Estonia turns away Ukrainian refugees at EU border after harrowing wait

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Published: 10/13/2022 5:49:22 AM
Thousands of refugees, mostly men from Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine, were made to wait at the Kunichino Gora crossing at the Russian border with Estonia

Thousands of refugees, mostly men from Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine, were made to wait at the Kunichino Gora crossing at the Russian border with Estonia

At Russia's border with Estonia, thousands of Ukrainians have been forced to wait for days in raw weather. Even once they reach Estonia, some say they do not know why they were denied entry to the European Union.

For many Ukrainians in Russia, fleeing to Europe is more than a grueling journey that can take weeks to prepare for. It is a quest for survival.

After being forced to wait in raw weather for six days at the Kunichina Gora checkpoint on the Russian side of the border with Estonia, Annika believes that Russian authorities completely lost their humanity.

"I was crying, sobbing when I saw the little children, how cruel it all was and how everyone abruptly turned into brutes in those conditions," she says.

Child curled up sleeping in a suitcase at the Kunichino Gora checkpoint in Russia on the border with Estonia

Those waiting at the border did what they could to make the situation as comfortable as possible for the children

In 2014 when the first explosions in Donetsk and Luhansk announced the arrival to Ukraine of what President Vladimir Putin called the "Russian world," Annika (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) left her village near Mariupol for the relative safety of Kyiv.

When news of the invasion that began February 24 this year dawned on the capital, she sought to reunite with her elderly parents, who had remained in the occupied Donetsk territories. Having lost communication with them for several months, with the help of volunteers she managed to meet them in Moscow in September — a safer route out of war for those in Russian-occupied areas.

But after spending 10 days in Russia, when she arrived traveling alone at the Shumilkino border checkpoint, she saw at least 2,000 people waiting to cross in addition to a long line of cars. Annika, 40, then traveled to the Kunichina Gora checkpoint on September 29, where she would ultimately stay in line for six full days until she set foot on European soil.

"We don't even need enemies ... we have the 'Russian world,'" she says bitterly.

Ukrainians seeking to leave Russia face hardship

Annika believes it was an order to torture people more as part of Russia's war against Ukraine. According to her, Russian border agents deliberately kept Ukrainians in line and called up citizens of other nationalities to cross first.

After spending her first night at the checkpoint under the open sky, volunteers found her accommodations in a nearby village. Every eight hours Annika had to return to her spot in the queue, where she says around 600 to 800 men — mostly Ukrainian refugees — awaited anxiously without food or water. Women and children were elsewhere indoors.

But the worst came four days in.

"The branches were breaking and bending. It felt like it was 20 degrees below zero outside. We tried to take shelter, because our hands were instantly freezing," Annika recounts, describing a forlorn crowd sitting on the berm in torrential rain that lasted for two days. "All my clothes were wet. I poured a glass of water out of each boot."

Ukrainian refugees waiting in line at the Kunichino Gora checkpoint in Russia at the border with Estonia, wearing raincoats and holding umbrellas

Ukrainian refugees were forced to wait in terrible weather for nearly a week at the Kunichino Gora checkpoint in Russia

On October 2 to 4, the days Annika referred to as the worst, the weather in the town nearest to the Kunichina Gora border checkpoint was registered as ranging from 5 to 11 degrees Celsius. It rained consistently on both days, according to the weather report.

Only five Ukrainians were let through in 24 hours, she says.

Mariupoli Sobrad, a network of volunteers that delivers humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians, confirmed that thousands of refugees were prevented from leaving Russia at minimum three border checkpoints in Estonia during the last week of September.

"The Russian border authorities started making the control much tougher. They try to catch people, men probably, who are trying to escape Russia and [the partial] mobilization," says Aleksandra Averjanova, a board member for Mariupoli Sobrad, which also helps Ukrainian refugees cross into Estonia.

"It looks like they're being bullied," wrote a volunteer who had been at Shumilkino and Kunichina Gora checkpoints in a Telegram chat.

Rumors spread that two women had died while waiting to cross. Averjanova confirmed that a Ukrainian man cut his throat with a piece of glass in the interrogation room at the Ivangorod border checkpoint. Annika took a picture of a body covered with a white blanket next to an ambulance.

Body covered in white sheet at the side of the road at the Kunichina Gora checkpoint in Russia's border with Estonia

Annika took this photo of what appears to be a dead body covered in a white sheet at the at the Kunichina Gora checkpoint

When Annika finally crossed into Estonia, she burst into tears. In her hands, a cup of hot tea handed to her by border agents made her wonder how her experience could be possible in the 21st century.

"If this is how displaced people are treated, what do they do with prisoners, with servicemen?" Annika asks herself.

Estonia rejecting Ukrainians at Narva border crossing

A preamble to that humanitarian crisis was reported by other volunteers in mid-summer, as the number of Ukrainian refugees who were denied access to Estonia increased sharply. This followed Estonia's ban on entry of Russians with Schengen visas.

Map indicating areas relevant to refugees fleeing occupied Ukrainian territories to Europe via Russia

Donetsk-born Danylo (who has asked for only his first name to be used to protect his identity) had been visiting relatives in Russia when the February 24 invasion shattered his world. He knew he did not have enough money to immediately return to Ukraine.

For five months, 25-year-old Danylo worked odd jobs to survive and raise funds to leave Russia, often falling prey to unscrupulous contractors, working and living in deplorable conditions. He was desperate; but working and staying legally in the country meant having to acquire Russian citizenship he was eligible for but reluctant to get, as he did not want to contribute to financing the Russian army through paying taxes.

With volunteer help that he had been reluctant to seek in the past, in mid-August Danylo decided to try crossing to Europe through Estonia's Narva border checkpoint. He planned to meet his mother and brother in Germany.

"They asked me why I stayed so long in Russia," Danylo says about his interaction with Estonian border guards, who told him three hours later that he was being denied entry for having left Ukraine before the war began. Estonian border authorities gave him the option to return the next day and try crossing as a tourist with proof of insurance, return tickets, an accommodation letter plus money in cash that his mother later wired him to pick up in Estonia.

That night, Danylo's only option was to sleep in a field in the open air for the first time in his life. When he returned the next day with the requested documentation, the Estonian authorities turned him down again, allegedly for already having been refused the day before. He was told not to return to that checkpoint.

The next day he crossed into Finland without trouble, although that meant a much longer trip. He was joined by a fellow Ukrainian who had also been rejected at a border checkpoint.

Fraught journey

Estonian authorities confirmed that at least 1,091 Ukrainians have been denied entry to the European Union through Estonia since the beginning of the war. Only in September, 306 Ukrainians were denied entry — three times more than during the first three months of the war.

"One of the reasons for not letting a person into the country could be endangering public order or national security," said Egert Belitsev, the head of Estonia's Border Control Department. Since February 24, about 109,000 Ukrainian citizens have entered Estonia.

"Those who are denied entry include, for instance, people who have been living and working in Russia for a long time and who are not coming to Estonia as refugees, but rather as tourists or to visit relatives or friends," Belitsev said.

People seen walking their suitcases toward a customs control zone building at the Narva border crossing between Russia and Estonia

Estonia restricted entry for Russian citizens with Schengen visas in mid-August

Although there is no legal basis for it, Estonian authorities seem to be targeting Ukrainian men from occupied areas who they deem to have stayed too long in Russia.

DW spoke to another Ukrainian refugee who was told by Narva border agents that the reason for his denial of entry was that he had stayed too long in Russia. He left occupied Ukraine after the February 24 invasion, and rather than traveling through the war front, took the easier option involving two weeks of travel through Russia to reach the Estonian border. Another refugee said she was prevented from crossing the Latvian border for the same reasons.

"We are not letting everyone in who is just saying they're Ukrainian," said Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia's ambassador to Ukraine. "Too much time in Russia is not two weeks. We are talking about more than 10 years."

Such statements have not been borne out in practice, however. Estonia's hard approach does not consider the challenges Ukrainians face when fleeing war.

Volunteers say refugees sometimes need weeks to organize their travel and recover from fleeing war-torn areas of occupied Ukraine. A successful crossover reveals for many a contrast between two distant realities.

"People exhale and realize that they went from hell to civilization," says Annika.


  • Author Manuel Orbegozo (Krakow, Poland)

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