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Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Discussion about Integration Challenges and Possible Solutions

On Sunday morning 5 refugee activists from various refugee communities met to discuss various challenges and possible solutions related to integration issues. All members of the group expressed their concerns about the current situation in the country related to migration at the Belarusian border, as well as the rise of racism and negative attitudes towards refugees in Lithuania. The members also want to offer practical voluntarily help by collecting clothes or other materials for people in need, and to offer mediation services, translation, and other services with the aim of reducing tensions between migrant and local communities. These volunteers might join the teams of the other organizations that are providing direct services at the camps.

The Refugee Council members shared that the current tensions are also directly affecting other refugee communities, granted asylum and currently living in Lithuania, as some kids have started to be bullied, young girls are being shouted at on the streets. Members also expressed their concerns about the safety of their families and other refugees living in Lithuania. They stressed that although renting a flat for foreigners was always a big challenge in Lithuania, it has now become even harder because of the rising tensions, racism, and negative attitudes faced within local neighborhoods.

Refugees emphasized that nobody leaves their countries without significant reasons and that it is important to understand and help newly arrived people. In the discussion about the main challenges related to housing in Lithuania, the discrimination and negative attitudes of landlords towards foreigners – especially towards Muslims – were emphasized by the members. Also, some noted that they have experienced negative reactions by their neighbors. It was highlighted that there is no consistent strategy related to Lithuanian housing issues, although it is likely that more refugees will come here soon, especially when keeping in mind the present deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. For example, Afghan people who were supporting the Lithuanian army and NATO allies may be especially vulnerable and may therefore seek asylum in Lithuania.

With regards to employment challenges, the participants were quite critical about the attitudes and limited help provided at Darbo Birža. Members stressed that most of them found jobs independently or via other projects. It was shared that it is difficult to only be offered low qualification jobs when are you highly qualified, noting that it is a waste of skills, an overall loss for the country, and is especially sad when young people do not have opportunities to develop and grow their careers. Examples were given, such as when well-educated people are employed as rubbish collectors, or the restrictions well-decorated and young professional athletes face when attempting to represent Lithuania during competitions. Members emphasized that it is important not to do things for people or simply offer money. It is more important “not to give a fish but teach how to fish” and to provide opportunities for people to become more independent and self-sufficient, as well as find information themselves, find jobs, and advance in their careers. Also, Muslim women sometimes experience discrimination at the workplace because of their dress code, specifically when they are asked to take off their veil. In the discussion about vocational training challenges, it was expressed that refugees often lack information on vocational courses available to them and how to navigate civil orientation regarding Lithuanian rules and expectations at the workplace. A lack of Lithuanian language skills was identified as a very challenging obstacle, which also affects different aspects of the day-to-day life of a refugee. There is a lack information, what vocational training is on offer and how to access the courses. People not being in integration program struggle to access these courses and language of courses available is frequently a limiting factor as the most of offered courses are only in Lithuanian language.

The participants also believe that Lithuanian language courses start too late. They expressed that it would be most effective to have intensive Lithuanian courses when people have yet to start working and when they are staying at the camps, as they have a lot of free time at this point and do not need to juggle attending language courses with work and other commitments. Another important factor is creating environments where people could practice Lithuanian – such as volunteering opportunities and events – since the work environment can be a difficult place to learn Lithuanian if people do not speak the language around you. Participants were quite critical about the language classes currently on offer because they think that there is a lack of professional teachers and effective methods to teach Lithuanian as a foreign language. They suggested to involve refugees who have already learned the language, as they can directly help the newly arrived people such as with translations, etc.

As for the main health issues affecting refugees, concerns were raised about high and at-times unaffordable dentist prices, limited information and support for pregnant refugee women, doctors’ limited knowledge of other languages, and the fact that interpretation by the relatives of health center visitors is not allowed. When using social support services, there is also a lack of information available in other languages. Members have experienced the negative attitudes of some social support workers and/or did not receive the full support they were promised. Related to children’s school education, the main issues were that schools are not well equipped to work with foreigners, resulting in a lack of additional staff and resources designated to assist refugee kids. Staff and resources are needed as children can experience discrimination and negative attitudes by their teachers or peers and it is a lack of assistants to offer extra help for kids at school. However, the Council members also shared some examples of the inspiring and friendly teachers in Lithuania who took a personal interest to visit and meet families at home, encouraging and motivating the students so that the children can make major progress at school. These friendly teachers also showed how to practically use Lithuanian in daily life situations.

Regarding the civic involvement of refugees, it is quite limited for a variety of reasons. They have restricted rights to vote and find it hard to access information about who the various civic actors are in the country and what they do, as well as how refugees could contribute. Also, as most of them struggle to survive economically while juggling various family and work commitments, it is hard to find the spare time for volunteering for NGOs and to participate in activism, even though many members were activists and ran active NGOs in their countries. The voices of refugees are rarely included in the decision-making processes and they are rarely fully recognized as civil actors even though they are the best people to report about their own needs, and to evaluate integration mechanisms and how to approach improving them.

Speaking about the relationships formed with local communities, the members expressed that it is not always easy to be included and have relationships with them. It is hard to follow developments within society, mass media, and politics. Media can be an important actor for promoting co-existence and integration but often exaggerates information, searches for emotional reactions, and increases tensions and divisions. There should be more programs designed to encourage civil society to further help and interact with refugees living in their local communities. If people feel that they are not being treated well and are discriminated against in the local communities, refugee communities might begin to feel isolated and angry. If they also experience discrimination within the job and housing markets, it makes it difficult for people to find reasons to stay, making it so that they search for other places to live. Council members also emphasized their willingness to make a more favorable environment in Lithuania so that refugees and locals can co-exist peacefully. They emphasized that the skills of refugees, who are qualified and successfully integrate, can learn languages used to teach and integrate newly arrived people, as they can better understand their daily struggles. They can also offer advice, useful strategies, and might even share a common language with newcomers.

Members expressed that they are interested in actively participating in developing more effective integration measures within Lithuania. For example, the Lithuanian language can be practiced in informal settings with local communities. This could be an effective way to encourage non-working people to volunteer their time to help the refugee community, and to help improve their language skills, build social networks, find employment, and gain confidence. Members also stressed the need to have the support of the wider community, such as being invited to events; it is important to identify and connect active refugees to existing civil society actors and organizations. The members think there is a lack of monitoring and planning long-term integration goals.

Participants of the focus group also noted the responsibilities of refugees living in Lithuania. They stated that it is important for refugees to be visible and active, to participate in events attended by locals, to meaningfully attempt to learn Lithuanian, to address relevant issues and challenges in public, to give interviews, and to share what is good about their lives in Lithuania as well as their experienced challenges. If refugees live in isolation, people will not be friendly with them. The members also shared their positive experiences about the events family-to-family events, where refugees meet local Lithuanian families and have a space where locals interact and encourage the refugee community to join similar initiatives, thereby creating more opportunities to meet and interact.

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