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After months of lockdown, Estonian workers flock home from Finland

When Finland locked its borders in March during the coronavirus crisis, tens of thousands of migrant workers from Estonia had an excruciating choice to make: stay put, or go home to see family -- and risk losing their jobs.

This picture taken on May 14, 2020 shows passengers arriving with the Tallink Megastar ferry (unseen) from Tallin, Estonia, at West Harbour terminal in Helsinki, Finland. - At Helsinki harbour, stewards direct a long line of cars and vans with Estonian number plates onto the Tallink Megastar ferry, now that a change in lockdown rules allows thousands of cross-border workers stuck in Finland to finally return home. Olivia Ranta / Lehtikuva / AFP
For father of two teenagers Rain Anni, the decision wasn't easy but he opted to stay and make money, not knowing when he would see his family again. 

"Everyone I know made the same choice, that we'd stay here," the construction site foreman told AFP. 

For 15 years, Anni has been taking a two-hour ferry ride home every week to see his wife and kids, a break from his job in Finland, where thousands like him work -- often earning more than they could back home, but with limited job security.

But when Finland closed its borders on March 18, he wasn't sure when -- or if -- he would be allowed back in.

"It's always nicer to be together with my family but we had to make a decision," Anni said.

Before the crisis, an estimated 50,000 Estonian workers like Anni commuted regularly across the Baltic Sea to jobs in Finland, where average salaries are twice as high.

Migrants from post-Soviet Estonia have become vital to Finland's economy, especially in the construction sector where Estonian labour accounts for almost a quarter of the workforce.

Going back home to see friends and family is a lifeline for many, said Timo Ahola, head of construction at the Finnish recruitment agency Barona. 

He said that all of the 400 Estonian workers on his books have journeyed home since the lockdown was lifted on May 14.

"It's had a huge impact on their wellbeing, that they can at last see their families," Ahola told AFP.

Vulnerable position

For many Estonian construction workers, the commute to Finland for work is an easy journey -- but keeping a good job can be tough.

"They often work in smaller companies or for agencies, so it often happens that they lose their jobs first," Matti Harjuniemi, chair of Finland's construction trade union, told AFP.

Only about 15 percent of Estonian workers returned home once coronavirus lockdown started, a decision which was not always voluntary, Harjuniemi said. 

Demolitionist Marek Resev, who has commuted to Finland for almost two years, spent the two months of lockdown at home in Jarva-Jaani, central Estonia, after being laid off in March.  

"I got a lot done at home, mowed the lawn and spent lots of time with my partner," he told AFP. 

"But I've been worrying about money the whole time."

Since the border was reopened, Resev has found work again in Finland, but says he fears the uncertainty of the coming months.

Limited relief

It was not just migrant workers hit by the border being shut down.

Traffic on the commuter ferries that would normally shuffle the workers between Finland and Estonia dropped dramatically.

Now passenger numbers are up to about 6,400 per day between their capitals, up from 1,200 during the lockdown, Commander Mikko Simola of the Finnish coastguard told AFP. 

But it's still a far cry from the 32,000 travellers that used to board the ships every day before the outbreak. 

The revival of commuter traffic has provided welcome, if limited, relief for Baltic ferry operators. 

"It's small but it's something nonetheless," Marika Nojd of Tallink Silja, one of the Baltic's largest ferry operators, told AFP.   

"For the last few weeks we've only had lorries on board," Nojd said, adding that they still only have a tenth of pre-virus passenger traffic. 

For now, the route remains closed to foreign tourists, but the border staff at the Port of Helsinki are still busier than ever.

Lieutenant Jim Kuusimaki and his team must check each passenger in the long line of vehicles rolling off the ferries for proof that they are here for work or study -- and not for leisure. 

"We've needed to be flexible and resourceful," Kuusimaki told AFP.

In the past, checks were only necessary for the relatively small amount of people arriving on cruise ships from outside the EU, and not on the nine million passengers annually from Tallinn.

Finnish health authorities have recorded over 6,000 coronavirus infections and more than 300 deaths, far fewer than many of its hard-hit European neighbours.

"It's important to remember that all of this is being done to ensure that COVID-19 does not spread further," Kuusimaki said.  

"We're working under uncertainty but we'll continue for as long as we need to."

Topics: Finland , Rain Anni , Estonia , COVID-19 , Matti Harjuniemi
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