Jorge Marcano | the Lithuania Tribune
On June 22nd, an unprecedented event took place at the Seimas. A workshop entitled “Immigrants in Lithuania: Problems and Solutions Conference” had the objective of sharing good practices, problems/obstacles and recommendations from a variety of stakeholders in Lithuania. Such lofty goals intend to correct negative and intolerant trends in the society and will serve for future legislative efforts in improving the rights and duties of so-called “third-country” nationals in the country.
Organised by the Tolerant Youth Association and the Office of Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson in cooperation with Member of Parliament (MP) Prof. Ausrine Marija Pavilioniene, this conference presented a review of the outstanding work carried out by the Project “Consultation and Information Centre PLUS”.
Held on the Constitution Hall at the Seimas, the conference counted with distinguished personalities on the human rights field. The welcome address was pronounced by MP Pavilioniene herself, whose remarks discussed the destiny of today’s contemporary world and explained a broad outlook on the state of the world and the difficulties facing those who seek asylum in many countries around the planet. She went on to describe that by accepting migrants, Lithuania fulfills its commitment as a EU Member State and also its responsibility in integrating foreigners into the society, provided they fulfill the requirements established by the EU’s Schengen Zone (freedom of movement).
The MP also touched briefly upon trends about social migration and integration and discuss interesting figures depicting this phenomenon in Lithuania where in 2012, a mere 0.98% of the population were actually foreign citizens. She also explained that within this percentage, there were approximately around 170 nationalities represented. Moreover, she also mentioned that there were approximately 30% of foreigners in the country who do not have a specific citizenship, most likely asylum seekers, a definition that widely differs from traditional immigrant communities.
MP Pavilioniene reflected on the cooperation and solidarity that the EU and Schengen area countries should engage themselves in whilst helping other Member States such as Greece in effectively dealing with sudden changes in migrant flows due to outside events (e.g. Arab Spring). The parliamentarian also commented on some of the reason why the EU and its active Schengen provisions could be seen as strict. Trafficking in Human Beings (THB), terrorism and smuggling were some of the reasons described as to why the rigidity and strictness of the criteria applied within the Schengen zone.
The next speaker was the Chief Officer of the Foreign Affairs Division of the Migration Office (Ministry of Interior), Mrs. Irena Dvilaitiene. She started her remarks with a broad perspective on the responsibility and the right that each person has in leading the life that they want. Moreover, she specifically discussed perspectives and statistical figures from Vilnius county and how those help shape policies throughout the nation. Amongst her remarks, she discussed that there were 18.5 million non-EU citizens in EU Member States, 9 million EU citizens in other EU Member States as foreign residents.
In Vilnius, she explained that a mere 11.696 people were foreigners in the Lithuanian capital. This is about 2% of the entire population of the city and these are individuals who usually come to the country to conduct business, study or family reunification purposes. The largest ethnic groups represented in Lithuania come from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. She reminded the audience that her office deals primarily with illegal migration and countering schemes made by those who seek to enter into marriages of convenience in Lithuania.
Closing the welcoming speeches was Mrs. Inga Zilinskaite, the head of of the project “Consultation and Information Centre PLUS” who in her brief but appreciative remarks thanked all of the participants for attending the conference and express gratitude for all those who contributed to the successful implementation of the project.
The main topics of the summit were opened by one of the main speakers, Mrs. Aiste Bartkeviciene, the head of the “Consultation and Information Centre PLUS” and a lecturer at Mykolas Romeris University. She discussed the results and the review of the main activities carried out by the centre in the previous year.
During her presentation, she explained some of the reason why they decided to establish the project (namely the lack of any such organisation in the country), whilst also describing its main objectives: to ensure availability of information to foreign migrants and to help assisting new arrivals or so-called Third-country Nationals (TCN). Amongst the main activities by the centre, the head of the project highlighted: Consultation for learning the Lithuanian language, obtain knowledge and practice to pass the linguistic examination required in order to obtain the permanent residence permit. The centre is not limiting to teaching language abilities, it also provides consultations from social workers, offers free legal consultations to those who would like to establish a business in Lithuania. She declared that the number of consults and assistances had all increased during the last year and they were satisfied with the successful outcome so far.
Amongst her figures, she mentioned there were 150 foreigners who applied for the centre’s services. Towards her closing, she reminded the participants that “people become stronger if one manages to create a tolerant environment” and that tolerance and inclusion were the trends that her association is seeking to foster in the society. Nonetheless, she wisely reminded that integration is a two-way streets and that immigrants and foreigners needed to do their bit and show efforts into effectively integration into the new host culture.
One of the most heartfelt and candid presentations was done by Ms. Ieva Mukauskaite. She works as a social worker at the Consultation and Information Centre “Plus”. She described her experiences as one of the first social workers that the centre counted upon, so her trajectory goes back to the established of the institution. Ms. Mukauskaite described her initial meetings with her first clients and she recalled having fears and certain prejudices but with time, she was able to overcome them. During her presentation, she explained that one of the strong aspects of the centre also consisted of the support not being solely for non-EU nationals but for EU citizens as well.
Amongst her daily experiences, she commented that social workers in the centre serve as mediators and facilitators between state institution and clients (migrants/foreigners). Furthermore, she touched upon of the flagship programmes that her department focuses such as the Big brother/Big sister programme (where migrants are teamed up with Lithuanian mentors as a way of enhancing Lithuanian tolerance and give immigrants a a taste of the traditions and customs of the Lithuanian people).
A detail that did not go unnoticed and it is a controversial aspect during her daily interactions with clients is the fact that any foreigner attending one of the consultations, which become a user of the centre’s services must provide a copy of his/her passport everytime they go into the center. Although instances of anonymity were mentioned, it is curious that such requirements are necessary in Lithuania, given the historical connotations that such a surveillance system evoke in the minds of the Lithuanian people, not to mention the possible contravention of EU directives dealing with the right to privacy.
The social worker also commented on the difficulties that she and her clients must usually counter due to the reportedly rigidity and unfriendliness of certain employees from Lithuanian public institutions. She went on to describe the problems facing immigrants regarding the lack of opportunities to find decent housing due to resistance from landlords who refuse to rent to foreigners and also the difficulties that some people experience due to the language barriers in the country.
As a humorous side note, she described how she had to improve on her intercultural communication skills since at the beginning some of her clients were late for appointments. As she realised later on, these instances were part of the learning process and knowing that some of her clients were still displaying something that she referred to as “African time”, namely the awareness that time is viewed differently by certain African communities in comparison with their Lithuanian counterparts. Ultimately, she felt how enriched her personality had become and how she now feels liberated from prejudice due to such experiences. Her main hope is that Lithuanian society becomes more empathetic and to gain more inter-cultural competences.
Afterwards, Mrs. Rasa Erentaite, a lecturer at Mykolas Romeris University took a more academic approach in describing her subject: “Adaptation and integration of migrants in Lithuania – psychological aspects”. Her narrative focused on the sense of loss that many immigrants feel when moving to a new country, especially if it becomes a long-stay in their host country. Through their relocations, they also experience grieving as friends and family are left behind leading in some cases to what she described as “adaptation stress factor”. Things may also spiral out of control if immigrants face negative experiences in their new places of residences such as discrimination or are unable to find housing or a decent job. As a way of improving their reality and ease their socio-cultural adaptation, she highly endorsed cultural events like those organised by the centre in order to ameliorate the negative effects of discriminatory environments.
Mrs. Erentaite also described that most migrants who attend and go abroad are usually adults. Therefore, the centre specializes on both long and short-term consultations. Since further commented on possible psychological assistance by psychologists and psychiatrists at the centre but mentioned that many of such clients needed to be refereed to other health centers due to a lack of capacity to accommodate such mental health specialists. A telephone hotline (only available during working hours) is also reachable by clients but despite these kind of assistances, she lamented that many foreigners who actually needed help did not seek it. Finally, she reflected on the need that foreigners have to actually try and being more proactive in their new communities as she sees this as an effective way to establish their new identity in their host country.
In a more formal and frank tone, Mrs. Danguole Grigoloviciene, a lawyer and an adviser of the Office of Equal Opportunities/Ombudsperson opened her remarks with an initial skepticism about attending the conference given the figures provided by the centre PLUS. However, she quickly realised that the project has been very successful and congratulated the workers on a job well done. She described the main focus of her department – focusing on equal opportunity between men and women. Nonetheless, they also deal with complaints made by foreigners (about 80% of them) regarding gender, race or nationality-based discrimination.
Amongst the most frequent cases that foreigners called her office for, she highlighted: issue relating to their legal status in the country, residence permits, legislative acts, bureaucracy and certain issues pertaining family reunifications. She admitted that there were negative trends and recognised how many Lithuanian employers are reluctant to hire foreigners. It was not clear if they were reluctant based on the amount of paperwork required for their prospective hiring or because of discrimination issues.
Nonetheless, she recognised that there was a certain degree of intolerance in the society, mentioning for instance that some years ago, even EU citizens faced difficulties when taking a driving examination since at that time, the only test were conducted either in Lithuanian or in Russian. She quickly provided an updated and mentioned that the issue has been fixed and nowadays, it is possible to take a driving examination in English. Towards the end of remarks, she also explained how certain rules were not very clear, even to public servants and briefly touched upon an example where a legal foreign resident of Lithuania was made to obtain a notarised signature in order to invite their family into the country. This type of miscommunication prompted Mrs. Grigoloviciene to declare that goodwill is needed in order to tackle discrimination in society.
In a poetic presentation, Mrs. Irena Kepaliene, a Lithuanian teacher at the PLUS centre, she describes the virtue of learning the language whilst describing the learning process as building a house. Through the use of linguistic metaphors, she explained how a language was the expression and an extension of a nation’s identity. She went on to explain how students or people in general needed to be inspire in order to learn successfully a foreign language. Her main goals as a teacher consists of promoting interest in learning not only the country’s language but also its customs and traditions.
Going forward with the presentations, Ms. Zivile Juonyte, a volunteer at the PLUS centre described her experiences as such. She explained how despite lacking a formal cultural training on ethnic diversity, she was able to find that certain personality types share common links and she used those to establish rapport with the clients and increasing mutual interactions. Her love for volunteering is remarkable and she closed her presentation with an inspirational quote, “do something you love and you’ll never have to work”, definitely food for thought and analysis.
After the lunch break, the balance between theory and practice was achieved. Presenting various experiences as immigrants, nationals from the Russian Federation, Egypt and Syria exposed some of their perspectives about living in Lithuania.
The first person to contribute was Mr. Mahmoud Mohamed Abbas Hassanin, a client of the PLUS centre, he talked about how he perceive that there was a lack of English-speaking staff in public institutions and that when dealing with the Migration Department, one has to be prepared to receive correspondence in the Lithuanian language. A highly qualified immigrant to Lithuania, Mr. Mahmoud also mentioned that even in the websites, he notices that those made in Lithuanian contained better and far more significant information than those translated in English, like the Migration Department website. He noticed the lack of equal opportunities in the labour market.
In contrast to that and offering a refreshing and positive perspective, Ms. Olga Mareicheva, a client at the PLUS centre and originally a children librarion from St. Petersburg (Russia), she provided a very positive narrative about being an immigrant in Lithuania, casually conversing at the beginning of her presentation in Lithuanian. She delighted the audience with her childhood memories about Lithuanian legends and talked about how much Lithuanian people in general had helped her and her family adapt to the country. Besides mentioning the positiveness of her experience, she also mentioned that there is a very bad image about Lithuania being portrayed by the Russian media since according to her, Russia has a hard time letting go of her imperial past. Ms. Mareicheva also recognised that there is little information about Lithuania by the Russian establishment and that the country’s occupation is actually a taboo subject in Russia. Towards the end of her account, she hoped for a historical reconciliation between the two countries.
Rounding up the immigrants’ experience, Mr. Ehab Hussein Abdou El Ghandour Zaher, President of the Arab Community in Lithuania, offered very sobering examples about various instances where some within his organisation, faced discrimination in the labour market. Mr. Zaher from Egypt, also opined about the lack of knowledge that people have upon the real status of labour migrants and how Lithuanian media injects and influence the society in negative ways. As an example, he suggests that media has created an environment where according to some surveys, about 45% of respondents declared that they would refuse Muslims. The main premise of his controversial presentation was to demand more equality and more rights for the Arab community.
One of the most revealing presentation was managed by the researcher, Karolis Zibas, from the Institute for Ethnic Studies of the Lithuanian Research Centre. He provided participants with comprehensive studies about Lithuanian social attitudes towards foreigners and immigrants in general. Entitled “Integration of migrants in Lithuania: challenges, trends and future perspectives”, his research suggested that the main problems reside in the attitudes towards immigrants regarding housing arrangements, employment and issuance of documents. He remarked that depending on the specific ethnic group one belongs, it is possible to experience more or less racism/discrimination. He spoke about the dual intolerance phenomenon and mentioned that based on surveys, there was a time right after EU accession where Chechen national suffered the worst kind of discrimination in the country.
In his opinion, Lithuanian culture is “closed and rather monolithic”. Further research also suggested that more people tend to disagree with the positive statement about “immigrants enriching or contributing to Lithuanian and its economy”. He also considered that large swathes of the Lithuanian public is handling the information presented by the media in an inaccurate fashion, specifically about labour migrants to Lithuania. The surveys seems to suggest that majority of Lithuanian respondents erroneously believe that labour migrants are supported by the tax payers, when in reality this does not factually occur at all.
Amongst other details, the survey results presented by Mr. Zibas also suggested that from a Lithuanian perspective, the farther the country of origin, the more racism/discrimination one is likely to encounter in the country, the closer geographically to Lithuania an immigrant is, the less likely he/she is to face discriminations. It is important to mention that EU citizens nationalities were not considered by the researches. Yet, the most shocking and controversial finding of his research showed that a majority of participants interviewed for the surveys did not want foreigners to have the same opportunities as Lithuanian citizens in the health-care sector and in the labour market.
It is also important that the researcher also mentioned that the high levels of intolerance are exhibited by public institutions employees such as social workers and police officers. In vast contrast to the general Lithuanian public whom do not display high levels of intolerance, especially amongst its youth population. In his final words, Mr. Karolis Zibas recommended that the Labour Inspectorate (Darbo Birza) should make an effort and focus on the issues and difficulties facing labour immigrants in the country and should broadened their efforts in improving the integration strategies for migrants as well.
The penultimate speaker, Dr. Vilma Zydziunaite, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University centered her discourse on explaining how the EU efforts were focused on defining internal European borders and to ensure the free movement of people within the Schengen zone. She recognised that most politicians offer laudable proposals to protect migrants but the problem remains at times because cultural acceptance proves sometimes hard for both sides of the equation. The remainder of her presentation attempted to answer the question of accurately defining integration through academic and theoretical lenses.
Finally, Dr. Vida Gudzinskiene’s intervention titled “Cooperation between immigrants and Lithuanian citizens: reality and perspectives” commented some of the autonomous research carried out on behalf of the PLUS Centre. A lecturer at Mykolas Romeris University, she expressed that many foreigners feel afraid in Lithuania. Nonetheless, she recognised that most Lithuanians who actually come across immigrants and forge friendships with them, actually become more open-minded, answered in the surveys that they’ll welcome more immigrants or feel more accepting in general towards other ethnic groups.
Her research on Lithuanian citizens attitudes varied greatly with the ones presented by Mr. Karolis Zibas, since Dr. Vida’s research casted a more positive light on the participants’ responses towards foreigners. Nonetheless, her research sample was not statistically significant, since the numbers of those interviewed did not reach large number of people as Mr. Karolis did in her previous presentations. She concluded her remarks by stating that her university offers a master’s degree in inter-cultural studies.
Upon conclusion of the various presentations, there was a brief interlude to have a questions and answers sessions with the panelists. On the first round of questions, there were inquiries about the existence of any legislative texts and bills currently promoted within the Seimas by Mps to facilitate the integration of foreigners in Lithuania. MP Ausrine Marija Pavilioniene provided an ample and heartfelt response in which she explained that Lithuania as EU Member State had adopted EU directives regarding equal opportunities and integration of foreigners but those were derived directly from Brussels. Furthermore, she commented that regrettably the full implementation on the law of legal status of refugees had not been fully implemented as of today.
As a follow up question, the Chief Officer of the Foreign Affairs Division of the Migration Office (Ministry of Interior), Mrs. Irena Dvilaitiene, was asked about the existence of workshops/seminars within her department designed to improve public servants’ language skills and their inter-cultural competences such as empathy or sensitivity for immigrants. To this question, she answered that at present there were no workshop/seminars at all.
These answers prompted researcher, Karolis Zibas, from the Institute for Ethnic Studies of the Lithuanian Research Centre to complement his previous intervention and explain that based on these realities, it was no wonder why the European Commission had issue a 3rd consecutive warning to Lithuania for failing to properly implement the directives dealing with the integration of foreigners in their territory. He also mentioned that there was no political will to develop a migration policy/strategy in Lithuania and that the only funding that his institute receives does not come from the Lithuanian state but from the EU structural funds that his organisation applies since before there was virtually no content or funding for such initiatives.
Questions were also raised about higher education institutions like universities and their professors making discriminatory remarks against students or not letting them work during their period of studies like Lithuanian citizens.
MP Ausrine Marija Pavilioniene explained that the Seimas as such did not have authority to interfere with universities since they are autonomous institutions and the government cannot interfere in their teaching practices. She went on to explain that Lithuania as a young democracy with merely 22 years of independence had indeed made a lot of mistakes. She lamented the lack of progress towards human rights and acknowledged that the society had seen little in the way of reforming towards multiculturalism.
However, Mrs. Irena Dvilaitiene clarified that the limitation for foreign students to work was not accurate since they can actually work part time (20 hours per week), a similar trend observed in other countries such as the United States. Mrs. Rasa Erentaite, a lecturer at Mykolas Romeris University reminded the audience about the unsuitability of certain master’s degrees mentioned in the conference such as the master’s of inter-cultural studies since according to her, such degrees do not have a place in the Lithuanian labour market. Nonetheless, she acknowledged that many aspects had improved within the Lithuanian education system.
Finally, Mr. Karolis Zibas ended on a good note and proposed changing the name of the current Law on Aliens existing in Lithuania to be amended for the most neutrally or positive name of immigrants/foreigners.