While it may sound like a cliché to call migration a two-way street, in some countries, both directions on this street can pose a serious security threat if they go against the flow of national interests—especially if what began as a quiet street becomes a bustling superhighway.
In Latvia, both inward and outward migration has been a national security concern over the last seven years and continues to be a valid subject of national debate.
Concerns over the impact of uncontrolled migration came to Latvia somewhat as a surprise along with membership in the European Union. When we joined the EU in 2004 we eagerly welcomed all the benefits that the free movement of people, goods and services would bring to Latvia. What we didn’t anticipate was that it would also take something away. We hoped to move our goods and services around our new European home, but we never imagined that tens of thousands of our people would be moving out with them.
I grew up in a diaspora that had been created by the Soviet occupation of Latvia during World War II. That same occupation had a devastating effect on Latvia’s demographic situation and threatened Latvians with the prospect of becoming a minority in their own country. But low wages and the freedom to move about the EU has created a new Latvian diaspora that overshadows the older expatriate community that had been created by the war.
This unexpected exodus created a labour shortage, which presented Latvia with a second challenge. Our citizens were leaving in droves, which prompted employers to seek migrant workers from other countries. Already burdened with several hundred thousand former Soviet citizens who had little interest in integrating into Latvian society, the prospect of replacing outward-bound Latvian citizens with foreign workers posed a new challenge.
When Latvians talk about national security, we are not just talking about territorial integrity, but also the strength and integrity of our national identity, which includes a common language, a sense of history, and a respect for long-held traditions and values. If departing Latvian citizens are replaced by incoming foreigners with no sense of loyalty to the state, no desire to identify with the Latvian nation, and no intention of learning the Latvian language, national security is threatened in a very essential way.
The global economic crisis that began in 2008 solved half of this problem. As Latvia’s economy collapsed, businesses went under and jobs disappeared; there was no longer a need for foreign workers. But the outflow of citizens continued.
While we have not stemmed the tide of economic emigrants from Latvia, inward migration has been relatively low and stable. As of 2010, Latvia had a population of 2.2 million people. Of those, only 50,000, or 2.25 percent of the population, were foreigners with valid residence permits. The vast majority of those were former Soviets or their family members who chose not to apply for Latvian citizenship.
Of the foreigners residing in Latvia in 2010, 31,000 were from Russia, 3,000 from Ukraine, 2,000 from Belarus. The rest—numbering in the hundreds—came from the United States, Israel, Armenia and other countries.
Yet the economic crisis, while eliminating the need for foreign workers, created what some perceived as a need for a different category of migrants—foreign investors. In 2010, the previous parliament (the 9th Saeima) made controversial amendments to the Immigration Law that that allowed for foreign investors to acquire residency permits based on the amount of money they were prepared to invest in Latvia: basically, if you invested LVL 200,000 in a bank, LVL 25,000 in an enterprise, or LVL 100,000 in real estate, you were entitled to a residency permit. The politicians who proposed these amendments saw it as a quick fix for the economic crisis.
Response to this was mixed. Those who supported the amendments hoped this would bring a flood of new investments into the economy. Those who opposed them feared that this would bring a flood of foreigners who would buy up property and businesses and further degrade the already troubled demographic situation. It could also promote the use of Latvia as a cover for shady international business schemes as well as organized crime.
However, neither the hopes nor the fears were realized. Between July 1, 2010, and January 4, 2011, only 230 people received residency permits based on investments. Of those, 132 invested in real estate, 11 invested in companies and 87 deposited money in local banks. The vast majority of these permits went to citizens of the Russian Federation.
Although attempts have been made in the 10th Saeima to revoke these amendments, they appear to have failed. Foreigners can continue to buy their way into residency permits, although the numbers—both in terms of cash and people—are small.
One notable opposition politician recently proposed that Latvia sell citizenship at 1 million euro a head, but the idea was roundly ridiculed and rejected.
While economic migration continues to flow outward rather than inward, Latvia, along with the rest of Europe, is now faced with a new challenge that is being left by the boatloads at the EU’s doorstep on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In response, the EU’s justice and interior ,inisters have been meeting in Brussels to discuss the growing refugee problem that has been created by the Arab Spring. At last count, over 30,000 refugees have arrived in Italy and more appear to be on their way.
How should Latvia react to this crisis? With understanding, deep concern, sympathy and solidarity. Since I myself was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II, and was able to resettle in the United States, I have an understandable empathy for political refugees who are driven from their homelands by war, conflict and state-sponsored terror. All three of the Baltic countries have had presidents that benefitted from favourable refugee and immigration policies in the West.
Yet Latvia’s present ability to accept refugees from North Africa or the Middle East is sorely limited. We don’t have the infrastructure, experience or financial resources to house, feed and protect thousands of refugees. Given that we are still trying to come out of our own economic crisis, are still suffering from high unemployment and must make do with an austerity budget that has minimized social services, we are in no position to be helping others.
But in the spirit of solidarity we are prepared to do what we can. This includes expanding our role in FRONTEX (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) operations on the EU’s southern border, and sending our experts to the European Asylum Support Office.
On the other hand, we believe that any revisions of the Schengen border-free area need to be approached with caution. We worked long and hard to join the Schengen zone, and despite its shortcomings, we are not eager to begin reinstating internal border controls.
What I have emphasized here are the practical reasons for Latvia’s response to the refugee crisis coming out of Africa. But we all know that if we had the money, experience and infrastructure to take on refugees from the Maghreb countries, we would have to deal with a whole new set of political, social and cultural issues. Namely, are our societies prepared to accept, integrate and cohabitate with people from countries, cultures, races and religions that dramatically differ from our own?
It might seem logical to turn to our EU neighbours and learn from their experiences in this regard, but in recent years it has become clear that they too are struggling with this issue. The multiculturalism that was embraced by so many in Europe is now being condemned as a threat to national security, integrity and identity. We have heard this from leaders in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Ironically, leaders from these very same countries once accused the Balts of being excessively nationalistic in their language and citizenship policies. Our concerns for the preservation of our unique languages and cultures were considered paranoid, old-fashioned and verging on xenophobic. And yet, in a speech earlier this year, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that the government must make sure that “immigrants speak the language of their home.. .ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum.” Judging from this, it sounds like we Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians weren’t so backward after all—just ahead of our time.
National security begins with national integrity. Integration that supports and strengthens core national values and traditions, not segregation that keeps people apart and alienated from the land they live in. That doesn’t mean we can’t be humane, tolerant, generous, helpful and supportive to others. It also doesn’t mean that we must close off our societies to new members. But it must be done with balance, care and above all, with a clear understanding and respect for national values, traditions, language and law.
Free mobility is a must. Mass migration is a tragedy. Somehow, we must find the middle road in this increasingly chaotic two-way street.
(Editor’s note: This essay is based upon remarks made by Ojārs Kalniņš in Tallinn, Estonia, on May 13, 2011, at the International Parliamentary Seminar of the Baltic Assembly “External and Internal Security Policy Nexus: Avoiding the Frontiers.”)
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