MIGRATION AND ASYLUM IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
Lithuania is the most potent example of the growing migration problem associated with the break-up of the USSR in 1991. It is strategically located between the Russian Federation and Belarus, with their large number of irregular migrants on one side, and the countries of Western Europe, which are the final destination of most of these persons, on the other. In addition, lax border controls make the number of irregular transit migrants in Lithuania the highest amongst the Baltic states. According to the IOM Migration Information Programme study published in January 1997, 80% of migrants surveyed indicated that they had been trafficked ; virtually all of them arrived in Lithuania from Belarus; 50% crossed the border by foot at night and 20% were hidden in container vans. In response to this phenomenon, Lithuania is under great pressure to develop new structures and measures related to border management.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the character and tendencies of migration processes entirely changed . Annexed by the Russian Empire in 1795, independent from 1918 to 1940, Lithuania was subjected to a "Russification" policy and remained a Soviet Republic until 1990 when Vilnius declared its independence. Before 1990, many immigrants came from the former Soviet Union. After 1990, a great number of inhabitants started to leave the country. In 1992, people leaving outnumbered people entering the country by 22 000, the figure falling to 13,000 in 1993, 2,500 in 1994 and 1,700 in 1995 105. In 1996, 3,025 persons arrived in Lithuania for permanent residence, mostly from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine; at the same time 3,940 persons left the country. In the first half of 1997, 1,066 arrived and 1,223 persons left Lithuania, so the negative migration balance is decreasing (1,753 in 1995 and 915 in 1996) 106.
According to the law, only close relatives (parents, children and spouses of the citizens of the Republic of Lithuania) may immigrate into Lithuania, i.e. reside there on a permanent basis. The annual immigration quota, confirmed by the Seimas, is 2,500 persons. In 1993, 307 foreigners emigrated to Lithuania, 1,893 in 1994, 2,270 in 1995 107, 1,526 in 1996 and 1,288 in 1997 108.
Illegal migration and trafficking in human beings
In comparison with 1994, the number of illegal migrants increased tenfold due to trafficking in clandestine workers - originating from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - who, after living for a long time in Belarus or Russia, were coming through Lithuania and Poland to Western Europe and Scandinavia. These illegal migrants, around 2,000 a year, were either expelled or detained, mainly in the Lithuanian-Polish border regions ( Lazdijai, Marjampolê, Vikaviskis).
In January 1997, in order to deal with the increasing number of illegal migrants, the government approved a regulation on expulsion of aliens and established a "Foreigners' Registration Centre" in Pabrade, approximately 30 miles from Vilnius. In October 1998 there were approximately 240 people detained in this centre. The illegal migrants are screened in Pabrade, receive medical attention, and are given an opportunity to file a request for political asylum. Those found eligible to be considered for asylum are transferred to another facility in Rukla, near the city of Kaunas.
On 1 July 1996, the Lithuanian Seimas adopted an amendment to the Penal Code which provides for up to 8 years' imprisonment and confiscation of property for trafficking in illegal migrants. In 1997 the period of imprisonment was increased to 15 years.
Being at the crossroad of migration processes, Lithuania has become a kind of 'waiting room' for hundreds of foreign citizens on the way to their final destination - the EU countries. Since autumn 1995, neither the Russian Federation nor Belarus has agreed to negotiate on signing agreements on the readmission of illegal immigrants of third countries. The return of illegal migrants to Belarus and the Russian Federation is still a problem 109.
The Lithuanian Border Police under the Ministry of Internal Affairs has the responsibility for controlling all Lithuanian land, sea and air entry points. As of 24 October 1997, Lithuania signed agreements delimiting all of its borders. The delimitation agreement with Latvia was signed on 29 June 1993 (excluding the sea border). The delimitation agreement with Belarus was signed on 6 February 1995 and demarcation work is currently in progress. The Lithuania/Kaliningrad border delimitation agreement was signed between Russia and Lithuania on 24 October 1997. There has also been an agreement with Poland since 28 May 1996 110. Lithuania expects to complete demarcation of its half of the 650 km border by the end of 1998 111.
The Border Police underwent reforms in the first half of 1997 and is now better equipped to guard all of the frontiers, especially its eastern frontier with Belarus, which is the main source of illegal migrants 112, and the number of illegal migrants in 1998 has decreased significantly (from 1,632 in 1997 to 242 up until August 1998) 113. It is now up to Belarus to fulfil its obligations.
In fact, the Republic of Lithunia has an action plan for the strengthening of borders which should be implemented at the end of 1999 114.
Lithuania is in the process of setting up a professional border guard service and equipping its border with electronic surveillance equipment. It is stepping up cooperation on border controls with the other Baltic countries but these controls are not yet up to EU standards 115.
Lithuania has received observer status in the International Organization for Migration and also takes part in the activities of the Budapest Group 116 dealing with issues of illegal migration.
Lithuania has concluded readmission agreements with Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Finland, Italy, Iceland, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Croatia and Ukraine. The readmission agreement signed with Poland in July 1998 includes automatic return of asylum seekers, without any safeguards. Considering Poland has the same type of readmission agreement with Germany, it means that asylum seekers rejected by Germany can be sent back from Germany to Lithuania, even if Lithuania is not a safe third country in respect of Germany, and thence to their country of origin. Readmission issues between Lithuania and Malta, Cyprus, Norway and Denmark are regulated in visa-free travel agreements 117.
In March 1997, the Republic of Lithuania concluded the first readmission agreement with a CIS country - Ukraine 118. There were intense negotiations related to a readmission agreement with Belarus which, however, failed because of imperfect internal legislation in Belarus and heavy financial expenses. Representatives of Belarus stressed that there were no camps for illegal migrants and that Belarus had not signed similar agreements with CIS countries although the borders have been opened. Also there is no readmission agreement and, so far, no negotiations with Russia, although a border accord was signed between Moscow and Vilnius at the end of 1997.
Visa-free regimes exist with Iceland (April 1997), Sweden (May 1997), Finland (November 1997) and Switzerland (January 1998). In the meantime, citizens of 28 countries can come to Lithuania visa-free and Lithuanian citizens, on the basis of bilateral agreements concluded with, or unilateral decisions taken by, destination countries, can visit 29 countries without a visa 119.
Readmission agreements with the following countries are reportedly under consideration: Russia, Belarus, Romania, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, China, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh 120.
The Republic of Lithuania ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 New York Protocol on 21 January 1997. The Lithuanian Refugee Law was adopted on 4 July 1997. The Refugee Law and the Convention entered into force on 27 July 1997. The first two asylum seekers were granted refugee status on 3 September 1997. On 18 November 1997, the Seimas (Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania) restricted the Refugee Law by eliminating the article on the refugee quota.
On 24 June 1998 the Lithuanian government issued a decree setting up an interagency group to prepare amendments to the Refugee Law. The amendments are supposed to be submitted to the Seimas by the end of 1998.
On 16 July 1998 the Seimas amended the Refugee Law by introducing an additional exclusion clause to those already incorporated in the national legislation. This exclusion clause states that 'a foreigner shall not be provided with refugee status in the Republic of Lithuania if there are serious grounds for assuming that, while serving in the repressive structures of totalitarian regimes or collaborating with the occupying regime which ruled a country, or while being involved in the activities of terrorist groups, he/she has grossly violated fundamental human rights and freedoms and has fled his/her country in order to evade responsibility for such acts of crime' 121.
As of 30 November 1998, the number of asylum seekers in the Refugee Reception Centre in Rukla was 170 persons. In August 1998, 61 applications for refugee status, covering 78 individuals, were currently registered at the Foreigners' Registration Centre (pre-screening institution) and awaiting a decision by the Migration Department on admissibility into the asylum procedure and, accordingly, the granting of temporary territorial asylum and transfer from the Foreigners' Registration Centre to the Refugee Reception Centre in Rukla.
As at 1 August 1998, refugee status had been granted to 25 individuals, including children. Those who were granted refugee status will get a residence permit and go through the social integration programme for refugees which was adopted by the government of Lithuania in February 1998. It encompasses housing, language training, employment, public awareness, etc. UNHCR Stockholm contributed 10,000 US$ to this programme for 1998 122.
Vilnius and Telsiai have given their consent to accept refugees. However, the majority of refugees are still living in the Refugee Reception Centre.
Being at the crossroads of migration processes - with unresolved border problems concerning Belarus and the Russian Federation and not even half of the 650 km border officially demarcated - Lithuania is an easy door for illegal transit immigration.
The readmission agreement signed with Poland in July 1998 might bring about a chain of asylum seeker deportations from Germany to Poland, from Poland to Lithuania and thence to the country of origin, although Germany does not consider Lithuania a safe third country.
105. Statement by the delegation of Lithuania to the 6th Conference of European Ministers responsible for migration affairs, Council of Europe, Warsaw, June 1996
106. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, November 1997
107. Legal basis = law on immigration, adopted in September 1991; law on legal status of foreigners, September 1991; law on citizenship, December 1991; law on emigration, November 1991
108. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, Janas Vidickas, First deputy director, August 1998
109. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, Janas Vidickas, First deputy director, August 1998
110. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, November 1997
111. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, Janas Vidickas, August 1998
112. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, November 1997
113. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, Janas Vidickas, August 1998
114. This action plan includes the following measures: 1) complete the Lithuanian-Belarus border demarcation (by January 1999); 2) begin demarcation work along the Lithuanian- Russian border (Kaliningrad region); 3) complete the radio communication system at all the borders (end 1999); 4) reorganize the infrastructure at the Lithuanian-Belarus border; 5) computerize police stations and border checkpoints and supply them with equipment for counterfeit document detection; 6) provide the border police units with Land Rovers, 4 additional helicopters, speed boats and dogs; 7) construct observation towers along the Belarus border; 8) acquire night-vision surveillance equipment for the Belarus border (end 1999); 9) present to the Seimas draft new laws on state border protection and the border police service; 10) establish a new border police school (in Klaipeda); 11) reorganize the border police intelligence service in order to enhance its capacity to collect and process information as well as to identify corrupt officers; gradually reduce military draftees in the border police service; raise salaries; 12) send abroad for training 200 Lithuanian border policemen minimum annually).
115. European Commission, 'Progess towards accession', November 1998
116. The Budapest Group deals with uncontrolled migration issues. 36 countries (including Canada, the USA, Australia, Russia, Moldova, Ukraine) as well as several international organizations are members of this group. It seems to be the only forum where specialists on immigration issues gather from the EU countries, the associated countries and the CIS countries.
117. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, November 1997
118. UNHCR, 3rd international symposium on the protection of refugees in central Europe, April 1997, Budapest, p.279
119. Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, Migration Department, Janas Vidickas, August 1998
120. UNHCR, Jennifer Sarvary, December 1998
121. UNHCR Lithuania, Linas Sesickas, Liaison officer, August 1998
122. UNHCR Lithuania, note to DG IV, January 1998
|© European Parliament: February 1999|