The refugee crisis of the last couple of years has affected public debate in the Baltic states in much the same way that it has elsewhere in post-Communist Europe. All three countries have a very limited experience of migration – aside, of course, from the large numbers who migrated to the region during the Soviet occupation – and the issue has polarised society. Latvian Didzis Melbiksis is the UNHCR Association Communication Officer for Northern Europe, responsible for managing the UN’s communication with the media and public in the region. This is, in many ways, a challenging job: Latvia has been described as the most anti-refugee country in the EU by its own foreign minister – although, unlike the so-called Visegrad countries (Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary), none of the Baltic governments have gone as far as voting against the refugee quotas proposed by the EU. But large-scale protests in all three Baltic states have seemed to indicate that most locals are troubled by the prospect of immigration – even the very limited amount proposed (just a few hundred for each country).
Melbiksis was a well-known and somewhat controversial figure in Latvia prior to taking up this post, reputed for his journalism but also for stunts such as marching from the Freedom Monument in central Riga to a nearby club with a giant phallus. Considering the seemingly ingrained opposition to immigration and multiculturalism in the Baltic states, his latest job may be his toughest role yet. Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood recently spoke to Melbiksis in Riga about the challenges and responsibilities he faces in this role.
How did you come to start doing this job? Because it’s been since late 2014, right?
Well, I was working previously as a journalist – radio, print, online, anything. But my background – my studies background – is in human rights; I have a master’s degree in human rights. So these kinds of topics have always been interesting to me, and In autumn 2014, what happened was the following: the UNHCR don’t have any office here, they don’t have any staff here; the regional office is in Stockholm, which covers the eight countries – five Nordic and three Baltic. But they saw that Latvia was going to be the presiding country of the EU for six months – from 2015. And they thought “OK, let’s maybe do something there in the communication field”. So they started looking for someone to hire as a consultant. So this is how it all began. They found me through my old contacts in Sweden, where I lived for something like six years. Initially, it was not intended to be a long-term project, but since the refugee crisis – if we can call it that – broke out in spring last year, I just continued to get these contracts, and then the opportunity arose with one empty position.
So as you said your job title is covering “Northern Europe” – so that’s considered to be the Baltics and the Nordic countries as well.
Our responsibilities are a little bit divided – For me it’s mostly Latvia, and I help to coordinate things with Estonia and Lithuania, so that is my geographical field.
Because I was thinking that this area is not only broad geographically, but in terms of the dominant attitudes in society. They’re close geographically, obviously, but I would think the challenges would be very different in the different countries.
Yeah, even if you look at the Baltic countries – we are quite different. Just look at how we managed the reception of the relocated persons; the procedures are quite different, and actually this is why we in our organisation, we talk about this region, and then we try to really avoid talking about the Baltic countries or the Nordic countries. It’s either “Northern Europe” or we speak about a particular country in our region.
In Latvia, they [UNHCR] did have an office, but that was more than ten years ago, and then it was closed – of course, partially I think it was a financially-based decision, but also we didn’t really have so many refugees.
Not ten years ago, no. Didn’t Latvia take in something like 50 refugees in the ten-year period before?
Up until the refugee crisis, it was seventeen years since we introduced asylum laws and protections we had given status to roughly 200 persons – in seventeen years. It’s really tiny. Now the numbers, of course, are changing, but just a little bit. Comparatively – yes – we are supposed, within this relocation scheme, to admit 531. In two years, it’s of course an increase, but comparatively on a European scale or on a global scale, it’s really tiny.
It must be a very difficult job though. Obviously I’m aware of the general tone of the discussion in Latvia – well, in all of the Baltic countries, maybe a bit less so in Lithuania, but most people are opposed – quite strongly opposed in many cases. Does that not make your job very depressing and quite difficult?
At some points, yes. I would say that the job is challenging, but then again, I work with mass media and with journalists, and I try to help them.
We have arranged training; we have funded reportage trips. I see a genuine interest from many journalists in really understanding these topics more deeply. Because for Latvia, it’s something really new – to understand the context. People have been going with our funding to Greece, to Italy, to Turkey, to really see how things are there. And when the person sees crowds of people in a refugee camp in Greece, and then thinking about 531 in two years here in Latvia.
About the general population – there are different opinion polls, you can see that the results are quite negative But also, it depends on how they pose the question – each time, you can see slightly different results. But in general, I would say that most Latvians are quite passive. If some pollster comes to them and asks them the question – “if a refugee moves in next door, will it increase insecurity”, the person would say “yes”, but they would not go massively out on the streets, big demonstrations.
Although some people have done so here.
Some, yes. I mean in Latvia generally, people don’t do this on a big scale. And no one has been attacking the asylum centre or anything like that.
Although that did happen in Estonia [at the immigration centre in Vao, which was set on fire]
It happened in Estonia, yes – and I think it was one time. These incidents and these outbursts of really negative attitudes in public are actually quite rare. From one side, we could take it as a positive: people are not attacking anybody or harming anybody physically, but then again people are often not engaging actively and advocating for refugees. There have been some examples – but then again, they are not huge or big or anything. So actually the attitude – it’s quite latent; it’s something cooking under the surface. I think it’s just important to really work with refugees now, and really help them to integrate, so that no incidents happen that would really boost these negative emotions.
What kind of incidents would you have in mind?
Anything. I think it would be very sensitive in Latvia if a refugee committed a crime – even a minor one.
Like stealing something, for example?
Exactly. Last year it happened, that someone started to spread around – it was on another social network and then on Twitter, a fake news message – that one of the asylum seekers in Mucenieki [the main asylum centre for Latvia, about 20 km outside Riga], has stolen a mobile phone from a girl, and slapped her in the face. It was totally fake, but people started to retweet it, and there was even one – quite high-ranking politician, I would say – working in one of the ministries, bizarrely enough in the Ministry of Justice, and some other people who are known and so on. And of course, they had to sort of retract their support. Someone said: “Oh yeah, I retweeted it, but I didn’t mean to support it”, but still you know it didn’t happen – why didn’t you check whether it was true or not? So this is very, very sensitive.
Latvia, and also the other countries in our region, are quite lucky, because the number of refugees is totally manageable. I mean, in other countries – let’s say in Sweden, or Germany, for that matter – it’s a completely different kind of situation, and there are other types of issues.
It’s a strain on resources, you mean?
Yes, that as well, and then of course we shouldn’t be surprised if we put together really many people, the place becomes crowded – from different regions, religions, cultures.
And then they stay there for too long, because the decision on their asylum application takes too much time because there are so many other applicants. In Sweden now, I think, the average time now is two years. Can you imagine you apply today and then in two years you might be getting a decision. This is a very fertile environment for any kind of conflicts – some bad things can happen. Here we don’t really have that; I mean, we have some minor things going on. The asylum centre has been going on for a few months, and renovation is going on. So you know it creates maybe some kind of tensions – somebody is not satisfied; things are moving, and it’s maybe loud sometimes, but it’s more of an everyday situation.
I’d like to go back to what you said about this misinformation problem, because this is something I notice a lot – not only just in Latvia, or the Baltics, but also with people I know from home, from Britain – you get these stories and they are clearly fake, I can see that just from looking at them, but people get angry about them. How in your job do you go about combatting this? There was the example of Nekā Personīga [a Latvian investigative TV programme] I don’t know if you saw this, but they made up an entirely fake negative story [about refugees in Latvia], and they spread it and it was very successful – people shared this, because it had been shared by a few fake accounts. How do you go about combatting this kind of thing?
It’s very hard, first of all, for everybody – but also for journalists, especially for those working in the news, where things are supposed to be happening fast. I have worked in news myself, and in the radio, and the tempo is just incredible sometimes, and even with the best intentions, sometimes the pressure is so much that you simply don’t make it. That’s of course unfortunate. I mean for us, UNHCR, it’s just to help journalists and the public as much as possible. But we do not really go out actively combatting – like “let’s make a campaign against…”. Maybe we could and should, but I don’t think it’s really on that scale.
Also with UNHCR as an organisation, we do a lot of work, so to speak in the background. I mean there are recommendations to the government – also in Latvia when last year they made amendments to asylum law, also recommendations. We talked to them, we talked to the Ministry of the Interior, and many other partners. So it’s a lot of just trying to help, and not going out into public and screaming. Actually with journalists, it’s the same – it’s not our first step to go out and say “oh, this media was wrong” – no. We would arrange training or something with journalists to help them understand refugee issues better. We had one actually this spring. It was combined – there was actually funding for a reportage trip. It was one day seminar here in Riga for journalists from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. So that’s I think that’s one of the ways to do it, and that’s the style of our organisation. We’re not like Amnesty International, who are really campaigning, and maybe even attacking – so let them do that, but our aim is first and foremost to help. Also when we criticise governments – it happens sometimes, but I think you have noticed that it’s not very often that you hear that UNHCR is smashing this or that government. If we see that things are turning out really badly and none of the diplomatic steps really works, then we go out in public, but we go to the government and tell them before that we are going to do this. So we try to be as polite as possible, but yeah, in general about these fake news stories getting spread and so on, it’s a bigger issue for society.
Because of course it’s not only about the refugee crisis – it’s about many things.
Totally – it’s a question of education; it’s a question of media literacy.
Because, I mean, Latvia has a lot of experience with combatting Russian propaganda, which is also usually based in untruths. Sometimes these overlap – the example of the girl who was supposedly kidnapped by refugees in Germany, that was a fake Russian story. I’ve been surprised a bit that these haven’t been combined a bit more, but maybe they are seen as entirely different fronts.
Well, my job is to help to monitor the media. Every day, we collect tonnes of information – articles, whatever, from each country in our region. And also we try to figure out some patterns – what is going on, so that we are aware. It’s important for us also – how to formulate it ourselves. What do we need to communicate here and now? What do we communicate next month? What are the important issues? Even if someone is creating some fake stories, there is a reason behind it – in some instances, yeah, it’s Russian propaganda; in some instances, it’s locals who are unsatisfied because, you know, his grandmother is getting a very small pension – and I mean that’s true – and this person gets frustrated that all these refugees are getting benefits, which he thinks are bigger. And then let’s create something, let’s make these people a bogeyman. So there is something behind it, something which is genuine. And it’s like a lot of things – take any example – Brexit; yeah, what people did was not very smart, but there are certain reasons why many people voted for this.
And with this fake news, I see it as well among my Facebook friends, but actually in the beginning – especially when I saw that some of my relatives are spreading it – I tried to say something, but then I saw that it doesn’t really work this way. Just going and smashing them and commenting all the time, and saying that “This website is completely bogus, don’t read it. It’s the same old story that you see again and again: people try to look for information that confirms their worldview. It’s about media literacy; it’s about the worldview that people already have.
So if challenging them doesn’t make any difference, is there anything that can make any difference?
I think with the refugee issues, and I have seen it happen: meeting refugees here in Latvia. That’s what changes your attitude
Simply because in Latvia, in Lithuania, in Estonia, what people react to when they are asked by a pollster, when they tweet or when they put stupid things on Facebook, they are reacting to what they see on television. And television is showing what is going on, right – but what they see is huge crowds crossing the border somewhere near Greece. I mean none of us would like to meet a thousand people, a crowd – because we don’t know who they are.
Sure, it’s an intimidating image.
Exactly. And someone living in a small Latvian town, or even a city, thinks “all these people are coming here. They are going to settle down right next to me”. And that’s what they are reacting to. And at the same time they have never met a single person from Syria, or Iraq – they have not met a single refugee. And what changes is when they meet them in daily life somehow. This is the challenge, the struggle for Latvia, and any other country that has not received many refugees, and is not going most probably to admit that many. Much of the population will not get this chance so soon. One NGO in Latvia – perhaps you know Drošā Māja (Safe House), they have been working with refugee integration for several years, they do these tours. They put refugees on a bus, and arrange a trip to a certain municipality where they meet local politicians, they meet local inhabitants, they ask some questions to them; Those guys want to know who they are, what they want to do there, and so on. And I have met some local politicians who have met refugees, and all those stereotypes that they have, they just disappear.
I think in almost 100% of cases. Because the stereotypes are not true. Because they see that the person comes from Eritrea, or from Syria. And the questions that they ask when they come to the municipality are: “how is it with jobs here? Will I be able to work? If the person has a family and kids – “do you have a kindergarten, a school, healthcare”. You know, normal questions; Not like “can we build a mosque here?” or anything like this. What people would expect. You know, you shake the hand of the person, and you see that he is speaking like a normal person. He’s just like a human being, just like any of us. And then what stays is this little fear of terrorism, security, which is also genuine.
Well, there have been cases, it seems, where there have been refugees who were terrorists.
Yes, and this should, of course, always be taken into consideration. And it actually is – when the asylum application is reviewed, one aspect is security. And there are cases where a person who is eligible for refugee status, if authorities find out that he has been a member of a terrorist group, he has been committing war crimes, he has been committing crimes against humanity – things like that. He will not be granted refugee status, or if he has refugee status already, it will be taken away. And also a country can, if they think a particular person is a security threat for our national security, then the same thing.
So your attitude is not that just anyone who wants to be should be allowed in.
No, no, no. It goes hand in hand. I think some people also don’t really understand that admitting refugees doesn’t mean erasing the borders, because borders are actually needed for the asylum procedure to work, because most of them – let’s say in Latvia, they come across the eastern border [from Russia]. The first ones that they meet are actually border guards. So these guys have actually been instructed: they know what to do, they know how to take the application, everything. So it’s really important for the border to be there, but that doesn’t mean that it should be a twenty-metre fence and no one gets through. Every time when someone says “We should just close the border, and problem solved”. I remind them – well, we already had that: it was called the Soviet Union. And look how that worked out: you couldn’t really get out very easily, and you could hardly get in. So we had that. Do you really want that again?”
So this security aspect is really important, because of course the absolute majority of refugees are law-abiding people, and many of them are fleeing from terrorists, so it’s really important to find out if there is anybody who could be trying to pose as a refugee or anything like that, so we can separate them. There are other people who are fleeing from them, so it shouldn’t really.
The Baltic countries at an EU level seem to be seen as very critical of the quota, but they haven’t actually opposed it mostly, which is unlike the Visegrad countries – I think originally it was the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and now also Poland have joined them – which voted against it. Why do you think the Baltic countries have not gone this far, even though they’re similar in many respects – in terms of, for example, income levels, history of Communism, etc?
I think – well, it might be a couple of reasons – but for Latvia, in particular, the timing of the refugee crisis was quite important, because actually the whole thing of introducing these quotas, the whole discussion, started when Latvia was the presiding country of the EU [in 2015], so we just had to behave.
So Latvia needed to show some kind of leadership, you mean?
Yes, so it was a little bit weird at some moments, because at the very beginning our government’s stance was very careful, because they were of course all the time looking at the public and checking what are our people going to say about this. But of course you can’t really take the leadership and say “everybody else do things, and we just will support you, but we won’t participate in the programme”. So there was of course a lot of discussion about exact numbers. And then at some point some politicians started invoking our history – you know, we had so many immigrants during the Soviet times, so we should be a special case. But I think they very quickly understood that this is along the lines of reasoning of Mr. Putin – “oh, immigrants from Soviet times; they’re almost like refugees” – and so Russia needs to protect them. First, it plays into the hands of the Kremlin; second, the EU countries will not listen to this – it doesn’t sound serious, no matter how you feel emotionally. It’s immigrants from that time, and refugees – it’s such different categories. Guys, we are talking about such tiny numbers – what is the problem? So I think in many ways here, we just have to follow the EU. And I think the sentiment is that we need to be part of the EU, no matter what, also considering the current situation – Russia being more and more of a threat.
So the thinking is that you need to do your bit so that they will help you if you need it?
Sort of, yes. This argument didn’t work for everyone, but I think it worked in general. And also what I have noticed in Latvia: local politicians when they go to the media, they talk sometimes very loudly [about the refugee issue]. This is one thing, but when you see what civil servants do, it’s something completely different, because they just have to do their jobs – so you cannot really scream that loudly there. And also another level is when our government representatives go to these EU-level meetings, you also cannot use the same rhetoric – so they are talking, let’s say, different – not languages, but in different registers.
So often what you see in the Latvian media is not really the official position, I would say; it’s a narrative for the local population, that’s all – just keep calm, we have it under control. And when they finally agreed to the quota numbers, then they said “yeah, but this is that decision, and for any future kind of decisions like this, we will again take a stance, we will look and analyse and think and blah, blah, blah”. Although I think some of them might suspect that this is not really how things work, but this is what they need to tell the public. The Visegrad countries are very much – it feels like they are very anti-EU; we are not really in that camp, not really.
I wanted to ask about something you mentioned in passing – because I have heard people saying this in Latvia, and also in Estonia: “well, in the Soviet Union, we had a very high level of immigration from elsewhere and we don’t want that to happen again”. There were during that period not unjustified fears that the language and the culture would disappear because the Russian-speaking immigrants usually didn’t learn the languages. So this is clearly a somewhat different situation from many European countries which don’t have that kind of recent history. Do you think there are any grounds for that fear? Do you think that has emotional power?
To really say if our language is threatened – it’s really hard. Because it depends on so many other aspects – not only how many immigrants come in in the coming year, and how quickly they would learn the Latvian language, or speak Russian. It’s all about of course the culture, literature for example. How much the state is supporting that. I think some of these aspects are forgotten too often. But with refugees, thinking about the numbers, this could not potentially be a threat to the Latvian language or culture. What I see from these who try to settle down here; I meant they really try to learn the language and join the culture, and see what it’s about. And I think actually for a refugee – or immigrant, for that matter – it’s a bit of a tough climate to really become a valuable part of society. Because you need to speak Latvian, and on many occasions, you also need to speak Russian. So for many of them, it would really entail to learn two languages – and they are not very easy.
Well, no, not if you’re an Arabic speaker or something like this.
Exactly – and they [Russian and Latvian] are not even similar – different alphabets and so on. So I think it’s a bigger challenge for them than for the local populaton. But refugee kids of course – they can learn a language just like this. I have been speaking to language instructors. What they have told me is that children, They integrate the fastest, and the smaller, the better. So I really don’t see how refugees would endanger the Latvian language and Latvian culture – I think the other way around. If some of them really settled down and learnt the Latvian language, it would really enrich us. There’s Hosam Abu Meri [Latvian member of Parliament of Lebanese origin] – but he’s not a refugee.
No, but he’s not of Latvian or Russian origin.
He became a Latvian citizen; he became a politician; he got elected. He came here in the ‘90s, just as a student, so it shows that it’s possible
I wanted to ask about the poster campaign that was organised by the UNHCR in Latvia – with the slogan “mēs bēgtu” [“we would flee”]. This upset a lot of people. [The campaign featured faces of refugees and of Latvian citizens; the refugees saying what they have suffered in their county of origin, and the Latvian citizens admitting they would also flee faced with a similar situation. Some commentators responded angrily to the idea that Latvians would run away faced with a war.]
No, no. I wouldn’t say so.
Well it upset a lot of journalists, maybe.
That’s not really true. Well, I wouldn’t like to dive into this one too deeply, because it was – I would say. It’s hard to guess. It was actually the Ministry of Defence who saw these posters as not suitable for the Latvian environment right now.
Because of the threat from Russia, you mean? Because of the possibility that there actually could be an invasion.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well it’s of course a question of interpretation. But there was no big reaction from society until the ministry intervened. But then as usual – I mean the UNHCR does not have any aim to make some people angry, or so on.
There was a high-level meeting in Geneva. There was the Latvian UN ambassador and our representatives, and we talked through it and agreed that, OK, we change the campaign slightly – and this is what we have done. There should be some posters on the streets right now which are different. I cannot really say why they made this loud…
It’s been interesting that in the Baltics, although there have been quite a lot of opposition among the population in general, perhaps, there has been no single prominent figure who has emerged. No one like Orbán in Hungary; or the Czech president Miloš Zeman, who is very vocal – or even Nigel Farage in the UK. Maybe someone like Martin Helme in Estonia, but he’s still quite a peripheral figure in many ways. Why do you think this is?
Maybe it’s coming.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t think of anyone in Latvia who’s really like a figurehead of this movement.
We have these three parties in the governing coalition, and none of them are super-friendly to refugees. But there is the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība), which is basically anti.
But there doesn’t seem to be one figure who is the leader, in the way that Orbán is.
No, not really, not really. As any politician or political party would do, they use certain issues or certain events for their own purposes. So when it suits them, they try to use refugees for their own purposes, but otherwise no. That’s a guess from my side. I mean, there is no huge immigration into Latvia. There is no huge refugee flow coming into Latvia. Nothing has really happened, and at one conference here in June, which was not only on refugees but also on migration, and there were people from different countries discussing things. There was one expert – I think he was from Lithuania, and he said that in the Baltics we have managed to create a refugee crisis without refugees. And I think he really has a point – I mean, the majority of us have not seen a single refugees, and the numbers are tiny, as we have discussed, and will not be much bigger in the future. So what are we talking about? You cannot really keep talking about this issue which is not really on the agenda, all the time.
Of course, it is [an issue] in Europe, and will continue to be. For Latvia, and also Estonia and Lithuania, it will remain an issue, because we still have to work on that part – on the integration part. Because the first part – if you look at the asylum procedures, that’s sort of fine. I mean, some improvements can always be made, but the procedure, more or less, is there. There is… like in Latvia, according to the minimum, there is one appeal instance – if you get a negative decision, you can go to the court, and the state gives some support; if you don’t have money for your own lawyer, you get a state one. So that is worked out – the structure is there. But the integration part was basically – there was no coherent integration programme, integration plan in Latvia until the very end of last year, when they finally created an integration plan. So it’s something new, and this has created some tensions, and will create some tensions in the future – I would say because an integration plan is not possible without costs for the state budget. We are not talking about huge costs, but you see whenever you attach even one euro to refugees, there will be a lot of people in Latvia saying “oh, but why don’t you give that one euro to Latvian pensioners or anybody else”.
Certainly I’ve noticed in the discourse here, this is a very big thing. Originally it was that the benefits would be higher than the state pension in at least one of the Baltic countries. And the fact that I’m not sure is acknowledged that it’s extremely difficult in Latvia to survive on a state pension or the minimum wage. OK, in France or in the UK or wherever, it’s difficult, but not nearly as difficult. But then how do you make it much lower [for refugees] without them not being able to feed themselves? So that seems like an inherent challenge to me.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean I agree, but then again, we cannot forget that if you admit refugees, it’s not like just any kind of immigration. It’s not actually a choice; it’s an international obligation. To seek asylum is a fundamental human right, and if a country participates in a relocation programme, or there is this UN-level resettlement programme. So it’s an obligation; it’s not something where you can say “oh, we don’t have money” or something like that. It’s the same thing with the conditions in Latvia’s prisons. I have not checked lately, but some years ago – not a long time ago – we had some cases up at the European Court of Human Rights, where Latvia – sorry, but we lost, and we had to pay some money to the person who was in prison because the conditions were comparable to, what is it called? There is this one paragraph in the European Convention of Human Rights?
Yeah, yeah. It’s torture, and then it’s degrading and inhuman treatment. If it’s at that level, that’s it. It’s very basic things, like – the place where the person is put, the room has to be a certain size; if it’s less – sorry, guys, it’s not enough. If you don’t have enough privacy when going to the toilet or whatever– sorry, guys – it’s not a choice; it’s an obligation. And here it is actually the same: that if you take these refugees, and you grant them status, you have an obligation to help them. Neither UNHCR or any other international organisation will calculate for the government how much these people should be getting in benefits or anything. But what we say is that it definitely shouldn’t be that these people are pushed into poverty. Because then not only are we not doing our job, not fulfilling our obligations; we’re also creating new risks – because if a person cannot survive, there is a risk of criminality. There is a risk of many other things. They can become homeless; they can become alcoholics, drug addicts – all of these things. And the UNHCR is of course monitoring the situation; and actually with our help, the daily allowance for asylum seekers was increased in July this year – only slightly, but still it was two euros fifteen cents and now it’s three euros [a day].
And food is provided in addition to this?
No, no, no; this is the amount with which they’re supposed to buy food, hygiene items – you know, the basic things. But I know what the Ministry of the Interior did; they did these controlled purchases in local shops. So they got the amount, but it was roughly – slightly less than three euros, but then they said something for transportation and so on – so that was increased. Yeah, but unfortunately, the monthly payment to refugees was reduced – almost by 50%. It was 256 euros and now it’s 139. And it’s really hard to – I see it in the public discourse. There was this TV programme; they calculated – OK, there is a family with two kids; they get together 514 euros. So that means, when that family comes out from Mucenieki, and they need to start renting an apartment – with 514 euros – for a family with two kids, it’s impossible, it just doesn’t work – they would need to pay a deposit; they would need to pay one month in advance, maybe the first and the last month. So it just doesn’t add up. But then again of course the criticism from those politicians who are anti-refugee is “yeah, but they shouldn’t be getting more than the locals.” So what they forget there, either actively or unknowingly – I don’t know – is that you cannot just compare. You take one local and one refugee in a sort of similar situation – has no job, and so on – would be getting the same as a refugee. What they are forgetting is what we call substantial equality. The refugee is not really in the same situation.
No, well I assume the refugees would not be able to work immediately. The refugees can’t work, can they?
Well, when they get refugee status, they can work in a legal sense. But as you know, the language restriction in Latvia are so tough that for many, many jobs there is no possibility to work until you get a certain language level.
Which would take a couple of years, generally. It’s B1 level usually, isn’t it?
Yeah, I think so. On many occasions, it practically would be possible. Let’s say the person in that job does not have any contact with clients or anything like that. But there are some work instructions or security instructions that are not in a language that the refugee understands, so these would need to be translated in order to pay that person. So either the company says “OK, we can pay for that” – or the state. Or someone has to come in and do that. From someone who comes out from Mucenieki – this is where the integration plan should really kick in. Until the end of the time they’re staying in Mucenieki, it’s really OK, they have a roof over their head; they get a little money to survive. That is all the basic stuff there – but when they have to go out, they are really compared to the locals, and it’s like, I mean, you don’t have any social network. I mean, if I need a job or an apartment, I call around my friends. It’s much, much, much easier – and no one would say no to me. And this is what journalists have noticed in their investigative reports that, not always, but there are some cases of racist stereotypes.
So people won’t rent to foreigners, for example?
Exactly. When they hear it’s a refugee, they have all kinds of suspicions. Oh maybe they could be a terrorist. That person comes from a totally different culture – I don’t want to give my apartment to that person. Or even practical considerations like: will this person have money. And that could be valid, you know. So it’s really, really hard. And then you know when people try to compare – a young Latvian family maybe can’t rent an apartment – well, they are not really in the same situation.
Although they are also possibly in a very difficult situation
Do you think – this would apply more to the kids you’re referring to, kids who have been born in Latvia or who have grown up in Latvia – that there will develop this idea of, “oh, I’m Latvian, but I’m Syrian-Latvian, or Eritrean-Estonian”. Having grown up in London, I know many people who have two identities – they’re British but also maybe Pakistani or Jamaican. Do you think this could exist in Latvia – because so far it hasn’t especially, apart from possibly with some Russians.
It’s hard to say, because we don’t really have many examples of that. And you know, the question of ethnicity is very, very sensitive. Lately again there were these discussions because you can write your ethnicity in your passport – it’s not mandatory but you can. But of course not everyone can just write “I’m Latvian” – I don’t remember to which level, but you have to have Latvian ancestors. And some politicians wanted to change that, and I didn’t see any harm in that proposal. [The proposal] was basically that a person who is a Latvian citizen, who has been living here – I think it was fifteen years – could choose to write “Latvian” in his passport. But it was voted down in the parliament, because we have still this very narrow…
This is something that’s quite hard for many British people to understand, because there are really very few people who are totally British if you go back.
It’s a question for the whole of society – it’s really a question of how you want to have it, and I really don’t think we will be able to have it like this. If you look at our own family trees – it’s like, my mother’s grandmother was a Russian-speaking Pole, living in Latvia. Me, I’m neither Polish nor Russian – I mean, Russian is not my mother tongue; I learnt it as a kid in the street, but still I don’t connect to this identity. You see how quickly it changes. And I don’t think if you really investigate it, you will find many pure Latvians. I mean, if you think about the history: for a long time we were under German rule, there were a lot of German people. I think there was a lot of mixing going on, and I think there is a lot of German blood in Latvia – among other things. So to your question, it really depends on society: how much we will be able to really look ourselves in the mirror, understand who we are, and then really look at the future. I think this is crucial – these years now are crucial for our society. How we will turn, how we will manage. Because migration now – you see in some sectors of the labour market, there is a shortage, and it will become more and more. So we will need immigration, but politicians – who today would admit that we should create an immigration plan.
You’re seen I think in Latvia as a bit of a provocateur in some ways. I don’t know if you’d agree with this – things like your political party (Falla Partija – The Phallus Party, with the slogan “the phallus above everything”). So there are certain people who are probably quite annoyed with you; you could be seen as somewhat divisive. Do you think it could be said that because of this you are not the best person to sell this somewhat controversial policy to the Latvian people?
I have to keep that in consideration, of course. But in our work things like this… I mean, if I were doing it now that would be totally inappropriate, of course, but since this was something I did in the past, and all of these activities were fully legal. So there is no impediment to me doing the job, as long as I do the job.
But you could be presented as someone who is anti-state or anti-establishment, and your job is now kind of encouraging integration with the state.
Well that may be the stance of some people. That’s their opinion and we cannot really help with that. And I have seen comments about some of my colleagues from the regional office. And of course people are trying to find out who they are; and of course everybody is all of a sudden called a leftist extremist, things like that, even if the person has no connection at all to these kind of things. I mean, these things I have been doing in the past – let’s say that was being politically and socially active, but then again I was never a member of any political party, I was never supporting any political party. And yeah, I was doing these things – which I think in Western Europe are kind of a normal thing. To create some kind of a campaign without having any funding, you do a stunt. I mean, you just do. That’s completely normal. In Latvia – even at that time, it was viewed as “what’s going on”. And some people were saying “this guy should be punished”.
Do you feel threatened or intimidated by that?
No, I try not to pay too much attention to that, because I think anyone who does anything for refugees gets some nasty comments. It happens to people working at NGOs, it happened also to this volunteer group – “I Want to Help Refugees” – it happened also to some people who were involved in our campaign. So this is something you just have to accept, but then – because I still follow the Swedish media quite a lot, and when I see things that happen to journalists who work with refugee issues, racism issues, things like that – I mean, they really get death threats. It’s really, really terrible. So, in that sense, Latvia – it’s pretty much a safe environment, although there are some internet comments – I’m always getting them. Some political parties, some politicians would view me as somebody undesirable, but for UNHCR it doesn’t mean anything basically.
Do they know about your background?
Yeah, sure – working at the UN, you have to provide a detailed account of your biography. I mean, there is no criminal record or anything like that. The UNHCR is a non-political organisation, so if a political party or movement or whatever has certain views about me or any other of our employees, well, that’s their opinion – we can take note, but that’s as much as it is. I communicate quite often with the Minister of the Interior, and it all works quite well.
Header image credit – Gints Ivuškāns
You can read more about the UNHCR’s work in the Baltics here, as well as about those trying to help refugees in Latvia. The FB page “I Want to Help Refugees” (Gribu Palīdzēt Bēgļiem) is here.
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