Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
With the refugee centre in Rukla in central Lithuania full and tensions in the settlement simmering, the Lithuanian Government has come up with a plan to shut eventually down the centre, relocating its dwellers to Lithuanian municipalities.
The burden of accommodating the foreigners would mostly fall on five largest Lithuanian cities, according the plan.
Many issues unsettled
None of the mayors, including Vytautas Grubliauskas, the Liberal mayor of Klaipėda on coastal Lithuania, has embraced the idea. Furthermore, the mayor sounded pretty critical speaking of the proposal to BNN.
«The news of refugees’ possible relocation directly to the largest cities, including Klaipėda, bypassing the refugee centre in Rukla in doing so, has caught me off guard. All things involving municipalities ought to be solved engaging them, not like this – throwing down the order for us to fulfil,» said Grubliauskas.
In his words, if the proposal is pursued, the municipalities will stumble upon «plenty of issues» ahead.
«There are a lot of questions to be answered to the mayors, the local communities and all of us, as a matter of fact. First of all, what number of refugees are we talking about? Where can they be accommodated and what jobs can they be offered? When it comes to social housing, unemployment and other social issues, Klaipėda mostly deals with the same problems as the other big cities,» the mayor said before adding, «But some problems, like the availability of social housing, is more acute here than elsewhere – we simply do not have it to offer.»
Shortage of social housing
The other persisting problem is the affordability of housing for rent, Grubliauskas says.
«For example, we have a Ukrainian family that has asked for our help in renting an apartment. However, we cannot afford paying the rent the owners want for it. Besides, let me tell the truth, many of the flat owners dislike the idea of renting their property to foreigners,» Grubliauskas said.
Meanwhile, Vytautas Grigaravičius, mayor of Alytus, a town in southern Lithuania, lambasted the idea, claiming that the city was «utterly unprepared» to receive refugees and had «neither accommodation for refugees, nor integration plans needed for their integration into the society.»
Panevėžys Vice-Mayor Petras Luomanas also frowned at the proposal, confessing that the news came as «a big shock» to the city’s residents – especially those lined up for social housing.
«I can reassure the people – the refugees definitely won’t be moved in social housing, the only thing we can offer refugees is a two-roomed apartment the municipality owns,» he said.
Two ministers visited Rukla
The Rukla refugee resettling idea has surfaced after Lithuania’s ministers of Interior Affairs and Social Security and Labour, Eimutis Misiūnas and Linas Kukuraitis, visited the centre to hammer out a plan on better refugee integration.
« One of the proposals that the ministry will bring is conducting a pilot project to move people straight to municipalities rather than via Rukla. The idea is to move a few families and see how the integration works, if the 2-3 months of institutional living is bypassed. We will examine and see whether it should be continued,» Kukuraitis said during the trip.
Lithuania has lately been the leader in terms of the numbers of refugees relocated under the European Union (EU) program. In over a year, 254 refugees were moved to Lithuania, including 142 who have already left the country and went to other EU states. Lithuania has committed itself to accepting 1,105 refugees.
Currently, people relocated to Lithuania have to pass two integration barriers, namely, one at the refugee centre and the second in the municipality of designation.
In Kukuraitis’s words, Lithuania’s non-governmental organizations should «shortly» provide a list of municipalities willing to receive refugees directly from camps in Greece, Turkey or Italy, with the plans to implement the new scheme slated for April.
«The most important thing we agreed upon is to launch the pilot project that would ensure relocation of families from the countries with camps – so that they were moved directly to municipalities without the stop in Rukla … We have discussed the pilot model, we have to take a series of administrative steps to have the model operational from April on,» the minister underscored.
Unhappy asylum seekers
Many of the refugees in Rukla complain that the assistance Lithuania provides to them is insufficient. For example, Abdulrahman Alfahed, a Syrian who arrived in Lithuania with his family and was placed in the Rukla Refugee Centre in October, last year, was quoted by a Lithuanian TV channel as saying that his family of seven could not eke out with 500 euro they collect monthly in allowances.
In the beginning of the year, Lithuania’s Migration Department has not yet ruled whether the family is entitled to the status of asylum seekers, which frustrates the Afghanis a lot.
«We are a family of seven, five small children, me and my wife. How would I survive from the 500 euro I would receive if I had to rent a flat and support my family? Even if I worked, I would earn 700 euro at best. Could we really survive with the money? We couldn’t,» he fumed, confessing at the end of the interview that he was planning to bring his family to Turkey.
«There people are at least a little more caring, no-one will call me a «refugee» there. Here in Lithuania, the rights of refugees are not as ensured as in Syria. My wife has been ill for ten days, but so far she has yet to receive medicine,» he insisted.
New arrivals live in the Rukla centre for three months usually and the time for integration after moving to municipalities lasts up to 12 months. While living at the refugee centre, every individual receives a monthly grant of 61 euro. A one-time grant to help with settling down in municipalities is 204 euro, a settling family can be granted up to 612 euro. A full –size grant is paid for only the first six months, while between month 7 and 12 the grant is halved. As such currently monthly grants are 204 euro for a single individual, 306 for two and 408 for three, respectively decreasing to 102, 204 and 306 after half a year. If a family is comprised of more than three members, each member is allotted 51 euro extra, with the amount dropping to 26 after half a year. Furthermore, regardless of the number of family members, families can get no more than 510 euro for their daily needs. Beyond those mentioned, families can be granted 60 euro per child for kindergartens, a grant for small children (28.5 up to 2 years, 15 from 2 years of age) and other one-time grants.
Brawl between refugees and locals
Last November, an altercation involving refugees and local youth has put the centre in bad limelight, yet the Rukla elder, Gintas Jasiulionis, blamed the pugnacious Syrians as the culprits.
The police said then that they had launched an investigation into suspicions that two local youths had attacked two Syrian teenagers who were on their way from school back to the refugee reception centre. Two local teenagers, aged 14 and 15 years, were detained. In the elder’s words, the local teenagers gave an entirely different version of the incident, saying that it was the Syrians who attacked them and threw stones at them. The incident came a couple of weeks after two unknown youths assaulted two female migrants from the centre – a Syrian and an Iraqi – who were taking a walk through the town with a baby in a baby stroller.