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January 1996, Volume 3, Number 1

Latvia and Lithuania Deal with Immigration

According to the Latvian president, he plans to sign the Geneva Convention on the Rights of Refugees. The president is also prepared to sign agreements with Russia and Belorussia to return asylum seekers who transit through those countries.

In a meeting with the Swedish prime minister in October, the Latvian president asked other European nations to help fund the building of a camp for asylum seekers. The camp would cost an estimated $1.5 million.

Latvia is considering legislation that would impose up to 10-year jail terms, plus confiscation of any vehicles used, on persons caught smuggling aliens into the country.

In March, a "train of despair," carried 100 Kurds between Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia for several weeks as each country rejected the Kurdish asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran --half of whom were children--and argued that they were the responsibility of the other. In early April, the refugees were moved to the prison building in a small town near Riga, Latvia. They have remained there for the past nine months, waiting for Russia to agree to accept their return.

The Kurds, most of whom had paid $2,500 each to be smuggled to Sweden, were on a ship that ran aground in Estonia, from which they were returned to Latvia. Sweden, according to Latvia, announced that it would help Latvia to deport the Kurds to Russia. About 50 Middle Eastern asylum-seekers a month, or 10 boatloads a year, are smuggled into Sweden via the Baltic states.

Latvia is being criticized by Russia for its response to the suicide of a Russian citizen in a Latvian town in July, 1995. The Russian, who was unable to obtain a residence permit, immolated himself to protest his impending deportation.

Lithuania is continuing to try to set up mechanisms to deal with illegal immigration. Under pressure for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Scandinavian governments, Lithuania promised to convert a former Soviet military base into a detention center for asylum seekers, instead of forcing them to depend upon the benevolence of the local people. Lithuania hopes to get financial support from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.

Lithuania's Border Protection Service welcomed Russia's offers to provide equipment to police the borders of the Baltic states. The Commission of Border Services hopes that the strengthened border guard will stem the flow of illegal immigrants who travel through Lithuania on their way to the West.

Vladas Burbulis, "Large Group of Illegal Immigrants Detained in Lithuania," TASS, November 11, 1995. "Lithuania welcomes Russian aim of boosting Belarussian border controls," BBC, October 2, 1995. Nicholay Vukolov, "Latvia Needs Help to Resolve Refugees Problem, TASS, October 17, 1995. "Russia unhappy about Latvia's attitude to immigrant's suicide," BBC, October 7, 1995. Dmitry Shdannikov, Flight from 'Train of Despair'" Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, May 10, 1995. "Latvia tightens laws against smugglers of humans," Reuters World Service, April 13, 1995. Latvia Transfers "Train People" To Prison Building, TASS, April 7, 1995.