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Opinions 2015 09 30

G. Kirkilas. Lithuania‘s Approach to Refugees: history, compassion and solidarity

Despite what initially might seem as hesitation, in reality Lithuania aspires at living up to its own historical standards of tolerance and Christian compassion as well as the modern European ideals of solidarity.

Lithuania has been implementing the 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 down 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 counting only the 25th year of restored independence, 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 organizations serving 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 endeavors coping with the daily challenges in taking care of the refugees from Northern Africa.

I strongly believe in European solidarity. Emergency assistance to those who are fleeing from 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 hosting societies.

Discussion on how to settle the current refugee crisis, what is fair share, what kind of effort every EU member should make or how to ensure social cohesion is not an easy one in Lithuania. The anti-refugees discourse in the media and social networks has been emotional. 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 percent are in favor of accepting refugees, which is a good number having in mind that Lithuanians, mainly due to the historical experience of international isolation under the soviet rule, initially have 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 and during the recent weeks, the tragedy of their lives and deaths left no one untouched. It is changing the course of the understanding in the Lithuanian society, as well as the position of politicians and the Government. Decisions have to be made. Both the Lithuanian Government and the Parliament are keen to not only solve the issue of quotas, but also to take care of the people and to relocate a fair part from the total numbers of 40.000 and 120.000 asylum seekers. Lithuania is among those EU member states that understand solidarity and responsibility.  

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

We, politicians from the center left and the center right, should look for a clear consensus on a refugee-friendly attitude and policy among the major political parties at the Lithuanian Parliament. Such consensus has become a tradition of foreign and domestic policy in Lithuania.; It was achieved on such issues as the 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 to Western Europe and the United States, thus escaping the fate of death or exile to Siberia for opposing the imposed 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 provocative behaviour close to our borders as well as the changed security situation in Europe since  Russian aggression in Ukraine. Now we are ready to stand with Germany, Greece, Italy, and Hungary – 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 to those in need.

There are a lot of 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 , ensuring effective coordination of all institutions concerned as well those involved in the work of the so called hot spots. Last, but not least – transparency and fairness of the whole process are good arguments to ensure the largest support for comprehensive European decisions trying to solve the  refugee crisis. Lithuania is and will be part of European decision.

And, yes, we can. We can help people facing devastation and wars. Yes, we can understand what solidarity means. We have ages of lasting experience how to accommodate 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 in 13-16th centuries. It is at that time, that Lithuania started its comprehensive policy of immigration. The 13-14th 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, who are Judaic, 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.

The morale is simple: nowadays Lithuania is going to live up to those historical standards, putting its efforts in building the house of European solidarity and sharing our empathy with those in dire need.  

 

Gediminas Kirkilas, Vice-Speaker of the Seimas, Chair of the Committee on European Affairs

euractiv.com

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