Category Archives: European Union

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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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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4 myths about Brussels and jihad

The questions and criticism started only days after the March 22 suicide bombings in the Belgian capital of Brussels: Is the dysfunctional city the Jihadi capital of Europe? Could the terrorists have been stopped if not for inept security forces?

Full article published in Dallas Morning News on 19 April 2016.

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5 reasons the EU-Turkey deal won’t end the Syrian refugee crisis

After months of negotiations, the 28 European Union leaders and the Turkish government last weekend reached an agreement to slow the refugee influx from Turkey. In exchange for taking back Syrian refugees who crossed to Europe illegally, the EU will accept refugees from Turkey, along with 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) and a renewed prospect for Turkey to join the EU.

Full article published in Dallas Morning News on 23 March 2016.

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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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