RIGA - The remote, little known illegal immigration center in Olaine, 22 kilometers south of Riga where Latvia keeps stateless vagrants and violators of the visa regime, recently came under fire when a EP official singled it out in a accession report on Latvia.
The report, which was written for the European Parliament by MEP Elisabeth Schroedter, condemned the legal limbo many Olaine detainees were trapped in and called for immediate attention and re-evaluation of several cases. Due to Latvia's unique historical situation, many of the detainees arrived during the Soviet period but for sundry reasons never bothered to get registered in the newly independent state.
As the two-and-a-half page reports states, the European Parliament "is concerned about the situation of people in Latvia suffering from poverty and social exclusion who, despite being long-time inhabitants of the country, have no clear status due to changes in citizenship legislation and are held without any access to free legal aid in the prisonlike Olaine detention center."
Shroedter's report "urges the Latvian authorities to immediately grant these people a status of residence and make efforts to integrate them into Latvian society; calls for the Latvian authorities to take humane decisions in the area of asylum and migration policy based on the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union."
The Baltic Times was with Schroedter during her visit to the center in December. Of particular concern to the rapporteur was the detention of one elderly Bela-rusian woman who had lived in Latvia since the 1950s but was now being deported to Belarus, and of a mother and daughter from Ukraine who moved to Latvia but are likely to be deported since the woman's husband, a noncitizen, died.
The Baltic Times made a follow-up visit recently to Olaine to further assess the situation of the detainees. The Ukrainian mother and daughter were no longer at the center; they had been moved to a different facility and were soon to be deported.
"This is a strong violation of their human dignity. With most of the detained persons I cannot see any reason for such a strong measure. Especially the women I interviewed are in my opinion people who are long term inhabitants of Latvia and who suffer from poverty and social exclusion for different reasons," Schroedter wrote in an e-mail to The Baltic Times.
The MEP went so far as to cite more devious reasons behind some of the detentions.
"I had the impression that the only reason for detention is that these women speak Russian as their mother tongue. For me it is an act of inhumanity to detain persons suffering from many personal and social problems at the same time and who are therefore unstable and unable to be fully integrated into Latvian society," she wrote.
"I demand from the Latvian administration to immediately release these women and help them to reintegrate into the Latvian society, looking particular to each specific case," she added.
Shortly after Schroedter's trip to Olaine, Ina Druviete, chairwoman of the Latvian Parliament's human rights and public affairs commission, visited the center to look into some of the rapporteur's concerns.
"All cases correspond to Latvian legislation. And I see no reason to accuse the Latvian government of human rights abuses in Olaine," Ina Druviete told The Baltic Times.
In her opinion, a more flexible approach to some of the unique situations at Olaine was not possible.
"The law is the law," she said.
Many of the problems that Olaine detainees faced are not unusual, and some point to the problems of social exclusion that concern many areas of society.
"Poverty and social exclusion affects not only the few people held at Olaine, but many Latvians and minorities as well. Latvia's asylum and migration policy is largely in line with European standards and is not the most topical item on the integration policy agenda, as Latvia has so few asylum seekers and refugees," former Special Task Minister for Integration Nils Muiznieks said.
Latvian prisons and detention facilities have long been the subject of criticism both foreign and domestic, where pretrial detentions can sometimes last up to a year. This problem is seen by many as a major area in need of reform in Latvia.