Latvia and the refugee crisis: a primer

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LSM offers you a short overview on what you need to know about where Latvia stands in the refugee crisis. Official information on the asylum process in Latvia is available at the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Office.

What is Latvia's official stance on refugees?

Latvia has agreed to admit 531 refugees from Italy and Greece over two years. The fate of another 245 that were to be accepted from Hungary will be decided within a year.

The Latvian position on refugees does not object to a coordinated EU action in relocating refugees, however, it maintains that such activities can only be done voluntarily, and that each country holds the right to decide how many refugees it will take in.

The Latvian Foreign Ministry encourages cooperation with third countries like Turkey to reduce the influx of refugees into the EU. It also calls for reinforcing the EU's borders and "engaging in a dialogue with third countries to achieve that they meet their obligations on return and readmission of their citizens".

In other words, Latvia wants more effort to be put into stopping the refugee flow and to tell other countries that they'll have to take their citizens back eventually.

What is Latvia's past record on accepting asylum seekers?

It's pretty bad. According to data by the Pew Research Center, among EU countries Latvia has the lowest rate of approving asylum seekers, having accepted only 8.3% of asylum seekers from January to June 2015.

Data from the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs concerning the period from 2007 to 2014 shows that 1271 people applied for asylum in Latvia. Of these, only 165 asylum seekers were granted refugee or alternative status (the latter is different mainly in that it's granted for a year and then reviewed again). 

What sort of refugees will Latvia admit?

Ilze Pētersone-Godmane, State Secretary for the Interior Ministry, has said that these groups of people are preferred:

  • Families with children who go to school, and thus can be more easily taught Latvian;
  • One of the two parents speak at least one of the languages of a European country;
  • Persons with ID documents;
  • Persons with an education.

Another criterion voiced by officials such as PM Laimdota Straujuma is that people with 'similar mentality' would be preferred. Precisely what she means by that is open to debate with the likelihood being what she means is Christian refugees.

What has been done in Latvia so far over the matter?

On September 29 the Latvian government approved a plan of action over relocating and admitting refugees to Latvia.

The plan describes refugee admission in three parts:

1) Singling out and moving the refugees. This consists of sending experts who will visit Italy and Greece and singling out the refugees that Latvia would like to admit via person-to-person interviews in which the refugees are informed about various aspects of life in Latvia;

2) Admitting and settling the refugees. This includes moving the refugees from Italy and Greece to Latvia as well as expanding and rebuilding the Mucenieki refugee center where only about 200 people can reside now;

3) Integrating the refugees within the Latvian society - teaching them Latvian from day one, assigning a social worker to every refugee/family, informing them about Latvia's laws and customs and inviting them to learn about Latvian culture.

The plan is estimated to cost €16m while the precise cost and the proposed sources of funding will be clarified on October 20. 

Other than that, municipalities like Rīga are making plans to bolster up their refugee intake capacity. The city of Rīga has announced that it will establish a coordination center for refugees as "the state doesn't offer any understandable policy in this matter," according to mayor Nils Ušakovs. 

In short, 'planning' is still the operative word. Very little has been actually done in Latvia to facilitate admitting refugees. 

Refugee rights in Latvia

People with a refugee or alternative status have the same rights and obligations as everyone else, as stipulated in the Latvian Constitution (chapter 8). In addition to qualifying for refugee benefits, they are entitled to pensions, unemployment and other benefits that regular Latvian citizens can receive. They also have the right to reunite with their closest relatives by bringing them into the country. 

People who have been granted refugee status are entitled to receive a subsistence benefit of €256.12 a month for 12 months, while the same applies for persons with alternative status for 9 months. The benefit for minors is 30% of this amount or €76.83. An extra €49.80 can be received a month for Latvian tuition costs. (Update: The figures in this paragraph are no longer valid as benefits have been halved.)

Asylum seekers who are still waiting to be granted their status - this can take from three months up to a year - are paid a daily subsistence of €3 (raised from €2.15 on July 12, 2016) and can reside in the Mucenieki asylum seeker center for free.

Theoretically, during the time they receive benefits, those granted refugee or alternative should find a place of residence and a job. Many don't succeed and turn to the NGO Shelter "Safe House" for help.

Where do Latvians stand on admitting refugees?

It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise that Latvians, like many other people in Europe, are against admitting refugees, a perception that is reflected in the leading parties' announcements. A July 2015 survey of Latvians aged 18-55 by TNS says that 55% of Latvians think that Latvia should not accept any refugees at all.

Another survey suggests that Latvians at least sympathize with the peril of refugees - provided they have a real reason to be refugees.

In a September 2015 survey by SKDS, 70% of people said armed conflict was an understandable reason to become a refugee, with around half that number believing religious or ethnic persecution at home was a good enough reason to come to Latvia.

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