RIGA / TARTU — Under the EU relocation scheme Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have now accepted 455 asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy since the beginning of last year. Although France (2,702), the Netherlands (1,216) and Germany (1,099) have received the most asylum-seekers to date under the program, by accepting the 455 — mostly Syrian — asylum-seekers the three Baltic states have actually carried a greater burden given their size (only France accepted more as a percentage of its population).
The EU relocation scheme is supposed to relocate asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. It just hit the 10,000 mark last week, with 150,000 more to go by 27 September 2017. If successful, and that is still a very big if, the EU program would relief the 60,000-odd refugees that are currently stuck in Greece and suffering under terrible winter conditions, as well as another 70,000 from Italy. But implementation is slow and there is a lot resistance from governments and voters, aside from logistical challenges.
That the Baltics are now leading the way in the EU relocation program is quite astonishing, to say the least. Resistance to the arrival of refugees from Syria has been strong and the Baltic governments only reluctantly agreed — unlike other post-communist states like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — to be part of the relocation mechanism. And as recent as last August the European Commission was critical of the strict admission requirements that the Baltic governments set for war refugees from Syria and Iraq seeking relocation.
RIGA — Laimīgu Jauno gadu! I’ll be spending January in Latvia and Lithuania where I will be reporting several stories on emigration and the refugee crisis. I will also be preparing for courses I teach this spring in the Gender and Development in Humanitarian Assistance program at Lebanese American University in Beirut.
2017 will be a critical year for the European Union’s relocation scheme, which aims to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers that are stuck in camps and reception centres in Greece and Italy to other EU member states. You may remember that enthusiasm in the EU for this quota mechanism has been lukewarm at best — with Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the United Kingdom not participating in the program. And the numbers show it: on 19 December only 9,356 out of the 160,000 asylum seekers from Syrian, Eritrea, Iraq had found refuge in the EU. Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are only expected to have accepted 1,481 asylum seekers by the end of 2017, out of the 160,000 for the whole EU, progress towards this goal in the Baltic states in the first months of 2017 may be indicative for the success of the EU relocation scheme as a whole. I’ll be speaking with policy makers, Baltic residents, and with refugees who were accepted last year and who are trying to integrate in their new adopted homes.
While 2017 may well be a crucial year for tackling the European refugee crisis, Latvia and Lithuania are continuing to face an emigration crisis. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, young and highly skilled professionals have been leaving the newly independent Baltic states in large numbers. (Estonia is the exception; since 2015 immigration exceeds emigration, which provoked a response from 39,399 Estonian citizens.) Although emigration has been slowing in recent years, researchers have found that since the 2008 financial crisis more women aged 40-65 — some of them grandmothers — are moving abroad in order to salvage their economic well-being and support their multi-generation families. This is a trend also seen in other post-communist countries like Romania and Ukraine. In the next few weeks I’ll be interviewing both migration researchers and women who have left Latvia and Romania for Guernsey, Germany, Ireland, United Kingdom, Italy and Spain to seek better lives.