UNHCR launches a report about refugee integration in Latvia

The UNHCR Regional Representation for Northern Europe (RRNE) launched its report “Integration of refugees in Latvia: Participation and Empowerment”, at a public event attended by participants from government ministries, public institutions, non-governmental organizations and the refugee community. The launch, held in the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) in Riga on 11 June, was jointly organized by UNHCR, the Ministry of Culture and NGO “Shelter “Safe House”” (Drošā māja).

2015. 22. June, Salvador Merlos, Riga

The study on refugee integration focuses on the opportunities and challenges refugees in Latvia commonly face when trying to learn Latvian, find accommodation, access schools, find a job, and integrate socially in the community. The report, which is based on interviews with refugees, institutions and organizations working in different areas of refugee integration, and research, finds that the refugees who live in Latvia today want exactly these things: to learn the language, find a job in order to earn money to pay their own food and bills, and taxes, find a place to live, and make new friends in Latvia. But the study also finds that this is difficult for many, because Latvia has not yet developed a refugee integration support program that guides refugees through the national system and administration. As a result, many valuable human resources, energy and motivation are wasted.

In the opening of the event, Mr. Uldis Lielpēters, Deputy State Secretary for International Affairs, Integration and Media Issues, praised the report for its clear recommendations and series of necessary improvements in all the fields that Latvia should take in close cooperation with others stakeholders. The Deputy State Secretary acknowledged that Latvia has relatively little experience in integration of refugees and that the support offered has mostly been based on projects and carried out by NGOs such as Drošā māja and the Latvian Centre for Human Rights. “This is a big challenge for us, but I hope that by working together we can go a long way to improve the situation of those people who have chosen Latvia as their home”, said Mr. Lielpēters.

Ms. Karolina Lindholm Billing, Deputy Regional Representative, UNHCR RRNE, stressed that integration is a key component of a functioning asylum system. In many countries, concerns about failed integration have been voiced, and those arguments are used as a reason to restrict access and asylum policies. Through this project, we hope to contribute to an understanding of which factors can make integration fail, and which underpin its success.”

Speakers from Finland, Sweden and Denmark were invited to share some practical examples of integration support projects. In her presentation of the framework and policy for integration of refugees in Finland, Ms Meri-Sisko Eskola, Ministerial Advisor to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy in Finland, explained that the Finnish Integration Act has an aim to provide foreign nationals equal access and full participation in all sectors of Finnish society, while maintaining the possibility to keep their own language and culture. Ms Anette Christoffersen, from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), said that the Danish Integration Act is quite similar to the Finnish Act and seeks to promote employment and refugees’ economic self-sufficiency. Ms Christoffersen also highlighted the importance of the launch, “as we are facing in Denmark some of the challenges the Latvians are facing too. We have a serious responsibility to learn from each other in Europe when it comes to integration”.

A personal experience of integration was provided through an interview with a refugee in Latvia, who expressed his gratitude to the Latvian people “for being so kind and open and for having such a rich cultural life”. This refugee also shared some of the challenges he has faced in Latvia, most of them in line with the main findings in the report.

The launch was also an opportunity to present some initiatives from Sweden in relation to integration. Patrik Andersson shared his experience on the role of sports associations in integration in Sweden. In 2014, he founded the first ever national Somali bandy team, with Somali refugees in his hometown Borlänge, as he saw the need for a platform that would facilitate interaction between different communities in Borlänge. Mr Andersson explained that “integration is something everyone has to be involved in, and not only the governments. We need to start talking to each other”. The Somali bandy team gathered international media attention, as only eight months after being founded it was ready to compete in the 2014 World Championship in Bandy in Irkutsk, Russia. A documentary about their journey ‘Trevligt folk’ (‘Nice People) was shown on the 10th of June at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga in a joint event with UNHCR RRNE and the Swedish Embassy in Latvia. Carl Biörsmark, Integration Coach at Kungsgårds High School in Norrköping, Sweden, also shared his experiences on integration and education of young refugees. After showing some videos made with young refugees, Mr Biörsmark explained that “From Peking to the world – with love” is an educational project that takes advantage of the creative energy of the students.

During the space for final questions and discussion, Anita Kleinberga, Head of Social Integration and Civil Society Development Unit, Department of Social integration Affairs, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, expressed her satisfaction with the report, “as is a mirror of reality that provides the ground for a fresh start”.

Karolina Lindholm Billing had words of gratitude to all the participants and the audience for attending the launch and stressed that UNHCR stands ready to work with the government of Latvia in addressing the findings outlined in the study, including by drawing on its network of experts and good practice examples from the region.