Refugees Resettling in Latvia

Six out of 4.6 million: a figure so small it’s hardly worth mentioning. But earlier this month, Latvia accepted its first six refugees from the current refugee crisis. Considering that 4.6 million Syrians have fled their country since civil war erupted five years ago, that’s a miniscule figure. Besides, only three of the asylum seekers received by Latvia were Syrians—the others were Eritreans.

Still, their arrival is a breakthrough considering that like its Baltic neighbors, Latvia has virtually no experience receiving or integrating refugees from other parts of the world. Indeed, in agreeing to receive asylum seekers—it will accept a total of 500 within the next two years (possibly up to 800)—Latvia can claim to have acted in accordance with its new status as a full-fledged member of the EU and the Schengen area.

As the country has neither a large refugee community nor a large Arab community (let alone an Eritrean community), the arrival of the six puts Dr. Hosams Abu Meri in a crucial role, one he never expected when he arrived in Latvia from Lebanon to study medicine 23 years ago. The week the six refugees arrived, I sat down in Riga with Abu Meri—now a well-known gastroenterologist as well as an MP and chairman of the Latvian Arabic Culture Center—to find out how he envisages the integration of the six and their 494 fellow asylum seekers.

“Latvia doesn’t have a very good experience with integration,” Abu Meri said. “The Russians came and didn’t integrate well. That’s why Latvians are concerned about migration. But if a person coming here is not Russian, he will integrate better.” Some of Latvia’s Russians—who make up a quarter of the population—may take exception to that description, but Abu Meri may have a point: the refugees will join a tiny Middle Eastern community of only some 300 people. They will have little choice but to integrate.

Abu Meri has already helped the government—his wife, Linda, who was until recently Latvia’s interior minister—has identified 30 local Arabs who can help with translation. After an estimated three months in temporary housing set aside asylum seekers, the six are expected to move into regular housing.

Here’s the hiccup that makes Latvia’s miniature initiative an international—indeed transatlantic—concern: asylum seekers have preferences too. Latvia has agreed to accept a monthly contingent of around 30 asylum seekers (who have arrived in Europe via Italy and Greece). However, according to Abu Meri, who serves as Latvia’s liaison with the EU asylum authorities, there aren’t that many asylum seekers willing to go to Latvia. And even when asylum seekers are resettled in a country, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there after they have been granted asylum and residence.

That’s why in Sweden, charities assisting migrants are already working with so-called third-country citizens: refugees who have been granted asylum in another EU country, typically Italy or Spain, but later make their way to Sweden, which has long been a preferred destination for asylum seekers. In that light, it matters little which country initially receives asylum seekers as many are expected to eventually move on to a country they deem more hospitable. Even if asylum seekers are fairly distributed among EU member states, it's anyone's guess where they'll permanently settle.


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