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Estonia charters Baltic ferry to house Ukrainian refugees

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By David Mac Dougall
FILE - M/V Isabelle
FILE - M/V Isabelle   -   Copyright  Marko Stempehl / Tallink   -  

The Estonian government has chartered a cruise ship as a temporary home for several thousand refugees from Ukraine.

The Isabelle, owned by shipping company Tallink, would normally plough the Baltic Sea route from Riga to Stockholm but will now be anchored in Tallinn instead.

The first 200 Ukrainian refugees arrived on board on Thursday, with the ship able to hold up to 2,100 people.

"We don't have to make any modifications but the cabins are small so there is lots of spaces in lounges for children to play," explains Jako Salla, head of the Estonian Social Insurance Department, which is coordinating efforts for the refugees.

"There are three meals each day, nothing fancy but it's enough," he tells Euronews.

Some children will have places to study at local schools, while others will use the ship's conference rooms as classrooms for online distance learning.

There will also be officials on board to help answer questions about housing, employment, education and applying for social security benefits -- and authorities say they'll hold information sessions on the ship to make sure the Ukrainian refugees feel supported and safe.

Refugee accommodation portal opened

Accommodation on the Isabelle is intended only to be short-term, with refugees staying between one and four months.

By the end of March, a total of 8,275 Ukrainians had arrived in Estonia, almost 40% of them children, according to the Estonian Refugee Council.

Many of the people who arrived already have family or friends living in Estonia, the council says, but for others who need a place to stay the Social Insurance Department has partnered with a local property company to launch a new portal this week, where anyone with accommodation can post a free advert and get it seen by Ukrainian refugees.

"Many Estonians have opened their hearts and their doors to Ukrainian war refugees, and thousands of real estate offers have been sent to both the Refugee Council and the Social Insurance Board," explains Evelyn Kaasik from Estonia's joint emergency response team.

Until the new portal opened, several agencies were handling accommodation requests and offers but the new site aims to streamline the process for Ukrainians.

"It is extremely important for us that families with children find a permanent place of residence as soon as possible so that people can start planning their lives: find a place for children in kindergarten and school, and find a job," says Kert Valdaru from the social insurance department.

"It is much more difficult to do this as long as the person is in a hotel and does not have the confidence that they will stay in the same area permanently."