Lithuania’s approach to refugees: History, compassion and solidarity

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Vilnius castle, Lithuania. [Mantas Volungevicius/Flickr]

Lithuania aspires to live up to its own historical standards of tolerance and Christian compassion, as well as the modern European ideal of solidarity, writes Gediminas Kirkilas. 

Gediminas Kirkilas is Vice-Speaker of the Seimas, Lithuania’s unicameral parliament, and the chairman of the Committee on European Affairs.

Lithuania has been implementing a refugee-friendly policy for quite some time. Four years ago, Lithuania accepted a number of Eritrean refugees from Malta. This year, several Iraqi families have settled in Vilnius; their adult members are now successfully integrating into the country’s labour market. Lithuania has been especially benevolent towards the Ukrainians, fleeing from the war-torn regions of eastern Ukraine and the illegally annexed Crimea. They have been offered housing.

Throughout the history of oppression and occupation, the Lithuanians have learned that the only way not to stand aside is to share. We are only 25 years into our restored independence and still catching up to the economies of our Western European partners, but we stand ready to share. Everyone is trying to help. Not only our government, but our NGOs, as well as different religious organisations that serve as examples to follow.

Our country successfully took part in the international maritime missions of Poseidon Sea, led by the EU’s Frontex agency. We are prepared to assist Greece and Italy in their endeavours to cope with the daily challenges in taking care of the refugees from North Africa.

I strongly believe in European solidarity. Emergency assistance to those fleeing war is an unquestionable act of humanity. In this unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe, we need to be ready for an in-depth discussion about the refugee integration model, which would ensure international protection for asylum seekers and promote positive attitudes towards them in their host societies.

Discussions on how to solve the current refugee crisis, what constitutes a fair share, what kind of effort every EU member should make, or how to ensure social cohesion are not easy in Lithuania. The anti-refugee discourse in the media, and on social networks, has been very emotive. It has become much more than just another issue on the government’s agenda, or a popular media topic. Lithuanians now talk about refugees at their work places, homes, pubs or in public transport. Our society seems to be divided on the issue.

The latest opinion poll shows that at least 51% are in favour of accepting refugees, which is a good number bearing in mind that Lithuanians, largely due to the historical experience of international isolation under Soviet rule, have initially shown more reservation towards refugees. Some argue that we have our own external borders to protect, others that little has been done to ensure that the international protection system and the refugee status are not abused.

The humanitarian crisis caused by a sudden flow of refugees over the summer, the tragedy of their lives and deaths, has left no one untouched. It is changing the course of understanding in Lithuanian society, as well as the position of politicians and the government. Decisions have to be made. Both the Lithuanian government and parliament are keen not only to solve the issue of quotas, but also to take care of the people and to relocate a fair share of the total 40,000 and 120,000 asylum seekers involved in the EU’s plan. Lithuania is among the EU member states that understands solidarity and responsibility.

Discussions on social networks, mainly Facebook, reveal that Lithuanians are growing increasingly compassionate and understanding towards the people coming from war zones and countries where they have been forced to abandon their homes and lives. The disturbing images of drowned children in social media are sending shock waves throughout society and changing the attitudes of those that had previously not believed in the tragedy of the refugees. There has not been a single protest against immigrants or refugees in Lithuania.

We, the politicians from the centre left and the centre right, should look for a clear consensus on a refugee-friendly attitude and policy among the major political parties in the Lithuanian parliament. Such consensus has become a tradition of foreign and domestic policy in Lithuania. It has been achieved on issues such as our EU and NATO membership, EU Partnership goals, national security and defence issues. Lithuanians keep a strong historical memory of the dramatic post-war situation, when thousands fled the Soviet-occupied homeland to Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe and the United States, thus escaping the fate of death, or exile to Siberia for opposing the totalitarian Soviet regime.

We were not left alone during the recent financial crisis, and our allies have stood shoulder to shoulder with Lithuania since the rise of Russian provocations close to our borders as well as the changed security situation in Europe since Russian aggression began in Ukraine. Now we are ready to stand with Germany, Greece, Italy, and Hungary, and with all those who need our help at this difficult hour. Reciprocity and solidarity, as well as mutual help and assistance, are at the core of the EU integration project, and if Lithuania expects help from others when necessary, it also should provide help to those in need.

There are many things to be done in parallel with ensuring the minimum needs for asylum seekers: preserving the Schengen area, ensuring the best possible protection of our external borders, making sure that no one poses a threat to our national security while abusing our openness (fingerprinting and registration is the key), strengthening the role of Frontex, dismantling human trafficking networks, and ensuring effective coordination between all the institutions concerned, as well those involved in the work of the so called hot spots. Last but not least, the best arguments to ensure broad support for comprehensive European decisions aimed at solving the refugee crisis are transparency and fairness. Lithuania is and will be part of the European decision.

And yes, we can. We can help people facing devastation and wars. Yes, we can understand what solidarity means. We have a lot of experience accommodating different cultures and different people. Lithuanians are very proud of our country’s history. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was among the largest countries in Europe from the 13th century to the 16th. It is at that time that Lithuania started its comprehensive policy of immigration. The 13th and 14th centuries saw the Tatars coming to Lithuania from the Altan Orda. At the end of 14th century, Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, brought the Karaites, a Judaic people from Crimea. Both the Tatars and the Karaites remain precious and distinct, although tiny, parts of the Lithuanian population, as well as its culture and heritage.

Today, Lithuania will live up to those historical standards, putting our efforts into building the house of European solidarity and sharing our empathy with those in dire need.

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