Category Archives: Baltics

Tiny Baltics and France lead the way in EU relocation scheme

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.

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Laimīgu Jauno gadu!

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.

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European Commission critical of Baltic states for admission requirements asylum seekers

RIGA – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have drawn the ire of the European Commission over their reluctance to host refugees under the EU relocation programme, the LNT commercial TV channel reported Friday.

“There are only two criteria based on which someone can be refused asylum or relocation within Europe,” Kristīne Liepiņa, spokesperson for the European Commission Delegation in Latvia, told LNT. “One reason is that this person poses a threat to other people’s security, namely, to local society. And another reason, of course, is if this person poses a threat to international security.”

Yet to date Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have only accepted refugee families with children and educated refugees with foreign language skills and work experience.

The Baltic states between them are expected to accept 1,481 asylum seekers by the end of 2017 as part of the EU’s relocation scheme. All EU member states together agreed to take 160,000 refugees that are stranded in Greece and Italy by that date.

In its fifth report on the progress of the EU relocation and resettlement programme, the Commission wrote last month: “During the reporting period, a number of Member States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have rejected relocation requests without providing substantiated reasons or on grounds other than those specified in the Council Decisions on relocation.” The previous, fourth report (June) also singled out the Baltic countries, among others, for “[…] lack of motivation of rejections of relocation requests [which] goes against the letter of the Council Decisions on relocation and the spirit of loyal cooperation.”

This is the first time, however, that a representative of the European Commission openly criticises the Baltic governments. So far the EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has only encouraged member states to do more. During the presentation of the last progress report he spoke of a “positive trend, but more efforts are needed.”

Latvia’s governing Unity party believes that the EU report is a testament to the fact that Latvia takes the application verification process very serious. “Our system of domestic affairs staff are doing their job well. […] The criteria should not be changed,” Lolita Čigāne (Unity), member of the Saeima and chairperson of the European Affairs Committee, told LNT in response to the criticism.

Ironically, the criticism comes at a time when all three Baltic countries have started accepting substantially more refugees. On Friday, Lithuania welcomed 11 Syrian refugees from Greece under the EU deal, bringing the total to 73 so far. Earlier last week, a court in Latvia granted five Iraqis refugee status and 12 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Syria subsidiary (temporary) protection. And two Syrian refugee families arrived in Estonia from Greece at the end of July.

The next progress report of the European Commission is expected in September.

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39,399 Estonians sign petition against “mass immigration”

RIGA – Yesterday the Estonian Conservative People’s Party EKRE submitted to parliament a petition against mass immigration. The petition demands a referendum on the government’s immigration and refugee policy, the Estonian Public Broadcaster ERR reported.

EKRE is in the opposition and with seven (of the 101) seats the smallest of the six parties represented in the Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament. Mart Helme, EKRE’s chairman, told ERR that his party had begun to collect signatures last summer, after the European Commission introduced its controversial refugee relocation programme.

Under the EU relocation scheme, Estonia, with 1.3 million inhabitants, is set to receive 302 asylum seekers by the end of 2017 – a fraction of the 160,000 refugees EU member states agreed to take from Greece and Italy over the next two years. To date Estonia has taken in 19 Iraqi and Syrian refugees from Greece.

Only last year, immigration exceeded emigration for the first time since Estonia regained its independence in 1991. According to Statistics Estonia, 15,413 persons immigrated to and 13,003 persons emigrated from Estonia in 2015. The majority of the migrants – 52% of the immigrants and 69% of the emigrants – were citizens of Estonia. Ukrainians, Russian and Finns are among the largest non-Estonian migrants.

Together with Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark, the Baltic states have opposed the EU policy to distribute refugees – not immigrants – based on quotas. Given this opposition, the European Commission is now expected to present a final proposal for the reformed Common European Asylum System, next month, which will no longer feature quotas.

Along with the petition, EKRE’s parliamentary group submitted a draft bill that calls for a referendum on 23 April 2017. It would like to ask voters: “Do you agree that the Republic of Estonia participates in the redistribution of immigrants arriving in the European Union?”

The question is: which “redistribution” and which “immigrants”?

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Refugees could be returned from Latvia to their home countries: Interior Ministry official

RIGAMore refugees arrived in Latvia yesterday but Interior Ministry official says they could be returned home once conflicts are over.

A second group of refugees from Iraq and Syria – four families, a total of 15 people, including seven children – arrived in Latvia yesterday under the European Union’s refugee relocation programme, the LETA news agency reported.

Latvia is set to receive 481 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy by the end of 2017  as part of the EU’s relocation programme. In addition, the government has agreed to resettle another 50 refugees from outside the EU. The first six refugees – two families from Eritrea and Syria – arrived in Riga in February.

However, Interior Ministry State Secretary Ilze Pētersone-Godmane yesterday claimed that in the event of a halt in conflict, their refugee status would be reviewed and they may have to return to their home country, the Baltic Times reported. According to Pētersone-Godmane, the status of refugees who fled the Balkan wars during the 1990s is currently hotly debated in Germany. She asserted that according to German law they would have to return.

Pētersone-Godmane is correct that under the EU program there are no specific provisions about the exact status asylum seekers relocated from Greece and Italy will need to be provided by host countries. The Interior Ministry State Secretary is also right when she says that refugees may be returned to their home countries once conflicts are over.

Refugee (Geneva Convention) status versus subsidiary and humanitarian protection

Formally recognised refugees are judged to be facing a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group” and for these reasons are unwilling or unable to return to their home country. So-called “subsidiary protection” applies to those who do not qualify as refugees but would “face a real risk of suffering serious harm” if returned to their country of origin. Finally, rejected asylum seekers can be allowed to stay temporarily on “humanitarian status” to protect individuals such as the terminally ill or unaccompanied minors.

The table below illustrates the status of those granted international protection last year. The cross-country variance is striking: Germany granted 97 per cent of asylum seekers Refugee (Geneva Convention) status but Slovakia only six percent. The difference can be explained by different asylum policies, not the characteristics of asylum seekers themselves.

Typically, recognised refugees receive a temporary residence permit for three years, after which the government can indeed review the situation of the country of origin. (Those with “subsidiary” and “humanitarian” protection usually receive a one-year temporary residence.)

Yet it is unclear what debate in Germany the Interior Ministry State Secretary is referring to. The European refugee crisis of the 1990s displaced 2.5 million in the former Yugoslavia and its successor states. The 350,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina who fled to Germany were only provided temporary protection status, because European neighbours were not willing to provide them long-term asylum. Their cases were also not individually reviewed, as is required under the Refugee Convention. This meant that they were immediately repatriated after the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. Most, if not all, of the Bosnian war refugees returned, resettled in the United States or have become German citizens.

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Iraqi refugee family’s appeal rejected by Vilnius court

The Vilnius Regional Administrative Court yesterday rejected an appeal by an Iraqi refugee family who arrived in the Lithuanian capital under the European Union’s refugee relocation programme in December 2015, the Lithuania Tribune reported.

The family had appealed against the Lithuanian Migration Department’s decision in February to grant them subsidiary (temporary) protection instead of full-fledged refugee status.

Refugee status grants permanent residency whereas subsidiary protection provides only temporary residence, which can be revoked once the situation in the country of origin improves.

“The asylum seekers failed to provide sufficient arguments regarding individual persecution directed directly against them and their minor children,” the court motivated its decision to dismiss the case in a press release. Judge Arūnas Kaminskas told reporters that the Migration Department had adequately assessed the family’s situation in Iraq, according to the Lithuania Tribune.

The family of four was the first that arrived in Lithuania under the EU relocation scheme, through which EU member states will take 160,000 refugees that are stranded in Greece and Italy by the end of 2017.

Under the EU programme there are no specific provisions about the exact status (refugee or subsidiary protection) relocated asylum seekers will need to be provided by host countries.

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Baltic states reluctant to host refugees

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.

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