Category Archives: Blog

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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Migrant population in Middle East more than doubles

BEIRUT — The number of migrants in the Middle East has more than doubled since 2005, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

Migrant workers, asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons increased from around 25 million in 2005 to 54 million in 2015. This 120% increase is much higher than in North America and Europe (both around 20%) over the same period despite the arrival of 1.3 million asylum seekers in Europe last year, of whom many were from the Middle East. Forced and voluntary migration in the Middle East also grew at a faster pace than  in Africa (90% increase), the Asia-Pacific (26%), and Latin America and the Caribbean (77%).

The share of migrants of the region’s population grew from 7% in 2005 to approximately 13% in 2015. In other words, one-in-ten people currently living the Middle East is either an international migrant or displaced. The Pew Research Center based its analysis on data from United Nations agencies.

This growth of migration in the Middle East is mainly caused by two factors: conflict and economic opportunity.

About half of the Middle East's 23 million displaced migrants lived in Syria or Iraq in 2015Armed conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has displaced millions. This forced displacement accounts for the majority (60%) of the growth of the migrant population. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and subsequent civil war, the war in Syria since 2011, the rise of Daesh and the various conflicts in Yemen since the Arab Uprising had (internally) displaced 23 people by the end of 2015, about half of them living in Syria or Iraq, followed by Jordan, Yemen, Turkey and Lebanon.

About six-in-ten of the Middle East's non-displaced international migrant lived in Saudi Arabia and UAE in 2015

Economic opportunity has attracted millions of migrant workers — mostly from countries outside the region — particularly to the oil-rich Gulf States: Saudi Arabia (10.2 million), United Arab Emirates (8 million), Kuwait (2.9 million) and Oman (1.8 million). But also Israel and Lebanon continue to attract migrants.

The figures from the Pew Research Center show how war and armed conflict have wreaked havoc on the region: the portion of migrants living in the Middle East that were not displaced fell from 78% to 57% in the past decade.

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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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Will IOM joining the UN system result in better migration management and protection of migrants?

Last week the membership of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) approved a motion to join the United Nations. “We expect to soon have a seat and a voice at the UN table and the UN will soon have a dedicated migration agency,” said IOM Director General William‎ Lacy Swing.

But what will this mean for migrants around the world? One in every seven persons on the planet is now a migrant and 65.3 million of these are forced migrants and refugees.

Discussions about the IOM joining the UN go back a long time but were accelerated with the prominence of migration governance in the newly minted Sustainable Development Goals. Back in 2005, the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM), appointed by then-Secretary General Kofi Annan, recommended the IOM become a part of the UN system as a “global agency for economic migration,” leaving UNHCR as the key institution dealing with forced migration. This put the IOM at odds with the International Labour Organization (ILO), already a UN specialised agency, which claimed to have the monopoly on mobility. At the UN High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development in September 2013 it appeared the IOM had beaten the ILO in the battle over who would become the central agency for migration.

Unlike its long-time rival the ILO, the IOM currently has no formal mandate for the protection of migrants. Established in 1951 it acts primarily as a service provider to its member states and donors. The IOM’s mandate is to help ensure the orderly and humane management of migration, promote international cooperation on migration issues, assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems, and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need, including refugees and internally displaced persons (the latter being the mandate of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency).

Although the IOM itself argues that protection of migrant rights is central to its mission, many non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the International Catholic Migration Committee, have criticised the IOM in the past as being too state-centric in its operations, yielding to the agenda of governments with too little regard for migrants themselves. Assisted voluntary return programmes of the IOM have been criticised for not being genuinely voluntary, particularly when it involves migrants kept in detention centres.

However, the IOM does have a wealth of field experience in running programmes that have a strong emphasis on human rights and protection. It has worked for example on migrants’ health, the prevention of human trafficking, and has led migrants’ rights training programmes.

Upon acceptance into the UN family, the IOM would need to be given a formal legal protection mandate, guided by the core international human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. And IOM’s staff, both at headquarters and in field offices, would need to be trained in human rights; it already has experience and expertise conducting such trainings.

The IOM certainly seems up to the task of being the “global agency for economic migration” from an operational point of view. The new UN agency currently has over 9,500 employees in 450 offices world-wide, which assisted an estimated 20 million migrants in 2015.

Whether this will result in better global management of migration flows, the protection of migrant workers against exploitation by employers and recruitment agencies or a more effective fight against smugglers and traffickers worldwide, only the future can tell.

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The lifesaving app that wasn’t

It sounded too good to be true: an app that let’s you save refugees in the Mediterranean from the comfort of your living room.

“Every person who has watched this tragedy unfold over the past two years will now have a chance to contribute to saving lives, even if it is giving a couple of minutes of their time on an app,” Christopher Catrambone, founder of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), told Mashable.

Here is how it was supposed to work: The ISea app “crowd-sources the search of the sea for migrants by giving access to the satellite image of the sea to smart phone users.” It then lets you scour those satellite images to spot refugee boats in trouble and alert rescue teams to their location. Teams such as MOAS, which provides professional search-and-rescue assistance to refugees and migrants in distress at sea. MOAS collaborated with the Singapore-based Grey for Good to develop the app.

Yet one week after the launch of ISea, the first stories broke that the app did not live up to its promise. Users pointed out that the app displays the same image for every user. ISea was subsequently pulled from the AppStore. And Grey for Good turned out to be the pro bono arm of a global advertising agency.

Meanwhile, MOAS, which even without the app rescued more than 2,000 people in its first two weeks of its operations in the Mediterranean, has denounced Grey for Good and the ISea app. “We were dismayed to discover that real time images were not being used,” MOAS wrote in a statement following the revelations. “We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good and spoken candidly about our disappointment to the media.”

So far 2016 has been the deadliest year on record on the Mediterranean: 2,888 migrants and refugees lost their lives, compared with 1,838 through the first six months of 2015.

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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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Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff dies at age 68

Football great Johan Cruijff today died at age 68 after a battle with lung cancer. Cruijff was probably one of the most famous Dutchmen and definitely the most well-known Dutch football player: wherever in the world I have been over the past 30-odd years, the name Cruijff was always a foolproof topic to strike up a conversation.

Cruijff was the first “modern” football player, an athlete who revolutionised the game in more than one way. He was a visionary and master of football tactics. He introduced, together with coach Rinus Michels, the concept of “total football” at Ajax Amsterdam and later as captain of the Dutch national team during the World Cup in Germany in 1974. (The first of three World Cup finals the Netherlands played, and lost, during my lifetime.) He helped Ajax win three European Cups in a row from 1971-1973.

Total football, with players passing the ball frequently to seek advantage, and switch positions seamlessly to adjust to the flow of play, electrified and influenced the game worldwide. This possession-based playing style Cruijff promoted, with an emphasis on relentless attack, has been widely copied since.

After his successes with Ajax he moved to FC Barcelona mid-season in 1973 and led the Catalan team to its first national title in 14 years. Most memorable was the 5-0 win at arch-rival Real Madrid, a team that was heavily supported by Franco’s dictatorship. Some Catalans still refer to Cruijff as “El Salvador,” the saviour.

Johan Cruijff revolutionised and professionalised the game in other ways too. The transfer fee FC Barcelona paid to Ajax (US$14 million in today’s dollars) was unheard of at the time and considered a milestone in the commercialization of sport. He was also one of the first football players to take on corporate sponsorships. For the 1974 World Cup the Dutch football federation had signed a sponsorship with sports brand Adidas whereas Cruijff had his own deal with rival Puma. He refused to wear the team’s official jersey and ended up playing in a custom-made shirt, and shorts, bearing only two stripes on the sleeves instead of Adidas’s famed three.

Cruijff’s virtuosity won him many accolades: he was awarded the European Footballer of the Year trophy in 1971, 1973 and 1974. And was named Europe’s best player of the 20th century in 1999. As coach of Ajax and Barcelona, with whom he won four Spanish titles, he won his fourth European club title.

Unfortunately I was too young to have seen Johan Cruijff play during his glory days at Ajax and Barcelona in the 1970s. My first memory of hearing his name was during the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, an event Cruijff had decided to boycott for reasons that are still not fully known. That there were frictions with other players on the national team was no secret; Cruijff has always been known for being dominant, stubborn, uncompromising and forceful. Another reason given at the time was that he opposed the military dictatorship in Argentina, which, a few years later, made him stand out for me among the mostly apolitical football players.

The first time I saw Cruijff play was on 6 December 1981, when, at age 34, he made his comeback at Ajax after his tenure in Barcelona and an interlude playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the United States. He scored an absolutely magical goal, concluding a rush past several defenders with a subtle lob over the goalkeeper from the tip of the penalty box. For several years my generation had the privilege to enjoy Cruijff’s superb game, until his retirement in 1984, which he crowned with both the national cup and championship playing for arch-rival Feyenoord Rotterdam. As a teenager I, and many of my friends, always tried to copy the so-called “Cruijff turn” – a technique he used for passing defenders by faking toward them, then flicking the ball behind his own other leg in the opposite direction and darting after it.

Cruijff was larger than life. He announced last October that he was suffering from lung cancer but continued to write his popular –and very influential in Dutch football– weekly column in De Telegraaf newspaper. Last month Cruijff said he was “2-0 up in the first half” of his battle against cancer. Cruijff was known for his creative use –some would say, abuse– of the Dutch language, commonly referred to as “Cruijffiaans.” “Every disadvantage has its advantage” and “You can’t win without the ball” are oft-quoted classics.

As former Dutch tennis player Raemon Sluiter aptly put it: “‘You have to have lived, otherwise you may not die’ he would probably have said. Rest in peace, Mr. Cruijff.”

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