What’s happening on Latvia’s eastern border?
Last year 476 illegal border crossers were detained on Latvia’s borders with Russia and Belarus. That’s plenty of cause for alarm, as it's three times as many as in 2014 when 144 were detained, according to Border Guard data.
Border Guard spokeswoman Kristīne Pētersone told LSM that Lithuania thinks a total of 316 illegal immigrants, including some from Estonia, have entered the country “from the direction of Latvia”, meaning that the real number of illegal entrants could be higher than reported. It’s unclear how many may have managed to reach their destinations unnoticed.
Crossing the 276-km border between Latvia and Russia was easy enough until late last year. Latvian Television’s “Forbidden Methods” filmed someone jumping right across the thin sand strip on the border, which in theory should show officers on patrol whether someone has snuck past.
Who are the people trying to get across?
Perhaps unexpectedly, the majority of border crossers detained on the border with Russia were Vietnamese. Border Guard representatives have explained this with Russia’s economic decline, which has prompted Vietnamese citizens legally residing in Russia to try their luck making it to Western Europe through Latvia.
Recently, organized crime groups have started participating in the scheme as opposed to jobless locals in the Latgale region who reportedly smuggled people for up to €1,000 a night. The Latvian parliament is currently considering stricter punishment for illegal border crossing and smuggling.
Latvia's border with Belarus, which saw 176 people illegally crossing the border last year, is part of the route Iraqi citizens take to Europe. Of the people detained there last year, 59 were Iraqi citizens, while only 11 Iraqis were detained on the Russian border.
Commenting on the route of Iraqi citizens, the Border Guard told LSM that they are mostly Kurds coming from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which the Border Guard stressed is one of the safest regions in the area.
After hopping on a plane these people arrive in Istanbul or Ankara, apply for Russian tourist visas and fly to Moscow, then Minsk, where they are taken on mini-buses to the Latvia-Belarus border which they cross on foot. According to the Border Guard, the Iraqi citizens hide evidence that they were in Russia so that they aren’t returned to Russia.
Upon touching Latvian soil they apply for asylum but quickly leave the asylum seekers’ center for their target destinations - Germany and Finland - where they join their acquaintances, relatives, and friends living there. The people already in Europe are, by and large, funding the scheme, Pētersone told LSM.
Why build a wall?
As Europe is busy building walls, the succulent point of any story about Latvia’s borders would appear to be the projected wall - a 90-kilometer, €19m fence to be finished by 2019 on the border with Russia.
However, as Interior Ministry spokeswoman Daiga Holma told LSM, the fence is but a part of securing the border, and its construction had been planned well before the refugee crisis broke out.
“At the moment building fences on borders - especially on the EU’s interior borders - in order to stop refugee flows has acquired a completely different context. However [stopping refugees] was not Latvia’s original goal,” according to Holma.
“We have to talk not about fences but about fortifying Latvia’s outer border, which is concurrently the EU’s outer border as well,” the Interior Ministry spokeswoman told LSM.
Will the fence hold?
That setting up a border zone and a fence would not solve Latvia’s problems is clear from the remarks of Border Guard chief Normunds Garbars appearing on Latvian Television March 9.
Garbars said that the Border Guard currently needs about 200 more personnel plus new equipment to protect the border from illegal entrants. According to him, only 60 km of it could be adequately reinforced this year.
The fence itself, at least the few kilometers that have been set up, is two meters high and made from 4-mm wire, with barbed wire on top. It is to be accompanied by a 12-meter border strip, while the non-fenced parts of the border are to be monitored with cameras and motion sensors.
The fence’s ability to keep border crossers at bay has already been criticized by industry specialists, with Gints Švalkovskis of the Žogu fabrika (Fence Factory) company saying it’s “very easy” to cut through.
However, Border Guard representative Mariks Petrušins told Latvian Television that the fence is only meant to slow down, not completely stop the illegal entrants.
While efforts to reinforce the border are underway or merely being planned, the signs are that pressure on it could soon mount.
According to the Border Guard, Russia’s visa policy and economy, and possibly the Russia-Norway and Russia-Finland routes shifting to the borders of the Baltic states could incite more people to try to get across this year.
In total, Latvia plans on spending €38m on securing the border in the 2015-2018 period. Estonia just confirmed a similar project worth €70m.