Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Funk that migrants from the war-torn region will swarm Lithuania appears to be baseless. In fact, Lithuania fails to find any refugee family willing to voluntarily resettle to the Baltics.
Although Lithuania would like to accommodate a single refugee family now, Deputy Interior Minister Elvinas Jankevičius has come empty-handed in Greece, where he with local officials was trying to find such a family.
«Those people just do not know anything about the region and therefore their apprehensions,» the government official says. «Coercion in getting them resettled here will not be used,» assured Lithuanian PM after hearing the news.
Syrians, Iraqis and others frown at an unknown country
«Because we wanted to relocate such a family in the near future, we asked the Greek Migration and Refugee Services to help us find one. Although they talked to the Syrians in local refugee camps, but none got interested,» the deputy minister acknowledged.
Relying on first-hand experience, he himself talked to a couple Syrian families, asylum seekers, himself, but, again, no luck.
«The people I spoke to tend to leave for countries where their other relatives live. I reckon it won’t be easy for the Greeks to get the people sent to countries they do not want to go to. Speaking of the Syrians I spoke to they think of going to Germany or Netherlands, where their family members or relatives already live. They have not, in fact, heard anything of Lithuania,» Jankevičius said.
He says he was «pleasantly surprised» to see the scope work that Greeks do in processing the unabated army of refugees.
«There are many interpreters working with the people and helping to determine whether they indeed are from countries they tell they are(from). In the screening process, they are asked to recognize certain locations in the countries they tell they are from, also name politicians or other dignitaries, also recognize currency and other peculiarities linking them to one or another country,» the deputy minister said.
Though, technically, he says it is «possible» that the first refugees could reach Lithuania as early as the end of the year, but he says still remains unclear whether it will happen.
«I’d say it depends on the Greeks, when they will be ready to start the resettling. And, sure, now there are these new circumstances- the refugees’ reluctance to go to an unknown country, Lithuania, which also has to be considered,» Jankevičius said.
Next week, representatives of Interior Ministry will set out to Italy, where also issues of asylum-seekers relocation will be discussed.
Lithuania has agreed to accept 1105 refugees over the next couple of years, albeit the overall public opinion is against that.
Coercion will not be used to get refugees resettled
Acknowledging that getting refugees to Lithuania «forcefully» would be too complicated, Algirdas Butkevičius, the Lithuanian Social-Democratic Prime Minister, assured that «coercion» will not be used in the resettling.
«I hope that suitable ways will be found for voluntary arrival of the people. I believe that, for migrants, No 1 issue should be security, and coercion perhaps would not work in getting them, now temporarily residing in Greece or Germany, for example, over here. I believe that, after some time, perhaps the recipient states will strike accord on methods and ways through which they will voluntarily choose Lithuania,» the PM told.
Now Jankevičius, the vice-minister, believes that the refugees’ resettlement from Greece won’t start in the near future.
Only few municipalities welcome refugees
And even there appear refugees set to start their new life in Lithuania, the country of their choice might not turn up the haven they were looking for.
According to a recent poll, only 12 out of 60 Lithuanian municipalities have expressed willingness to accept asylum-seekers.
Most of them are ready to accommodate one or two three or five-person families. Furthermore, the municipalities would like to have right to pick newcomers themselves.
Among the most desired are Christians and a skilled labour force that local labour market is short of.
Among the few cities whose mayors said that refugees are welcome were the Baltic seaport of Klaipėda, Kaunas, the second-largest Lithuanian town, resort town of Birštonas and Alytus in southern Lithuania.
The mayor of the latter has calculated that from the quota of 1105 refugees around 40-50 re-settlers would perhaps end up in Alytus.
But part of the Alytus population has bristled against the mayor’s plan to buy several lodgings for the socially vulnerable foreigners.
After speaking to the once booming industrial town’s entrepreneurs, the mayor left confident, however, that many of the refugees are good-natured and are determined to help the psychologically-scathed people.
«Some of the businessmen are already offering jobs and will be maybe able to provide lodging for the new workers. We believe that the friendlier we receive the newcomers, the quicker they integrate into the local community,» Grigaravičius was quoted as saying by local media.
Although Alytus is severely bled off from large-scale emigration, the unemployment rate at 12 percent is slightly above the Lithuanian average.
Misconceptions and prejudices hurt
Many of the unemployed, the local business complaints, prefer not to work and rely on social pay-outs.
With the plans of opening several new factories where the Lithuanian language were not a must, Alytus might be a stride forward in accommodating refugees, but, again, they are wary of a country they have not hear of.
And, perhaps, they are right to be suspicious of Lithuania, a country which does not have a history of dealing with hundreds, let’s leave alone thousands of refugees, coming from completely different cultural, economic and political environments.
In a recent article on asylum seekers by a Lithuanian weekly journal, several young Afghanis, whom the journalist talked to, cannot stand being called «refugees».
«We’d rather be called «foreigners», they insist. The reason is the connotation of the word «refugee» in Lithuania.
«When we talk about ourselves and tell others that we, being foreigners, succeeded in setting up a successful business, people show us respect. But as soon as we admit that we are refugees, who ended up being here, the reactions turn hostile,» the Afghani men confessed.
Indeed, for many here the meaning of the word« refugee» still, stereotypically, has nothing to do with peaceful, hardworking people, who, caught in war, fled the atrocities saving their and their children’s life.
On the contrary, TV footages of people-crammed Germany or Austria-bound trains or belligerent crowds of young sporty men conjure up an image of the people as conquerors or abusers, at least.
Nevertheless, the true intentions of the often unruly refugees could be seen only after the very entry- mind, illegal one- into the European Union.
«If they are really looking for safety, why then are they trying at any cost to get to the rich countries, Germany or Swede? The litmus paper should be very simple: one fleeing war should be searching for any safe country, not just well-to-do countries,» wonder many in Lithuania.
Integration out of question in crammed refugee centres
On the receiving end, the attitude towards the asylum-seekers is also any better.
«Those public statements that rippled through Lithuania that we will pick up refugees whose skin and religion is similar to ours do sound xenophobic and raise worries that many officials do not understand that each person, fleeing the warzone, is entitled to ask for asylum here and we must give it if the person meets the requirements,» says Jūratė Guzevičiūtė, the head of Law Programmes at the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Vilnius.
Note, just a dozen of Lithuanian municipalities have agreed to accept refugees and even less are ready to give them a chance of a full integration, meaning they will be placed in local apartment complexes- not in some desolated shabby apartment far away from the local people, be given a job among the locals, not left to make it through alone.
But where the other refugees will go?
Most likely, experts note, to the Pabradė and Rukla centers, notorious for the crammed living space, animosity among the dwellers and no prospects.
«Awaiting decision on their status, or already with it obtained, the refugees in the centres are doomed to long institutional regime and isolation from the public, as well as poverty, unemployment and economic instability. Needless to say, their professional skills deteriorate. So from the start, asylum seekers and those who already got it become useless and undesirable people,» says Aistė Gerikaitė-Šukienė, a project head at the Lithuanian Red Cross.
A different story?
The story of 50 Iraqi Christian refugees that Lithuanian Catholic Church has recently brought into the country might be different- they are being cared of, assisted and encouraged. Still, it remains to be seen whether they will stay here or leave.
A couple dozen of Syrians which Lithuania’s Lutheran Church had brought to Lithuania a couple years ago, already have left, the Church officials confirmed for the story.
«But the story with the Iraqis is different,» insists Ilma Varžinskaitė, head of Foreigners Integration Programme at Vilnius Archdiocese’s Caritas. «The Syrians have not asked for asylum and the Iraqis did. Integration is a two-way street, with refugees and receiving community being the traffic participants. We do our best to help the Iraqis get integrated into the local communities,» she told BNN.
Will it work?