23rd Sep 2021


Looking for home in Europe

  • Vilnius: cold; remote; few jobs; little welfare; few fellow non-nationals (Photo: FromTheNorth)

The European Commission has proposed to relocate 20,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other EU states.

The Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is also encouraging EU countries to focus on “actions not words”.

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It’s good for headlines, or tweets, but will it stand the test of time?

Unfortunately there is no “quick fix” for this problem.

Instead, what the European Union needs is an honest approach to the increasing flows of refugees. People are not commodities, and we should not be treating them as such.

Eight years ago, Eskedar Mastaviciene and her newly-born daughter were two out of ten asylum seekers relocated from Malta to Lithuania.

The story of her journey - from Ethiopia, through Sudan, to Libya, and across the Mediterranean Sea to Malta - cannot leave you indifferent. But the story of how Lithuania became her home is equally important to tell.

“I had to google Lithuania to realise where I was going to. Upon arrival, I was desperate, but I was safe,” she said.

Out of the 10 people relocated to Lithuania from Malta, only Eskedar and her daughter have made Lithuania their home. The others chose to move on.

Eskedar explains why better than any report or statistics.

Safety first

On the one hand, you’re safe: if you’ve fled war, political persecution, or starvation, and survived the sea crossing to Europe, safety means a lot.

But on the other hand, Lithuania is cold, remote, and relatively poor. Learning the language and acquiring skills won’t help you much, as jobs are few.

Meanwhile, the foreigners’ registration centre in Pabrade (50 km from the capital Vilnius), or the integration centre in Rukla, are overcrowded, tough places.

Just last year, Lithuania received nearly five hundred asylum requests, mainly from citizens of Georgia, Afghanistan, Russia, and Ukraine.

Inside, you will hear Russian, Chechen, Arabic, or English spoken more often than Lithuanian.

Lithuania, a relatively small EU country, this year celebrates 25 years since the re-establishment of independence.

In a quarter of a century, it has gone through an unprecedented transformation.

It’s a full member of the European Union, of the eurozone, of Nato, and, it’s a candidate to join the club of wealthy nations, the OECD.

The growth forecast is positive and foreign direct investment is growing.

It has also proved that it is strongly pro-European.

It was the first one to adopt the Lisbon Treaty, which failed in France and the Netherlands and it introduced the euro at the time when Grexit was already a distinct possibility.

The European agenda is a boringly consensual topic among its politicians.

For the time being there are no nationalist or predominantly eurosceptic political parties in the Seimas, Lithuania's Parliament. Lithuanians are positive about their country’s membership in the European Union.

So when the European Commission makes a proposal, Lithuania more often than not supports it. This time, on migration, is no different.

But we should be honest about our choices.

Social infrastructure in Lithuania and many of the Central Eastern European member states is weak and its ability to offer social integration is limited.

At least three quarters of those who will arrive to Lithuania will leave it during the first year.

Their departure is dictated by a perceived lack of economic opportunities. Social benefits are negligible in comparison to other member states. Many people also want to join their relatives elswhere in Europe.

I’m afraid EU solidarity on immigration works on paper only.

Of course, the EU’s top priority should be to save migrants’ lives. But then what? We have to think beyond the “one-way ticket” approach.

Have we done enough to address the root causes of a problem? Can we do more?

The debate in many EU countries is on how the commission calculated tis quotas on how many migrants each EU state should take.

But life makes its own quotas. The people who come to Europe are not digits in an excel sheet. They need safety. But they also have their own agenda and they also need dignity and respect.

Most of all they are looking for a home, not another stop along the way to London, Paris, Berlin, or Stockholm.

By focusing debate around the relocation of 20,00 individuals from Greece and Italy we are failing to respond to the real problems in the EU neighbourhood.

Laurynas Jonavicius is a lecturer on international relations at Vilnius University


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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