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Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (Asylum in Europe) - The Baltic connection

Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (Asylum in Europe) - The Baltic connection
Refugees (101, III - 1995)

1 September 1995
Thousands of would-be migrants and refugees have attempted the dangerous crossing of the Baltic Sea after transiting Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania - countries that still lack the facilities and legal apparatus to deal with the phenomenon.

Thousands of would-be migrants and refugees have attempted the dangerous crossing of the Baltic Sea after transiting Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania - countries that still lack the facilities and legal apparatus to deal with the phenomenon.

By Odd Iglebaek

Despite the many dangers, smugglers have found no shortage of would-be migrants and asylum-seekers willing to pay $1,000 each to take a rickety boat across the storm-tossed Baltic Sea in the dead of winter.

It's called the "Baltic Connection" and it ends - sometimes disastrously - with a perilous voyage between Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania, and the Nordic countries. Since 1992, authorities in the region have discovered at least 1,600 people in 23 separate incidents attempting to make the final leg of an often long and tortuous journey to Western Europe. How many fail to make it across the Baltic Sea is anyone's guess.

While there have been a few arrivals by air, most of those using the Baltic Connection do so by sea. One of the first recorded crossings by a group took place on 16 October 1992 and nearly ended in tragedy when a boat with 20 refugees ran aground on a rock off the coast of Sweden's major tourist island, Oland. Thirty-two hours earlier, the 10-metre pleasure craft - totally unsuited to the open sea - had left the Russian port of Kaliningrad. Soon after leaving port, the boat was caught in stormy weather, driving rain and huge waves. Meagre supplies of food and water soon ran out and, on the second night, the engine stopped and the boat was left adrift in the stormy sea.

After hitting the rock, the vessel gradually began filling with water. By the time the group was rescued by a fishing boat the next morning, the water had reached so high that the children aboard had to be held aloft.

Most of the arrivals use the Baltic countries merely as a transit zone, having already passed through Russia or Belarus. The majority are from Iraq: from the Kurdish areas, from Baghdad or from the southern marshes. Quite a few have also come from Afghanistan. Iranians, Tamils, Bengalis and some Palestinians and Pakistanis have also used the route. Some are single, but most are married couples with younger children.

For Iraqis, the smugglers' route normally takes them through Turkey and across the Black Sea.

The imposition of visa and other restrictions by West European governments - including the Nordic nations - and the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the general tightening of borders elsewhere, have funnelled increasing numbers of people toward the Baltic states in the hopes that they can travel on across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries and Western Europe. But the Baltic Connection would not exist if there weren't people willing to take the risk, nor smugglers preying on their desperation.

A foreigner entering any of the three Baltic countries without the necessary documents is by law defined as an illegal immigrant and is treated as such. In most cases, this means being placed in detention or facing the risk of being sent back to a country of previous transit, normally Russia or Belarus. Although Russia has often been reluctant to take them back, this has been a common practice between Lithuania and Belarus, in particular.

Most third-country migrants in the Baltic countries thus stay in hiding while they await their chance to cross the Baltic Sea. Nobody knows how many of these people there are, nor how many of them may actually qualify as refugees. At any given time, estimates range from several hundred in transit, to a few thousand.

In Latvia, more than 100 asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Asia have been locked up in the Olaine detention centre since the beginning of April after they were shuttled by train from one border to another, with no country willing to accept them. The majority of them are women and children and they are living in appalling conditions. There are no legal procedures in place to properly determine their status. In Estonia and Lithuania, the number of asylum-seekers in detention is currently very small.

In recent decades, migration to and from the Baltic countries has been very much a story of foreign oppression and occupation, and this history is today reflected in public attitudes toward foreigners. During the Soviet era, the Baltic states were to a large extent colonized by hundreds of thousands of mostly Russian workers, civil servants, soldiers and their families. At the same time, many people from the Baltics were forced into exile in Siberia or other parts of the former Soviet Union, or escaped to other countries.

Very few of these "immigrants" except for the soldiers, have left after independence. Many have lived in the region for two generations, even though they do not speak the local language. Slightly more than 54 percent of Latvia's population today are ethnic Latvians, while just over 33 percent are Russians. For Estonia the equivalent figures are 61.5 percent and 30.3 percent. For Lithuania they are 81 percent and 8.4 percent. Thus, attitudes toward "outsiders" are often negative, and ethnic issues carry military and security overtones - in Moscow as well as in the Baltic countries themselves.

One feature of the recent economic transition of the Baltic countries is that while a few people have become rich quickly, most of the population have yet to see their living conditions improve. For certain groups, especially for single mothers and elderly people, economic conditions have worsened and they live, by European standards, in poverty.

To accept refugees, to give them food and accommodation, is thus seen by many people in the Baltics as something they can ill afford. "We can't even manage to give our old-age pensioners a decent life, how can we afford to feed foreigners?" is a comment often heard. Others believe that anyone who can reach the Baltics from the Middle East, Asia or elsewhere must be rich and doesn't need help. Still others argue that foreigners contribute to growing crime rates and should therefore be placed in detention.

Some see a dilemma: one Latvian citizen put it like this: "Many are fighting for their freedom like we did and, therefore, we should help them. But how? They do not want to stay here, they want to go to Sweden or Canada."

Nordic governments and UNHCR's regional office in Stockholm have been trying to persuade - and assist - the Baltic states to take more responsibility for asylum-seekers and refugees. The immediate aim is to get all three states to ratify the 1951 Geneva Convention and to establish legal procedures for dealing with asylum-seekers. Other important goals are to establish selection procedures which identify genuine refugees and to ensure that they are properly received and treated. The Nordic countries and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have also been working on improved border controls.

From the perspective of the Nordic countries, it is crucial that the Baltic states become "safe countries of return," which would then minimize their attraction as a mere transit zone on the way to the West. Currently, Nordic countries see the Baltic Connection as a backdoor of unregulated immigration which needs to be closed.

Asylum-seekers who do manage to reach the Nordic countries via the Baltic states have so far not been returned. But attempts to do so have been made. Last spring, Swedish authorities put forward a couple of test cases, but the Swedish Appeals Board put a stop to it.

"It is premature," said UNHCR Regional Representative Hans Thoolen of the attempt to send people back. Thoolen is optimistic that in the forseeable future legitimate refugees will receive the reception and treatment they deserve within the Baltic states themselves.

"For refugees, there should be no need to use the Baltic Connection since by that time they will be properly treated in the Baltic countries," Thoolen said. And after proper status determination, those who are not deemed refugees would be subject to deportation under national law. In this way the Baltic Connection may eventually also lose its allure for smugglers and economic migrants.

There are other incentives for establishing proper asylum policies in the Baltic states. All three countries are eager to become members of the European Union. Improved border controls and proper procedures will increase their chances of getting such membership, as well as visa-free regimes with their Nordic neighbours.

There is some cause for optimism. On 4 July, the Lithuanian Parliament became the first Baltic state to adopt a refugee law. This was seen as a major first step towards ratifying the 1951 Geneva Convention. Estonia and Latvia are expected to follow suit. In time, and with international help, there will be legal procedures and reception centres established for refugees and asylum-seekers in all the Baltic countries.

In the meantime, authorities on both sides of the Baltic Sea have stepped up coastal surveillance in a bid to sever the Baltic Connection. In response, smugglers have raised their prices and are even forcing clients to buy their own vessels, which are then abandoned offshore and left adrift. While there is some hope on the horizon, all too many people continue to risk their lives on the stormy seas of the Baltic.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (1995)