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Estonia became the latest country to turn to the passenger shipping industry to provide a temporary solution for housing Ukrainian refugees. The country’s Social Insurance Board signed a charter with ferry operator Tallink to use its vessel the Isabelle.
The 35,000 gross ton ferry is being chartered for an initial period of four months commencing on April 7, as the country also begins planning for the longer-term resettlement of the refugees. Under the charter, the government has two additional two-month extensions possible based on the need to accommodate the refugees. Government officials had previously said they were looking at using a ferry as housing as they sought to move refugees from temporary housing in hotels.
Estonia’s Police and Border Guard Board reports that as of today, 26,862 Ukrainians have arrived since February 27 with more than 16,000 filing applications for temporary protection. Nearly 6,000 people, with nearly a quarter being children, are currently in government-provided housing while others are staying with friends.
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The Isabelle has berths for more than 2,100 passengers. The vessel will remain docked with the authorities noting that the public areas and meeting rooms will provide areas for organizing schooling and relief efforts.
Tallink said it welcomed the opportunity to support the relief effort but noted that the charter means the company will not be able to resume ferry operations between Riga and Stockholm. Service on the route has been suspended since March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Tallink planned to resume service on the route in April this year but last week warned that the reopening would be delayed by two months due to the “challenging geopolitical situation putting pressure on passenger numbers and prices, making the re-opening of the route in April-May economically unviable.” The restart of service had been delayed till June but now is placed on hold. Employees scheduled to work on the ferry will be offered employment either on the Isabella or the company’s other ferries.
“Chartering out Isabelle has not been an easy decision for us as the Riga-Stockholm route that we have spent nearly 16 years building, has been severely impacted firstly by the COVID crisis and now, additionally, by the uncertainties and price hikes resulting from the war in Ukraine,” said Paavo Nõgene, CEO of Tallink Grupp. He apologized to the customers that are being impacted while noting, “we are able to offer our support to Ukrainian refugees by providing much-needed accommodation, but also job opportunities on the vessel to people who have had to flee Ukraine.”
Over the weekend, Holland America Line’s cruise ship Volendam arrived in Rotterdam to also begin providing temporary housing for refugees. Last week, the cruise line and the City of Rotterdam announced they had reached a three-month agreement for the ship to provide housing and services as the Netherlands also works to address the influx of refugees.