Listening exercise: whether “we” know what “they” need?
Prior to offering services to local inhabitants, during at least the last 10 years state and local governments have used to perform the so-called “needs assessment” to understand what are the issues important for people that should be included in the national or town’s development plan. This can result, for example, in a quite surprisingly finding that local seniors in fact do not need any day centre, since they are already quite good at socialising in the large pre-war built flat owned by Ms Alma’s at Ziediņu bulvāris and would use the financing of structural funds for construction of a new kindergarten. These assessments are also important so as to not offer painting classes to immigrants just arriving in Latvia instead of informal Latvian classes with topics of interest for them of sports classes in Latvian. It is good that the State sets certain indicators in immigrant integration — knowledge of Latvian, understanding of the local culture, in what extent should they be involved in training for the unemployed or integrated in the labour market. How to accomplish that? Should we ask ourselves or them?
My companion Mira Tsargand works with the association “Patvērums “Drošā māja”” and is in charge of migration, asylum seekers, and refugees’ affairs. Her competence covers also the topical issues of human trafficking: forced labour, prevention of sham marriages, and rehabilitation of victims. Prior to arriving to Latvia, Mira has worked with the organisation “La Strada — Ukraine”, and her duties were mainly related with issues related to sex slavery, sexual abuse of children, family violence, xenophobia, and racism. In Ukraine Mira has also worked under the mandate of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and as a local consultant at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ukraine. She was born in Afghanistan, but emigrated with her family to Russia in 1989 as a political refugee. Specifics of the Russian migration policy forced the family to move to Ukraine in 1998. In 2002 whole family received the status of refugee, and three years later — citizenship of Ukraine. In Latvia, in parallel with her work, Mira graduated from the Entrepreneurship and Management Master’s Programme at Riga Technical University and is currently studying at Riga Graduate School of Law. Before that, she had acquired both Bachelor’s and Master’s level education in computer sciences in Ukraine.
What surprised you most when coming to Latvia?
I came to Latvia in winter on 17 December, I remember it just like it was yesterday. I was shocked by the cold — I was ready for a harsh winter like in Ukraine, but it was even colder here. I was charmed by the nature, although the scene in many places resembles Ukraine — forests here looks similar to me, but the charm of Latvian winter is very special, nonetheless.
Strangely, but I was surprised that public transport runs precisely, in line with the schedule — it is not like that in Ukraine. I found it unusual to pay for parking my car in the city, see ducks wandering in the Old Town, I was fascinated by the beauty of the historical centre of the city. It was difficult for me to get used to space and distance in Riga, and it took me some time to adapt to the local pace of life, resumed my time-management skills and regained the behaviour and self-expression typical for me — travelling from one culture to another I had been confused.
What was people attitude towards you on the street, at university, place of work?
It was complicated, in particular in everyday locations and situations — on the street, in transport. You meet many different people — Riga is not suffering from uniformity at all. The first conversation with a woman on street was a true learning lesson in a way. I approached her in Russian and tried to find out where can I find a shop somewhere nearby, but her reaction literary shocked me. I did not understand her speaking in Latvian, but felt hostile attitude. I decided that I have to learn Latvian as soon as possible, because I do not want to experience such negative emotions once again. During the coming months, a range of unpleasant cases of discrimination left marks in my mind and soul. And it was not at all because of not knowing Latvian.
Looking from aside, visual elements of discrimination of “the different ones” are obvious in everyday situations. Still quite often I feel myself uncomfortable and not wanted here. When dealing with state institutions complications aroused because I am a Ukrainian citizen, although I do not look like a typical Ukrainian. I am of Asian origin, and every time when applying for a social support or other kind of assistance I had to explain why I look like I do. I had to tell my complicated life story to just-met strangers.
I understand that it is part of immigration policy — the State has to clarify identity of immigrants. I have no objections to revealing information to the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (PMLP) or other law enforcement institution, if it is related to state security issues or migration policy. I do not understand situations and feel quite confused when I have to confirm my status in banks, medical institutions, social services or education institutions. I had to do that also when interacting with neighbours, study mates, and even in public transport, bars, shops, on the street. I felt like everyone is watching me like a strange, different creature: “the border” between me and the receiving state accompanied me everywhere. See, everything that together does not motivate me to open and integrate.
Just like many incomers, you have your family here. You in family, you at work, you at studies, you on the street and in everyday situations with Latvians — how di your communication strategies differ in these various life situations and interaction models?
Actually, people in Latvia are just like people anywhere else. If I am alone in some everyday situation, I feel like between strangers. I think that people differ from each other in general and there are various social groups in all communities. When you get used to differences, when they become usual and habitual, the distance shrinks. Actually, I have no particular worries, fears or very specific expectations about each of the life dimensions you mentioned. I feel equal both in my family, university, and at work. Perhaps, some of incomers similar to me feel better at home, but I live in a mixed family, which means that there is a portion of inter-cultural lack of understanding and misunderstandings also in my family life (Mira’s husband is a Ukrainian — L. O.).
Your daily work makes you meet other immigrants, you even help them: how do you understand their pain, needs, and undergo their joy, revelations, and surprises? What are immigrants here happy about, what are they complaining about?
Yes, I work both with asylum seekers and refugees, and third-country nationals. Frankly speaking, asylum seekers and refugees are not satisfied with anything here, as far as I have come across it. Probably it is because they do not consider Latvia to be a country of residence — it is just a transit country for them. They do not know anything about Latvia and do not want to know; they have come here by accident, many of them — not by their own will, for example, while being on their way to Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, and other countries. This is the group of immigrants which is the least protected, they are the ones who need well-considered and adjusted integration activities, programmes, services more than any other. Unfortunately, their needs are only satisfied in part, insufficiently. State does not provide them with a long-term financial support, education programmes, courses of Latvian, place for living, even not health care services. They strive to get away from Latvia, because they feel outlawed and helpless here.
Situation with third-country nationals is completely different. For them, Latvia is a country of possibilities — new chances and “door to the future”. Students are excited to come to study in Latvia, because the average quality of education is better than in the CIS and Asian states, and cheaper than in the Western Europe. They are also lured by fact that Latvian diplomas are recognised in the EU, as well as the recognition of EU diplomas in other countries in the world. People who come to work in Latvia upon an invitation of the employer receive special provisions: the employer pays for their health insurance, and provides with a flat in special cases. Their relations with employer are regulated by an employment contract. I think that economic immigrants or labour force from other states is more protected in Latvia than students or those coming to unite their families. State’s attitude towards them is like towards tax payers, not consumers of benefits. Incomers from third-countries who come to unite their family often face different hardships and restrictions. My experience shows that third-country nationals in Latvia is a group of strong and capable people, who do not need rich help, only some understanding, support and regulation of residence policy that matches the values of human rights. I want to break down the stereotype that they have high and unfulfillable demands — there are even some of them who are ready to pay for social assistance and integration services if they are not available for free. Issues and problems arising in relation to the status of third-country nationals in Latvia are not connected with legislation or discrimination, but more with what and how professionally do the employees of state and municipal institutions, who are responsible for them, do.
Mira, how would you assess the services available in Latvia to third-country nationals in various spheres of life? Let’s start with education.
It is good that higher education is available to third-country students: it is comparatively cheap and of quite high quality. I cannot comment issues related to general education, but about the higher education I can say that consultations on social support and availability of health care services lacked in the university where I was studying. There was also not enough understandable information on the study programmes.
Does the problem lies in higher education policy regarding admitting students from third-countries?
I think that no: it is satisfactory, but its implementation causes problems to universities themselves.
How would you assess the situation in health care?
You have to pay for health care services, for example, if seeing a doctor, but I think it is worth paying, because prices are not high and services are of good quality. However, large problem is in the immigrant health insurance system, as civilised procedure for recovering expenses is lacking: the range of services that are paid by insurers is so poor that it insurance starts to pay back only in case of very heavy, life-threatening illnesses or in relation to injuries caused by accidents. To come to Latvia with any reason, it is necessary to buy an insurance policy, but, ironically, it covers the mentioned costs and also repatriation of body after the death. Everything else has to be paid be third-country nationals, and it is not cheap. In addition, no thought has been paid on culturally-specific health care needs of immigrants, and information on health care services is not sufficient in other languages. As far as I know, no appropriate mental health care is available, nor are services of psychologist or psychotherapist, where specialists would take into account the peculiarities of immigrant’s culture. I think that health care policy regarding the needs of third-country nationals should become more open and nuanced.
Housing issues, is everything okay here?
Investors from third countries who invest their money in immovable properties have no problems. If I want to purchase a flat — go ahead, no one is going to hinder you. Troubles start when an immigrant, especially looking everything but Latvian, wants to rent a flat: owners often take fright and rejects. My advice to peers from third-countries: if you want to rent or buy a flat, it is better to use agent’s services. It will take more money and time, but will also give a guarantee that you will have a place to live in.
What about consumption of culture products? Are they available?
Here I do not see any problems, in fact. Representatives of different cultures have rich possibilities to enjoy various culture events — this is what Riga and Latvia can be proud of. Moreover, they are available to people with various needs, interests, and from different cultures (Mira is very fond of “Prāta vētra” music — L. O.).
Before, you mentioned advantages of third-country employees in comparison with immigrants whose residence in Latvia is related with other objectives. How would you assess the current labour market regulation and services?
Highly-qualified job seekers will find Latvia as suited and friendly country. At least, in private sector one can find a job. But in general, against the background of local, must say decreasing, level of unemployment (it is around 10% already for a year — L. O.) I would not say that each and every foreign employee is welcomed here open-armed. You know already that a third-country national can only be hired if no inhabitant of Latvia or EU citizen having appropriate qualification has not applied for that job within a month of it is announced. In the employment policy I see the following problem: Latvia still has not signed nor ratified the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
Last, but not least, question is about participation in politics. One can think that if Latvia had, for example, Immigrants’ Party, who would defend their rights and freedom actively, the protection of their rights would improve gradually.
You already know that immigrants are not allowed to establish a political party. They can, however, establish a non-governmental organisation, but usually they are hindered by the bureaucratic procedures at Register of Enterprises (which are not so confusing for an educated person familiar with the political system in Latvia — L. O.). In my opinion, restrictions to participation is a sensitive and emotional question, let’s take, for example, municipal level. You live in a town for years, work there and pay taxes, but have no right to decide about issues related to town’s development, elect the town’s council or mayor. Your political rights are very restricted. From the politics’ viewpoint, the freedom of assembly and association, giving right to a third-country national to establish a non-governmental organisation or participate in current non-governmental organisations, establish a trade union or be a member in a trade union, should be supplemented with right to establish political parties and elect municipal government, if one has lived in the particular municipal territory and worked there for a long period of time and if holding a permanent residence permit. It would be simply just.
Thank you for your opinion and thoughts you shared! Let’s hope that it will help immigration policy makers and implementers draw conclusions and improve their work in the future.
In the next article the author will design the necessary changes to action policies related to residence of third-country nationals in Latvia, and will propose discussing them with policy makers.