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Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Lithuania: Country in transition

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

Asylum-seekers sometimes receive a very frosty reception in the Baltic countries something UNHCR Liaison Officer Linas Sesickas is trying to change.

By Linas Sesickas
UNHCR Liaison Officer Vilnius, Lithuania

I remember my shock at seeing conditions at the Yanaua detention centre, 130 kilometres from Vilnius.

Thirteen Somalis had spent three months in the dark, three metres underground, in horrifying conditions. They never saw the light of day except during the daily exercise hour. They suffered from eye problems. It was terribly hot. The air was heavy, unbreathable. The place made you claustrophobic. The Somalis were in the midst of their second hunger strike.

Only four months after I was seconded from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to work for UNHCR, the Lithuanian Interior Ministry, alarmed by this second hunger strike, asked me to go and talk to the Somalis and try to defuse the tension.

Of course the living conditions of these asylum-seekers shocked me. But what appalled me the most was the uncertainty they had to cope with on a daily basis.

It's certainly difficult for someone to live imprisoned when you've committed no crime. These Somalis were considered criminals, but in fact they weren't treated as such. After all, a criminal is judged and condemned to a specific punishment. He knows that his prison stay will be of fixed duration. He knows the outcome. But these Somalis didn't.

It must be horrible not to know what tomorrow will bring, not to know when this hell will finally end.

These Somalis came through Moscow. They didn't want to talk about the road they followed to end up in the Yanaua jail. But, most probably, they crossed illegally via the Belarus border like the 300 other illegal migrants who are in Lithuania, dreaming of only one thing: to go further west. Usually, they want to go to the Nordic countries, even if it means risking their lives crossing the Baltic Sea in an old boat.

This particular group of Somalis didn't want to go further west. They were asking for asylum in Lithuania. But they will have to wait for it. There are still a lot of obstacles to overcome.

None of the Baltic states has signed the 1951 Convention, but Lithuania is the only one to have adopted a law on refugees, on 4 July 1995. The new law will come into effect once all the required infrastructure is in place, including a reception centre for refugees, financed jointly by the Nordic countries, UNHCR and UNDP.

While listening to the Somalis, I could not stop asking myself why a country like Lithuania, which for years had itself been a refugee "producer," could impose so much hardship on asylum-seekers ? These people were not dangerous. They did not represent a threat. Could the demography of the country explain this intolerance? Not really. After all, if Russians represent a third of the Estonian and Latvian population, it is only 8 percent in Lithuania.

I would rather explain the xenophobia as being caused by the difficulty which the Baltic countries have in recognizing that they are now part of a shrinking, interdependent world. When you've lived for decades in a closed society, where the outside world barely exist, it's difficult to change your thinking overnight to realize that you are, in fact, a tiny part of a huge world.

That's the sad reality of countries in transition.

A person of colour can walk around in Stockholm, Oslo or Helsinki without attracting attention. But it's unusual on a Vilnius street. Everyone stops to look. The 13 Somalis could not move without being noticed.

Fortunately, a week after my visit, the Somalis were transferred to another centre where conditions were more humane at last they could see the light of day and didn't live three metres underground. But they still had no freedom of movement.

They are still living there and they are waiting for the end of the year to be accommodated in the new reception centre, where their case will be examined. If they are recognized as refugees, they should be allowed to integrate in Lithuanian society.

So, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe now they feel that their future is a little less uncertain.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)

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