines the member state responsible for examining an asylum application within the EU, has been implemented when handling asylum cases. This has included participation in the updating of the electronic data system DubliNET and in EURODAC. Estonia’s contribution to the latter, what is more, is currently being optimised through participation in the national Phare 2002 project on Extension of Estonian Automated Fingerprint Identification System.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for the provision of food and lodging, clothing and other relevant material aid to asylum seekers. The Estonian Law on Refugees has foreseen two types of reception/processing centres for asylum seekers: primary reception centres and reception centres. Although no primary reception centres have yet been established, both types of centres will be administered by state agencies reporting to the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: Since May this year, the Republic of Estonia has been administering some of the EU’s new external borders. How far do you consider that a comprehensive sea and land surveillance system is now in place, including through the transfer of additional Border Guard staff to the new EU borders with the Russian Federation, considered to be potentially more sensitive in terms of illegal migration and organised crime activity?
Ü Minister Margus Leivo: Fortunately, Estonia has not become a transit country for illegal migrants. This is despite the fact that there are some privately-owned enterprises which have actively started to look for foreign labour and also schools that are promoting their programmes to students from abroad, including from third countries.
The visa regime with the Russian Federation, which has been enforced since 2001 (including through the introduction of long-term visas to non-citizen residents), has contributed significantly to keeping the figures on illegal immigration low. In order to maintain the same levels of illegal immigration in the future, visa procedures have also been made more effective. This has included the establishment and development of a visa registration system, relevant co-ordination procedures, and further training of consular staff, as well as the provision of basic equipment on document forgery, in all Estonian embassies and consular offices.
National and cross-border cooperation to detect breaches of the immigration laws (both as regards border crossings and visa regimes), including through the identification and apprehension of human traffickers and smugglers, is of utmost importance to the Estonian authorities. The signing of readmission agreements, especially with former member states of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), is considered an important element in this respect.
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: What are the main EC technical cooperation programmes in the field of immigration and asylum, such as the European Refugee Fund, ARGO and INTI, from which your services will be most likely to benefit? And how would you assess the benefits to date of the various EC-PHARE activities in the field of Justice and Home Affairs which have been implemented in the Republic of Estonia?
Ü Minister Margus Leivo: Among the programmes you mention, Estonia has participated more actively in the operations of the European Refugee Fund. Estonia is applying to the Fund to provide free legal aid to asylum seekers and recognised refugees, as well as to establish a registration centre for asylum seekers. ERF funds are needed, in particular, in view of the following circumstances:
Ø Because no free legal aid (i.e. legal aid paid by the state) is currently available to asylum seekers and refugees in Estonia. Since 1999 legal aid to asylum seekers has been supported by UNHCR. However, UNHCR has been reducing its contribution on the assumption that the Estonian Government would gradually take over the funding of such activities.
Ø Because there is no government-run body acting as a primary screening centre in Estonia. With the funds of the European Refugee Fund (in addition to the government’s own resources), a registry centre for asylum seekers will be established this year. The centre will be fully equipped to process all the applications and to conduct interviews and all other procedural measures. The Estonian Citizenship and Migration Board is currently not able to carry out all these activities.
The establishment, jointly with the Ministry of Social affairs, of such a reception centre, will also be of critical importance to ensuring that failed asylum seekers do not remain in Estonia or that applicants are sent to the appropriate member state responsible for examining their claim.
To date, Estonia has not participated in the ARGO Programme (i.e. the EU action programme for administrative cooperation in the fields of asylum, visas, immigration and external borders). However, ARGO’s predecessor programme, the Odysseus Programme, had provided funds for officials of the Estonian Ministry of the Interior to participate in the project on “Exchanges of civil servants in the field of asylum, immigration and crossing of external borders”, as well as in various seminars and conferences.
Estonia received its first official invitation to participate in the ARGO Committee in November 2003. Because the programme covered several different spheres, appropriate officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Citizenship and Migration Board and the Border Guard authorities had to be appointed. These officials are now fully active in reviewing ARGO programme developments in other member states and in contributing to resolving various issues related to the programme. Estonia is clearly interested in participating in the programme in the future, particularly as regards activities related to internal security.
To date, Estonia’s exposure to the INTI Programme, which supports preparatory actions to promote the integration of people who are not citizens of the EU, has been limited and has been overseen by the Minister of Population and Ethnic Affairs.