Racing against refugees

  • 2002-08-08
  • Aaron Eglitis
The flow of refugees and immigrants has become a contentious issue across the European continent with many right-wing parties from Austria to France to the Netherlands using the issue effectively to gain political support.

In Latvia, though, opposition to immigrants and refugees is being voiced primarily by those on the left, and few are making a strong case for people to be afraid.

That's not to say they haven't tried. Witness the Freedom Party, eager to win a few votes in this fall's parliamentary election, and its political advertisment that depicted a black man in a Latvian military uniform kissing a white Latvian girl.

The ad blatantly attempted to stir up fear of a different race in a country with little experience of people from Africa.

Party Chairman Ziedonis Cevers called for a 20 year moratorium on asylum seekers.

Other left-wing parties in Latvia cited in a Neatkariga Rita Avize newspaper story included Andrejs Klementjevs from For Human Rights who believes Latvia's good climate and the possibility to work in the agricultural sector will appeal to people from less-economically developed countries. He also claims Western European nations will ship their refugees to Latvia.

The Social Democrats' Janis Adamsons said refugees lived better than most Latvian pensioners, though the ex-interior minister seems to have forgotten the appalling conditions in which asylum seekers in Latvia were once kept. Extended stays in prison were not uncommon.

Pushing the issue to the forefront is the expansion of the European Union, the burdens of accepting asylum seekers and the free movement of peoples that come with membership.

Thanks to heavy immigration during the Soviet occupation, Latvia is very concerned about its demographic situation.

But the division in society over this issue, despite the scare tactics being employed by many on the left, is still quite wide. Two of the largest Latvian newspapers, Neatkariga Rita Avize and Diena, ran competing stories about the issue Aug. 3. The contrast was apparent from the beginning. The headline of Diena's story was "Still no reason to get upset about immigrants," while Neatkariga Rita Avize ran a story with the headline "No information to be given about the possible influx of refugees."

Neatkariga Rita Avize focused heavily on comments from left-wing politicians.

Diena, on the other hand, points out that the facts suggest an influx of new refugees is unlikely. With no sizable ethnic communities and far less development than Western Europe, the paper concludes that Latvia will not be a prime destination for asylum seekers.

Also, contrary to Klementjevs' warnings, requesting refugee status in one country does not entitle one to receive it in any other country, fellow EU member or not.

Considering Latvia's rapidly declining population, the country might even find itself trying to attract guest workers to compensate for a smaller native workforce.

The Freedom Party used race in an attempt to gain political support, but what are the real implications for Latvia within the European Union? Would a black engineer from Britain decide to move to Latvia, taking a substantial pay cut, to live in a country where he probably knows few people?

Doubtful.

Latvia will someday stage a referendum on whether to join the EU. Let's hope for a healthy debate on the merits of membership and not a referendum on scare tactics concerning race.

It's worth remembering, though, that in the end, if Latvia wants to join international organizations, then it will have to abide by international norms. Those include sharing the burdens of providing space for asylum seekers.

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