FECL 42 (March 1996):

REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS A HEAVY BURDEN FOR BALTIC STATES

Baltic Assembly/Nordic Council seminar on migration and asylum

Upon the auspices of IOM (International Organisation for Migration), a seminar on migration issues relevant to the Baltic Sea area took place in Esbo, Finland, 14 - 16 January. The seminar was attended by parliamentarians from all Nordic and Baltic states. The discussion focused on return of the Russian speaking population from the Baltic states to the CIS and the return of Baltic nationals from the CIS to the Baltic countries.

Delegations from the Baltic countries pointed out the increasing problem of illegal transit migration via Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, expressing the need for readmission agreements to be signed with the neighbouring Russia, Belorussia and the Ukraine. The problem of asylum seekers and refugees was also raised at the seminar.

Estonian and Latvian representatives demonstrated clear opposition to joining the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and even against the preparation of national legislation on refugees at this point of time, while the Lithuanian delegation presented the progress made in getting ready for the implementation of the refugee law.

A number of Baltic participants at the seminar expressed concern with regard to increasing transit migration. Such fears were also highlighted in Swedish media.

It is possible that migration related problems will come up at the joint Baltic Assembly/Nordic Council meeting to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, 14 - 16 April 1996.

 

Estonia

The Estonian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Siim Kallas, visited Sweden on 15 January and met his Swedish counterpart, Lena Hjelm-Wallen. The topics of discussion included the EU and refugee policy. Mrs. Hjelm-Wallen emphasised that it was essential for Estonia, as well as the other Baltic countries, to sign the UN Convention on Refugees. Mr Kallas said that Estonia will eventually sign the Convention but it will take time. "Visa-free travel between Sweden and Estonia won't be introduced any time soon", the Estonian Foreign Minister said after his visit to Sweden, "for there are three serious problems that won't be cleared up in the near future". According to Mr Kallas, Sweden is concerned about the possibility of checking all the people entering Estonia and the control of Estonian borders. The second problem is the question of refugees - Sweden wants Estonia to assume the obligation of readmitting refugees. The third obstacle is the Schengen agreement, which could make visa-free travel with Estonia more complicated.

Estonia is also negotiating on visa-free travel with Finland. Negotiations are expected to be finished by the end of this year. However, Finland first wants to see how Estonia will comply with the bilateral treaties on readmission of persons entering the countries illegally and on cooperation between the law enforcement structures. Another Finnish prerequisite for visa-free travel is for the Finnish authorities to be able to check the validity of Estonian passports electronically.

The Finnish-Estonian readmission agreement makes reference to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, in spite of the fact that Estonia has not yet joined the Convention. The Estonian Minister of Justice, Paul Varul, recently said that "we cannot start taking care of refugees as long as the living conditions of our own prison inmates remain inhuman".

 

Latvia

602 illegal migrants were deported from Latvia in 1995, according to the country's immigration authorities. Nearly 2,000 persons left Latvia last year "voluntarily" because of violating entry regulations and there are still many people in Latvia who were legal immigrants during the Soviet rule, but who failed to settle formalities after 1991 when Latvia regained independence. This category includes former guest workers from Vietnam and Mongolia in textile industry.

At the infamous Olaine prison, where asylum seekers stranded on their way to Western countries are detained as "illegal immigrants", there are currently about 140 persons. They are guarded by 40 members of the Immigration Police. According to the head of the Immigration Police, the maintenance of each person costs approximately US$ 200 per month, as compared to the minimum monthly wage in Latvia, which is little more than US$ 50. The police chief added that good conditions in the prison might contribute to increasing the flow of illegal migrants.

Latvia cannot join the UN Convention on Refugees unless it has signed readmission agreements with neighbouring states, the Head of the Latvian Parliament's Human Rights Committee, Antons Seiksts said. The head of the Immigration Police is of the same opinion and considers Latvia has to solve its internal problems first, before it starts thinking of refugees. In an interview with a Swedish newspaper, the Latvian Interior Minister, Dainis Turlais, stated that his country was unable for the time being to take its share of solving the refugee problem, due to its economic problems. Mr Turlais also confirmed the existence of an oral agreement between the Swedish and Latvian governments to the effect that Latvia is prepared to readmit asylum-seekers who have entered Sweden via Latvia. Mr Turlais said asylum-seekers returned by Sweden will be detained in the Olaine prison. UNHCR's suggestion that the asylum seekers currently detained at Olaine be accepted by the Nordic countries in an "exceptional humanitarian operation" has met little response.

 

Lithuania

On 20 March, Lithuania introduced various bylaws to enable the implementation of its refugee law. In the light of the fact that Lithuanian authorities are facing increasing problems in taking care of the more than 400 "illegal migrants" detained in various places, UNHCR's Stockholm Office has suggested that Lithuanian authorities start an "advance implementation" of the refugee law. This would enable the separation of persons in need of international protection from illegal migrants.

According to the Lithuanian Border Police, statistics from 1995 show that illegal migration, mainly of persons from Asian countries, is the major problem on the borders. At present, 404 illegal immigrants are detained in Lithuania. The number of persons detained for having attempted to cross Lithuania illegally for Western or Northern countries was 1,696 persons in 1995. In January 1996, a group of 42 persons (21 Pakistanis, 13 Iraqis, four Chinese, three Afghans and one Somali ) was reported to have been detained on the Lithuanian - Polish border.

So far there are no readmission agreements signed with Lithuania's Eastern neighbour states for returning illegal migrants to the countries from which they arrive. Border authorities of Lithuania and Belarus met on 18 January 1996 in Vilnius to discuss problems of illegal migration, but, according to a Belorussian negotiator, a readmission agreements can not be signed as long as the dispute over the Lithuanian-Belorussian border demarcation remains unresolved.

 

 

Sources: FARR (Swedish Network for Asylum and Refugee Support Groups); UNHCR-Stockholm, Regional Office for Baltic and Nordic Countries: Information Notes on Refugee Issues in the Baltic Countries, February and March 1996.