Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are countries where refugees can thrive, not just survive. UNHCR survey reveals willingness of refugees to start a new life and integrate in the society, but also remaining challenges.
The survey, undertaken by UNHCR’s Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries and partners, gathered views of refugees from more than 20 countries of origin on their experience with integration in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The survey provides first-hand insights into the lives of refugees and their experience with the arrival in a new country and their efforts to establish a new life and become members of the local communities. Despite the important progress made in all three countries, the survey reveals there are still a number of challenges which need to be addressed to improve their integration and make it a win-win situation for refugees and host communities alike.
“First impressions after arrival were very positive. First of all, it was safe here, we were not persecuted anymore … We discovered that we need to adapt, we need to learn the language… Then we started to participate in refugee programme…and our circle of contacts became wider”, a Tajik refugee shared during the survey interview.
Integration is a ‘two-way’ process between the refugees and their host communities. It is about building social cohesion, stability and security which requires that communities are well-equipped to receive refugees, and that refugees are well-supported to realize their potential in their new environments. This includes fostering self-reliance and a strong sense of belonging to the hosting country by learning language, culture, social norms, providing opportunities to work, participate and contribute to the society. Comparing with UNHCR’s mapping of integration policies and practices in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2013–2016, the efforts countries have undertaken to further strengthen their integration work have shown positive results. Over the past years, all three Baltic countries have adopted and implemented important targeted policies and measures to strengthen the integration of refugees.
“Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, young asylum countries, have come a long way in establishing integration practices that enable refugees and host communities to thrive together. This progress should inspire and motivate for further initiatives leading to welcoming societies for refugees and all citizens”, says UNHCR’s Representative to the Nordic and Baltic Countries Henrik M. Nordentoft.
Despite an overall positive attitude and efforts to make integration work, the survey also reveals that structural integration challenges still exist and hamper the integration success. Refugees in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania shared more negative than positive experiences in relation to employment, housing, welcoming environment and specific integration services. These challenges will need to be addressed to enable refugees to use their resilience, determination and resourcefulness to contribute to their local communities and economies.
The findings and suggestions emanating from the survey aim to inform and assist Governments, NGOs and UNHCR in prioritizing and further developing refugee integration in the Baltic countries.
The data collection on refugees’ experiences was carried out in 2019 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic in cooperation with local partners. UNHCR offers the utmost appreciation to all refugees respondents and partners in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, including the Estonian Refugee Council, International House Tartu, ‘I want to Help Refugees’, Latvian Red Cross, Society Integration Foundation, Lithuanian Red Cross, Vilnius Archdiocese Caritas and ‘Artscape’ for their support and assistance.