Mira Tsargand. Human rights of migrants in Latvia, are they fully implemented? 27.12.2013

Mira Tsargand, 
Master of Social Sciences in Management

World is changing rapidly these days, and migration flows are chaotic and unpredicted due to globalization, characterized and sustained by economical development and crises, wars, natural disasters etc. Today more people than ever are living abroad. In 2013, 232 million people, or 3.2 per cent of the world’s population, were international migrants, in comparison with 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990[1]. Migration affects all continents, and many countries today are both countries of origin, transit and residence of migrants. A lot of migrants are moving between developing countries, about 40 percent of the total numbers of migrants in the world are moving to neighboring countries because of intercultural and other similarities. 

Although we are living in the age of global development with the respect to the human rights of individuals, human rights of migrants are often violated. Different categories of migrants such as domestic workers, labour immigrants and low skilled labour migrants are involved in human trafficking, forced labor worldwide. Quite often migrants are facing discrimination, racism as well as challenges in the realization of migrants’ rights to health, adequate housing, adequate payment, realization of their social, political and cultural rights, nevertheless the human rights approach to migration pays particular attention to the situation of marginalized and disadvantaged groups of migrants. Such an approach is ensuring that migrants as a specific group are included in relevant national action plans and strategies, such as plans on the provision of public housing or national strategies to combat racism and xenophobia[2].

From above will be interesting to find out if Latvia is ready to respect social, political and cultural rights of migrants and their families the same as it does in case of the Latvian citizens? According to the US Department of State the government generally respects human rights in Latvia[3]. It is ranked above average among the worlds sovereign states in democracy, press freedom, privacy and human development. The country has a large ethnic Russian community, which has basic rights guaranteed under the constitution and international human rights laws ratified by the Latvian government. 

In 2004, the Council of the European Union[4] established common principles for the integration of immigrants in the EU, stating that successful integration absolutely requires fundamental knowledge of the language, history and institutional structure of the host country. Approaches in this regard can essentially be divided up into two groups – fragmentary support for cultural orientation (voluntary educational courses, no links to the receipt of social support), and integration agreements (partly or fully mandatory courses and reduced social support for those who do not attend them)[5]. There are various legal norms that are called to the improvement of the third country national immigrants’ situation improvement and their inclusion into Latvian society. These apply to rules related to the admission of immigrants in Latvia, their economic participation or access to the labour market, their social security, anti-discrimination rules, education and political participation rights. 

The situation of any foreigner in this regard is based on his or her legal status in Latvia. Third country nationals are benefiting access to various social areas if they have permanent residence permits. To get such a permit a third country national with a temporary residence permit must live in Latvia without interruption for at least five years, and he or she must also pass a state language exam.

The exception applies to foreign students, whose time in the country as students is not counted toward a permanent residence permit, or is counted only in half in case if the student will continue to live in Latvia after his or her studies due to some other reasons. However, a temporary residence permit offers only limited rights and access to different areas of social, economical and private rights. A foreigner who has come to Latvia from a third country and has a work based temporary residence permit has limited opportunities to the family reunification procedure. The law on immigration says that a foreigner can bring along his family for the period of time that he spends in Latvia himself, but the fact is that the family members are required to get an invitation from the foreigner’s employer. If the employer refuses family reunification is not possible. For a foreigner that is a spouse of someone who is a citizen of Latvia, a Latvian non-citizen, or a person who has received a permanent residence permit, the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (OCMA) requires the entire listed document and an invitation prepared by spouse in Latvia. 

Temporary residence permits are directly linked to the reason why the person is staying in Latvia. Such permits can be issued if someone has been hired for a job, if a family is being reunited, or if the person is a student. As soon as the foreigner has no longer a job, either gets divorced or stops being a student, he or she has to leave the country in a certain period of time.

In the case of employment the foreigner is linked to the company or organization that has hired him and foreigner has no right to get a different job on the basis of the current temporary residence and work permit. The ability of third-country nationals with temporary residence permits to access the labour market is limited, because the rules in this area are meant to protect the domestic labour market. Most third-country nationals can get jobs in Latvia only if recruited to do so by an employer, and it is on the basis of this invitation that the temporary residence permit and the work permit is issued. In such cases, the third country nationals are linked to a single employer. There are some particularly qualified professionals who don’t need an invitation to get a work and residence permit. All they need is a document, which speaks to the fact of their presence in Latvia . Protection of the local market is also what leads to the fact that the spouse of a third-country national with a temporary residence permit who comes to Latvia for family reunification gets a temporary residence permit only for that purpose – the spouse is not allowed to look for work. If the spouse wants to work, an invitation from an employer is needed, and the person has to undergo the whole procedure for seeking a temporary residence permit all over again.

The status of third country nationals who are in Latvia with an employment related temporary residence permit is unstable and very much dependent on the situation in the labour market. That’s because the temporary residence permit is linked to a work permit.

The situations with the work permits are a little bit different for highly skilled labour migrants. Since 1 of January 2012 there is additional option for third country national to get employed in Latvia as that European Blue Card Directive became in force. EU Blue Card is a temporary residence permit, which in the Republic of Latvia is issued to a third country national migrant in case if he has been considered highly qualified. A foreigner in the Republic of Latvia must do certain work under the direction of the employer. It is necessary that the employee had a higher education in study program, the length of which is in the relevant profession or industry referred to in the employment contract, is not less than three years. A foreigner has the rights to require temporary residence permit - blue card for a period of employment, but not longer than for five years. If the blue card of the European Union is requested for a period not exceeding one year, then the card is issued for a period of three months longer than the term of the employment contract. The minimum monthly salary for a blue cardholder must be not less than 668 Lats. According to the point 11.7 of rules of the Cabinet of Ministers “Rules regarding the amount of funds needed for a foreigner and order determining of the availability of funds”, in the case of a blue card, amount of salary must be at least a monthly gross salary in the Republic of Latvia in the previous year, applying the coefficient 1.5.The spouse of the blue cardholder is also allowed to work in the Republic of Latvia without additional work permit. 

When it comes to business, the law on immigration states that third country nationals can come to Latvia as individual entrepreneurs or self-employed people, but in that case they have to prove to the OCMA that their business plans are sustainable and financially justified. Foreigners who want to set up shop or become self-employed must register with the Company Register as individual entrepreneurs or with the State Revenue Service as self-employed persons even before they seek a temporary residence permit. Foreigners in Latvia can also set up companies, but that is not an accepted reason for issuing a temporary residence permit. 

However, investing to the economy, as well as buying real estate, is suitable for the wealthy people, who have an extra 280 thousand Lats (around 400 thousand euros) because there is a mandatory condition - to deposit this amount of money for a minimum of five years. It is not easy in case of the opening of representative offices of foreign companies as well, as that the authorized capital of the company should be 25 thousand Lats (more than 35 thousand euros). Although, there are some difficulties: in practice, only those entrepreneurs whose companies annually will pay at least 20 thousand Lats in taxes, will be able to obtain the residence permit. We are talking about companies whose annual profits are from 100 thousand Euros at least. These facts are closing the doors for start-up- ers and young companies without strong financial capacity. 

In reality, the majority of the third country migrants are coming to Latvia because of the other reasons. According to the statistical data of the OCMA in 2012 there where 49 423 people from 70 different countries. Most of them – 55 % came to Latvia because of the family reunification reasons, 34% - for the employment and 6% of them to study in Latvia. As we see, these reasons are absolutely natural and all these people are obviously not rich enough to buy property and establish enterprises. Therefore it is very important to respect and guaranty their rights to health care, adequate housing, adequate payment, and realization of their social, political and cultural rights.

Housing

There is a paucity of data about the housing situations of migrants and the quality thereof, or about spatial segregation in cities that would make it possible to draft general policy guidelines. Existing information is mostly based on individual examples and unsystematic everyday observations. However the real estate market is pretty open (so far) for buyers and investors, but when it comes to renting the flats the owners don’t want to rent to migrants directly, so migrants must use the paid or prepaid services of the realtors. It makes the procedure more expensive and lengthy. According to the data of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights[6] third country migrants are pretty often facing xenophobic manifestations while looking for suitable accommodation to rent. The owners are not willing to deal with foreigners, especially with Asian, Indian, or African descent. Moreover, there are cases when owners of the flats are not willing to deal with foreigners also they speak Latvian language perfectly.

Health care

The right to health care services is fundamental human right irrespective of citizenship, belonging to a social group, ethnicity, etc. Universal human rights mean that emergency medical services should be available to everyone, including illegal immigrants. When it comes to health care services for immigrants, there are no specific EU requirements – this is an issue that is primarily up to member states. Most approaches relate to the legality of a migrant’s presence in the country, as well as to the understanding and practice in the relevant country of the provision of health care services to all residents. Thus all residents of Latvia, including third country migrants, are having an access to the emergency medical services. Moreover, after receiving temporary or permanent residence permit the migrants should immediately provide OCMA with his or her health insurance details. The minimum requirements for health insurance are medical service in case of emergency, the treatment in in-patient clinic in case of the condition that is critical or dangerous for life, the transportation to the nearest medical establishment in both above mentioned cases, the transportation back to the home country in case of severe disease or death. The rest of medical services to be included in the insurance are up to the person. The insurance must be valid for all the period of staying in Latvia. In case of third-country nationals with temporary residence permits that are based on the fact of marriage to a Latvian citizen, non-citizen or permanent resident it is the same. But as soon as such foreigners receive their permanent residence permits, they have access to state-financed health care. However, all the persons benefiting from temporary residence permit in Latvia should pay for secondary medical assistance or include it into insurance. 

Basic education

The basic educational system has no theoretical or practical mechanisms for helping the children of immigrants to become included in the Latvian educational system. Not all schools have special classes for immigrant children. In practice, that is basically impossible, because there is a shortage of specially trained teachers. If a student is put into a lower grade than it should be in his or her country of origin, then it is very important to ensure support and encouragement, as well as an individual approach to avoid stigmatization. Sometimes a universal education system demands that the student demonstrate language skills, which means that some children cannot go to school right after they arrive in the new country. This demand is the autonomous decision of definite school or university, no law or other regulation states that. 

Higher education

Higher education is approachable for CIS (The Commonwealth of Independent States) students because of the relatively cheap price and relatively good quality of it. The biggest minus is the lack of social support for students regarding housing, healthcare, clear instructions regarding their rights and responsibilities, as well as the lack of general information. But the policy is well developed; nevertheless there are difficulties with implementation of it. 

Political rights

Third country citizens can take part in local government elections in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Greece, but not in Latvia so far. Foreigners with temporary residence permits in Latvia are having limited opportunities for their political participation. They, like permanent residents and non-citizens, cannot vote in local municipality and parliamentary elections, and they cannot become involved in political organizations. It has to be noted that Latvian non-citizens who, in formal terms, have permanent residence permits and live their whole lives in Latvia are not allowed to vote in local government elections either. 

Discrimination and racism 

According to ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance)[7] the increasing emigration of the Latvian labour force to other EU countries in recent years seems to have caused a shortage in the labour force in Latvia and a need to attract foreign workers. However, public surveys show that the general public in Latvia is rather reluctant and distrustful when asked about the influx of immigrants coming to work in Latvia. For instance in a recent survey, 70%[8] of respondents admitted being negative towards the arrival of labour migrants from other countries. This negative attitude is worrying in a context whereby labour immigration is likely to increase due to the entry of Latvia into the European Union and the use of intolerant discourse by the media and politicians towards immigrants, particularly newcomers. Furthermore, immigrants belonging to visible minorities, for instance Africans or Asians, are vulnerable to racist violence. According to the ECRI recommendations, the Latvian authorities should reinforce their efforts to adopt an immigration policy, which contains measures to promote the integration of immigrants in Latvia, notably through combating stereotypes and prejudice among the general public against immigrants. The Latvian authorities should make sure that integration measures seek to foster mutual respect between immigrants and the general public, which must be made aware of the cultural enrichment and economic contribution resulting from immigration to Latvia.

From above we can conclude that the biggest challenges for third country immigrants in Latvia are lack of political opportunities, limited access to labour market and discrimination. Although Latvian migration policy is recognized as flexible, it lacks the experience regarding migration issues itself. Nevertheless Latvian migration policy is changing to attract more labour migrants and investors, notwithstanding political resistance, a lot of changes still must be implemented to insure nondiscrimination of newcomers. Within the "Third report on Latvia" adopted on 29 June 2007 ECRI has recommended to ratify as soon as possible the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, sadly it is not ratified still. In its "Forth report on Latvia", adopted on 9 December 2011 ECRI recommends that the authorities should ensure that the newly adopted Policy Guidelines for the Integration of Society in Latvia pave the way for a broad based program focusing on anti-discrimination, an open and integrated society and concrete measures to implement it. 



[1] UN global migration statistics reveal http://esa.un.org/unmigration/wallchart2013.htm
[2] http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G10/126/15/PDF/G1012615.pdf?OpenElement
[3] 2009 Human Rights Report: Latvia  http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/eur/136040.htm
[4] Document 16054/04 of the Council of the European Union
[5] Immigrants in latvia: possibilities and conditions of inclusion http://www.biss.soc.lv/downloads/resources/imigrantu_integracija/Imigranti_EN.pdf
[6] «Izīrējam tikai kārtīgiem latviešiem»: vai Latvijā vērojama ksenofobija? http://www.apollo.lv/zinas/izirejam-tikai-kartigiem-latviesiem-vai-latvija-verojama-ksenofobija/562513
[7] Third report on Latvia http://www.libertysecurity.org/IMG/pdf_Latvia_20third_20report_20-_20cri08-2.pdf
[8] Responding to racism in Latvia http://cms.horus.be/files/99935/MediaArchive/pdf/latvia_en.pdf

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