RIGA – “Do you people live here?” a Riga taxi driver yells at a black woman wrapped in a thick scarf who is pushing a stroller down a street lined with delapidated grey brick buildings and covered in a thin layer of snow.
Marie (not her real name) and her one-year-old daughter arrived in Riga in August from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are among a handful of asylum seekers living in the Mucenieki refugee centre on the outskirts of Riga, Latvia’s capital.
Built as a Soviet military base, today the area consists of cheap housing for primarily blue-collar workers who commute to the capital. The refugee centre – a fenced-off three-story building, which opened in 1999 – can accommodate around 200 people but currently only houses 54.
The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – between them are expected to accept 1,481 asylum seekers by the end of 2017 as part of the EU’s controversial relocation programme. Latvia, with two million inhabitants, is set to receive 481 asylum seekers – a fraction of the 160,000 refugees EU member states agreed to take from Greece and Italy over the next two years. In addition, the Latvian government has agreed to resettle another fifty refugees from outside the EU, according to UNHCR and the Latvian government. The relocation scheme will cost EUR 14,9 million, with EUR 8,4 million coming from the national budget and the remainder from the EU.
Just before Christmas, the first refugee families arrived in Tallinn and Vilnius, the capitals of Estonia and Lithuania. Latvia expects its first arrivals through the relocation scheme in February.
The asylum system in Latvia is relatively new in comparison with many other member states. To date, the country has received among the lowest numbers of asylum applications in the entire EU, in both absolute and relative terms. From 1998, when the asylum system was introduced, until September 2014, a total of 1,366 persons had applied for asylum in Latvia of which 64 were granted refugee status, and 112 temporary protection, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
As in other East European countries like Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, there is a lot of resistance to the EU relocation programme. Policymakers worry that the refugees will use up limited resources. And ordinary citizens are both concerned and divided. “I’m afraid of losing my traditions,” an old woman told a local newspaper, standing next to Riga’s Freedom Monument. “I already suffered under the Soviets. Finally we live in a free nation, and I don’t want to lose this again.” There appears to be a generation gap in the perception of refugees in Latvia, with older generations – including many politicians – having more negative views than younger Latvians who grew up after the collapse of communism.
Most Latvian political parties, both the main oppostion social democratic Harmony party and the ruling centre-right coalition, have responded to the European Union’s calls for more solidarity in accepting refugees through the relocation scheme by warning that the newcomers will not be able to integrate, will live on benefits and engage in criminal activities. The centre-right government, composed of the Unity party of prime minister Laimdota Straujuma, the conservative Union of Greens and Farmers and right-wing National Alliance, reluctantly agreed to the EU relocation scheme. Yet prime minister Laimdota Straujuma resigned on December 7, along with her cabinet, partially due to disagreements within her own Unity party over the EU relocation scheme.
The fact that in the past 25 years, Latvia has not been able to fully integrate its large Russian minority is often cited as another reason the country should not accept newcomers from more unfamiliar cultures.
Yet unlike in neighbouring Estonia, where protestors marched through the capital as part of an anti-immigrant rally calling for stricter EU border controls and a national referendum on whether the country should accept its quota of refugees, there haven’t been public protests in Latvia.
It is the lack of experience with refugees and migrants that is striking in homogeneous Latvia.
“We have one student from China,” said Pēteris Ševčenko, the principal of Riga’s Natālijas Draudziņas Secondary School, the only school reachable by public transport from the Mucenieki refugee centre. Four refugee children from Iraq are expected to start school here this year. Ševčenko admits that although his teachers are highly motivated, his school is ill-prepared to welcome students that don’t speak Latvian or English. “Parents tell me that they fear that the newcomers will try to convert their children to Islam,” said Ševčenko.
According to Iveta Zarina, spokesperson with the Ministry of Education and Science, a total of eight schools in the country have experience teaching refugees.
“Teaching Latvian to refugees arriving here is the highest priority for the Latvian government and people, therefore every person arriving to Mucenieki will receive a three-month intensive course in Latvian,” explained Zarina. But currently, there are no language-instruction courses on offer at Mucenieki and Marie, the Congolese asylum seeker, says she has not had the chance to learn any Latvian. “But people here have been very welcoming,” said Marie, who expects to hear next month if she is granted asylum.
For now, NGOs are being called on to fill the void in language instruction. Patvērums “Drošā māja” (Shelter “Safe House” – PDM) is the only non-governmental organisation in Latvia that is working with refugees and asylum seekers to help them integrate. The NGO recently organised a tour of downtown Riga for inhabitants of the Mucenieki refugee centre during which they visited some of the city‘s most significant historical and cultural buildings. The tour was part of the “Introductory Course about Latvia” offered by PDM with support from the Ministry of Culture. PDM also offers language classes.
Parts of the private sector are pragmatic in their approach to the prospect of more refugees settling in Latvia, although only a minority would employ them, according to a recent survey carried out by the Latvian Chamber for Commerce and Industry. “It is clear that the refugee issue in Europe is becoming more and more important. Businessmen have to think if they are ready to employ refugees,” Jānis Endziņš, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, told the Baltic News Network. Twenty eight percent of business owners surveyed said they were prepared to hire refugees and 23 percent thought refugees could have a positive impact on Latvia’s economy and labour market. Yet 58 percent of entrepreneurs noted that the situation is risky and that Latvia should resettle as few refugees as possible. Many respondents pointed out that they saw language barriers as an obstacle.
Earlier this week outgoing Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnačs (National Alliance) announced that Latvia will introduce a burqa ban in public. “This ban is needed not to ensure public order and security, but to protect Latvia’s cultural values, our common public and cultural space, and each individual,” Rasnačs told national LNT television.