On the Other Side of the Fence- Reflections about Migration and Asylum
Updated: Jul 16
I am currently completing my doctoral thesis on learning of people, who work with refugees and have been working in this field for about 5 years and communicate directly with foreigners granted asylum and asylum seekers on daily basis. This year, I helped to set up a new organization- the Refugee Council of Lithuania, where foreigners granted asylum became my colleagues. During my practice time, I do not remember a similar interest about the topic of migrants crossing the Lithuanian border and such a negative discourse towards such migrants. I remember that in 2015, when the number of asylum seekers in Europe increased and Lithuania committed to participate in the resettlement program, this topic suddenly became popular in the Lithuanian media and the fear and resistance of the population grew, but with the arrival of real people, this fear and interest gradually decreased. Fear and stereotypes before starting this work are also frequently reflected in the stories of many NGO staff, who started direct work with asylum seekers and protection beneficiaries. They also often admit that they had negative attitudes and fears, although it can be assumed that many people who start this job are more open, more motivated to know different people than the average Lithuanian, but the experience of a homogeneous state, both Lithuanian and foreign media, political discourses and opinions inevitably affect even those people, who choose this job, not to mention other Lithuanians, who have not met a single person seeking or receiving asylum in Lithuania in their lifetime.
What is interesting is that when people start working in this job, they often change their attitudes, their stereotypes are challenged, when they meet real people, who have been granted asylum in Lithuania, they become more empathetic, learn more about other countries' stories, politics, traditions, learn about people's personal stories, expectations, skills , dreams. When accompanying people to various institutions, they also often find that barriers to inclusion and integration often lie not only in people’s motivation but also in our societal attitudes, residents ’interactions with foreigners, and staff often recognize that they can learn a lot from people from different cultures. They discover not only differences, but also many commonalities and similarities. “Refugee”, “asylum seeker”, “migrant crossing the border” then become not abstract categories, but real people behind them with their stories, dramas, joys and challenges.
I do not want to idealize either asylum seekers or people granted asylum. As everywhere, people are different, just as their motives for crossing the border may be different or behavior in the host country, so it is important to follow the prevailing legislation, carefully examine asylum applications, perform security checks, but I am baffled by the prejudices in Lithuania about migrants without taking into account people's specific circumstances, without hearing or examining their stories, without relying on facts, Also, the fact that people are not granted asylum, also does not mean that people leave not because of extremely difficult circumstances in their countries. Even when returning people home, it is important to be aware of the various circumstances that make these people migrate and take huge risks. I believe that the newly adopted legal restrictions, which severely restrict these people's fundamental rights, their ability to appeal against decisions to court, also reflect these entrenched negative attitudes. It is a political, legal and complex process for whom and when, and how asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection are granted, opening up legal means of entry and residence. It can also be based on the country's political and cultural preferences, for example, in the case of Ukrainians and Belarusians. Another question is whether it is possible to make these decisions quickly and what is the competence and human resources of decision-makers, as this process requires a lot of knowledge, expertise and information about the countries of origin. A careful examination of the latest data provided by EOSO on Iraq and the circumstances that may lead to the granting of asylum takes time (https://easo.europa.eu/country-guidance-iraq-2021), and each application must be examined individually, objectively and impartially., depending on the circumstances of each country and individual.
Can we say that Iraq is a safer country than Ukraine and Belarus, probably not, but the attitudes of the population, the assessment, the chances of establishing ourselves in Lithuania are very different. Yes, perhaps the intense war in Iraq is no longer happening and conflicts are mostly internal, but many other threats remain, attacks by radical groups, persecution of certain minorities, brutal repression of protests, restrictions on freedom of expression, and particularly damaged health, particularly economic problems, a disrupted education system, so Iraq can hardly be called a safe country, perhaps only somewhat safer than during the war in Iraq. Also, what is often subtly silenced is that the war initiated by the US and NATO also contributed significantly to the country becoming one of the world leaders in seeking asylum abroad, and the country’s security situation remains very fragile. While reading various security guides and recommendations for travelers to Iraq, we strongly recommend not going due to the tense security situation, kidnappings, the threat of terrorism, and the poor health system. Similar problems are encountered in African countries from which migrants come, so it is really surprising when Lithuanian politicians call the countries from which migrants come as safe countries. I am not saying that we must give asylum to everyone, but it is important not to manipulate words and to incite hatred towards migrant people.
We have been living in really safe conditions in Lithuania for some time now, but for some reason we are famous as a country of emigrants and often understand emigration as our right to strive for a better life. Of course, many economic reasons can be seen in migration, but it would be wrong to call all migration from Lithuania purely economic. Having spent almost seven years in other EU countries myself, I could not name the reasons for my migration as economic, so I think the term "economic migrant" is too narrow and complex, to describe diverse reasons, why people migrate as it could be because of many different circumstances and different expectations- more opportunities, security, better education, better health care, reunification with relatives already living in Europe, more freedom of speech and political freedom, greater tolerance, and so on. Why, as a migrant nation, do we so stubbornly judge other migrant people and narrow their motives to economic ones alone? And why do we often feel that foreigners granted asylum should not have economic, material needs and expectations, desires to study, improve, develop their careers, to pursue the future of children?
Another common argument in public discourse is that this migration is illegal, so we must be strict. Illegality could be debated, as people have a legal right cross the border to apply for asylum, at least European law does not define such migration as illegal. Compliance with this legislation is another matter here. True, I agree that such migration is a major challenge for countries, as it is difficult to regulate and manage it, and the fact that it is deliberately encouraged by the Belarusian authorities further complicates the verification of people, especially when traveling without any identity documents and more difficult to promote. integration of people arriving if the destination country is not Lithuania, but in Lithuania we already have a lot of examples, where people did not want to stay here, but after spending more time, got used, learnt the language, got a job and successfully participate in the countries life. Also, our attitudes and how we meet people affect if people want to stay here, also knowledge about the country, as Lithuania is still a little-known country to many migrants. If the discourse in Lithuania continues to prevail as it does now, migrants are unlikely be willing to stay and create a life here, it will make it more difficult to attract other foreigners, especially outside the EU.
I agree that such migration, which takes place at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, is a challenge, but there is another side to the coin. Sometimes it is difficult for us to recognize, how privileged we are in Europe, how many opportunities we have to travel and live legally in another country just by birth in a particular geographical area, in a particular country and what complex bureaucratic, financial barriers there are for other people to enter or apply for asylum in Europe. Many people would be much more willing to cross borders legally if they were given such opportunities and it would not be restricted to a small group of privileged, often wealthy people, and as border crossing procedures become more difficult, journeys often become more difficult and more people encourage migration via criminal ways and abuse the situations of vulnerable people for the purpose of enrichment or other political goals. Sea or border barriers often do not solve the problem, people are increasingly discovering new routes for migration and often even risking their lives for a safer and better life abroad.
Following the global trends, forced migration is only increasing every year, with as many as 84.2 million people being forced to leave their homes, according to the UNHCR, and this number is growing steadily. Climate change is also contributing to this. It is true that Lithuania or Europe cannot solve the problem of migration alone, but I do not think that by having a huge fence and depriving people of the right to assistance, asylum in our country or Europe, we will be able to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world with famine, dictatorships, wars and restrictions of freedoms, climate disasters.
We cannot guarantee that we ourselves one day wont be forced to flee from our homes again, especially with such unpredictable neighbors, nuclear plant at the border. Few of the refugees I spoke with expected that they would be forced to leave their countries. Many Lithuanians have been refugees in the past, many have such people in their family tree and we can be grateful that they have been accepted and found refuge abroad. If not we would not have many impactful people, who helped regain our independence, became presidents, bishops, created support funds, and contributed to the country’s reconstruction and prosperity. Also people of the United States feared Europeans arriving, they seemed threatening to them and the United States sometimes turned back refugee ships, unwilling to accept even Jews fleeing from Europe, which from a historical perspective now seems wrong, but eventually many refugees were hosted there and found new homes and significantly contributed to the prosperity of this country.
We should also keep in mind that Europe is aging, the number of children being born is declining, so migration from abroad will soon become not our choice but a necessity for Europe, and Germany itself has relied not only on ethical, but also pragmatic reasons for accepting so many refugees. Now we mostly try to solve the problem in Europe through agreements with the third countries that host millions of refugees, such as Turkey, Libya, etc., or by investing in the return of people to their countries of origin, but ironically research shows that a large number of returnees try to leave again. It is also an interesting the fact that countries like Turkey are winning by accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees, already receiving economic returns, a booming economy, a lot of extra young labor, EU support and all the leverage against the European Union, because it can threaten us at any time. as they have already done, to open the doors to migration, which we are so madly afraid of.
Yes, I agree the topics of migration and asylum are very complex, sometimes divisive, sometimes intimidating, but migration has existed since the beginning of humanity and is an important way for people to survive and adapt and strict border procedures is a very recent phenomenon, so it is important not to judge migrating people, because we can never know if we never find ourselves in their shoes on the other side of the wire fence asking for someone’s help and understanding.