RIGA - Latvian border guards are increasingly picking up migrants trying to cross the border illegally. Their aim is to get in to the European Union. Just last year, around 600 illegal migrants were detained, three times more than in 2008 - a large number for a small country with little experience of illegal immigration.
According to Russian authorities, there could be as many as 20,000 people waiting on the Russian side of the border for an opportunity to cross into the Baltic States. Latvian border guards however have dismissed this estimate as alarmist.
There are seven border control points along the border between Latvia and Russia. Along most of the 276 km stretch that separates the two countries there are no physical barriers, but rather the border is protected by patrols of guards with high-tech equipment funded by the EU, which makes it difficult to simply walk across.
One of the migrants who did manage to cross is a 27 year old Afghan man, Hamid. This is not his real name, as he preferred to remain anonymous. Hamid said that after threats from the Taliban, he paid traffickers $5,500 to flee his country and be sent to Moscow. From there, he was driven to the border last March and walked for several hours crossing into Latvia through heavy snow and temperatures of -25 degrees.
He was picked up on the other side and hidden in a flat for three weeks in the Latvian countryside. Before he was able to go any further, the police stormed the place. The three smugglers, two Latvian residents and an Afghan citizen, were detained. Hamid has now applied for refugee status in Latvia and is waiting for a decision by the authorities at the asylum seeker’s reception center in Mucenieki, a few kilometers outside of Riga.
Seeking asylum in Latvia was not his original plan; he wanted to go to Germany. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Maris Domins, the chief of international cooperation and protocol service of the Latvian border guards, this is a general trend. “Most illegal immigrants use Latvia as a transit country on their way to Scandinavia, the UK or other Western European countries,” he says.
Domins explains that the geographic situation of Latvia is responsible for this trend. “Moscow is known as a place where forged documents are easy to come by,” he says “and Latvia lies between Russia and Western Europe.”
One of the main reasons illegal migrants try to get to richer European Union countries is because benefits for asylum seekers are higher there. In Latvia, they are provided with free accommodation at the center in Mucenieki and receive 1.5 lats (2.14 euros) per day for food and any other expenses.
According to EU rules, migrants can only apply for asylum in the first European country they enter. Many travel through Riga airport or across the Latvian-Russian border on their way to Scandinavia or Germany. But when they apply for asylum in, for example, Sweden, they are then sent back to Latvia. For many migrants this comes as a shock.
Most illegal immigrants in Latvia seek asylum on grounds of political or religious persecution in their home country, says Andrejs Rjabcevs, the spokesperson for the Latvian office of citizenship and migration affairs. A decision is normally reached within about three months after the application has been placed.
While waiting for their application to be processed, the asylum seekers are unable to work and cannot travel outside of the country. In contrast, when they are granted refugee status, they are allowed to work in Latvia and can apply for Latvian citizenship after living in the country for 5 years.
They also receive a traveling document which enables them to travel freely within the Schengen area. But refugee status is granted to only about 10 percent of applicants. In most cases, those who are judged to be economic migrants, rather than political refugees, are sent back to their country of origin.
The number of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers has soared, but the origin of the migrants has also changed. Whereas previously most of them came from former Soviet Bloc countries, more and more people now come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
According to Rjabcevs, this is problematic. “Integration is very difficult for these people, because they often don’t speak Latvian, Russian or even English,” he says, and “the problem is that it is very difficult to find a job in such conditions.”
For border guard authorities, the fact that people are coming from so far away is an indication of human trafficking. Last year for example, border patrols detained several Chinese nationals with forged Greek residence permits. All the permits had the same serial numbers, which for border guards is a clear sign of an orchestrated operation. They say that gangs of smugglers try to traffic people into Western or Northern European countries via Latvia in exchange for high fees.
Judging from the way Hamid got to Latvia, such fears are well-founded. But for him, the worst seems to be over. He says he has been treated well and has got a lot of support from the immigration authorities. He is now hoping to get refugee status within the next three months and to start his new life in Latvia.