Latvia Ivars Ijabs

Ivars Jabs
Photo: Goethe-Institut Lettland

What does the term refugee mean to you?

The word „refugee“ belongs among those terms which reflect, in each concrete language, the historical experience of the speakers. In Latvian, the word “refugee” is a neutral name which defines someone arriving in a foreign country looking for protection, and also someone who is fleeing. We do not differ, like in English, between refugee and fugitive. As far as the historical connotations are concerned, the experience of World War I has a special meaning for Latvians as millions of Latvians left the Baltic region behind and fled. As elsewhere in Europe, the term has acquired a negative note in right-wing politics – sometimes, they speak of “so-called refugees” or of those “pretending to be refugees”, and similar. This only demonstrates a general nervousness and the inability to adequately accept a complicated and often unpleasant reality.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Poverty can vary. If people are threatened to die from hunger or by a totally degrading life due to a lack of health care or basic resources, their claim to refugee status is justified. The question is which degree of deprivation we are ready to accept as “flight from poverty” and not as mere economic migration. Latvia has lost about ten percent of its inhabitants in the course of the last ten years who have moved to other European countries within the framework of free movement – to Great Britain, Ireland, also to Germany. A large part of them would surely legitimize their actions as “flight from poverty” – no matter how exaggerated and relative this poverty may be. Of course, it is the basic duty of every state to take care of the possibility to secure an existential minimum for its inhabitants, and the international community is obliged to react in case that a state does not fulfill this obligation. The fact that this intervention often expresses itself in the acceptance of refugees in critical situations is indeed a sign of a failure of the developed countries’ politics – in a situation in which a number of “failed” countries are forming in the vicinity of Europe. At the same time, global justice surely provides the possibility for the inhabitants of relatively poor countries to migrate to better developed countries while searching for a better life. When such possibilities are granted, this is not about an unlimited right but about special privileges which are at the discretion of each state itself.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

Similar to the previous case, this depends on the type and extent of the ecological problem. If the ecological problems are causes by global ecological processes and a specific state cannot deal with this adequately, this is certainly a legitimate reason to gain refugee status in another country. But very often, ecological problems are caused by inadequate economies and an incompetent, corrupt government. Here, the first step taken by the international community must be steady and targeted work with the regime governing the respective country and not merely the accommodation of refugees.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

If this is about the conditions under which a person may lose their refugee status, this will be addressed later. If the meaning is more philosophical, I can answer as follows: One ceases to be a refugee if one is able to look at one’s “old” homeland in a more or less neutral and objective way.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

Yes, of course. Even if human rights are often politicized and misused, they are still an unequivocal achievement of modern civilization.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

According to my opinion, a person forfeits their right to asylum the moment they maintain values in their new country of residence which are similar to those of the regime in the country they left. For example, a refugee who starts disseminating radical and fundamentalist ideas in this new country of residence, opposing the basic democratic order, openly glorifying terrorism, disrespecting the rights of his fellow human beings, he loses the moral right to his refugee status. Juristically, the situation is much more complicated, of course, but the right to a status as refugee is certainly not absolute.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

Limited, of course. What’s interesting is the question in how far the limits of refugee admission match the general limits of the respective country’s immigration policy. Theoretically, they should be wider but in reality, states usually match their refugee policy to the priorities of their immigration policy.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

We could develop normative theories about where these limits should be. But such rigorous conceptions would make little sense as the lines are drawn very differently in specific societies. In addition, the differences are really large also between democratic states. They are defined by different factors: historical experience, labor policy, the political order, a country’s absorption capacities. What’s interesting is how emigration influences its attitude towards refugees – most likely, of course, negatively. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania and other „new“ member states of the EU have, in recent years, „exported“ their inhabitants into „old Europe“ which is a sufficiently traumatic experience. The admission of refugees is also seen in this light.  So to speak, our sons, daughters and grandchildren are now “replaced” in our homeland by Arab and Afghan migrants – this is similar to the houses of Latvians who were sent to Siberia which were taken by immigrants from other Soviet republics. Such a perspective is considered frightening by many and it naturally influences the way a society thinks and accordingly, political decisions.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

There is talk about possible privileges for Christians from the Middle East, also for families with children. But since Latvia has taken in only a few dozens of refugees so far, preferences when selecting refugees were not a serious priority.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Justice toward refugees cannot be separated from the justice of a state’s general politics. In addition, every state interprets justice a little differently. Just look at the difference in social politics among various EU countries – here, we have the strong “well-being” states of Sweden, and Denmark and the Baltic states which are almost neoliberal. Also in Latvia, the attitude towards refugees is the expression of this general justice. The very liberal understanding of justice with little taxes on capital and very restricted social politics expresses itself this way also towards refugees who are offered rather ascetic support, in so far as, among other things, the government’s support package and access to health care are concerned. In addition, such an attitude is popular because people do not want to see refugees in a better position than their own pensioners or young families.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

The political consensus for such offers is missing in Latvia and thus, this question seems too abstract for me.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

Zillions of books have already been written about this subject and thus it will be difficult to give a short answer. Probably, integration is first of all the task of the receiving country because it obviously has to deal with very different arrivals. First of all, one must demand, from the refugees, that they display a respectful attitude towards the country that accepts them and its inhabitants. The task of the state when accepting refugees is, of course, complicated. First, the people entering need clear and good rules whose acceptance is the condition for their future life. Second, language training is an important instrument of integration, it must be organized efficiently. Third, the state has the right to avoid the formation of ghettoes by adequately distributing the immigrants to regions and communities, in accordance with the needs of the labor market. After all, recent events also show that the state has the obligation to control certain „risk groups“ with tendencies towards radicalism which pose a risk to social safety and could possibly also threaten integration efforts. And of course, it does not work without society’s positive attitude towards people from other nations, cultures and religions. A democratic state has the right to demand that the people arriving learn its language as the basic social means of communication as well as the basic values of a democratic society. This not only applies to immigrants but also to refugees who themselves did not chose to become a member of the society which receives them. The refugee status must be respected and merits goodwill but it cannot be a reason for cultural arrogance and isolation.

Do you know any refugees personally?

I know many people who have a past as refugees from earlier times. As far as the „new“ wave of refugees is concerned which started in 2015, I personally do not know any of these people.

Do you actively support any refugees?

As a public person and opinion leader I have repeatedly supported a realistic attitude towards refugees, mostly in connection with Latvia’s obligation to show solidarity with the other European countries.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?

In the next two years, probably no large tremors are to be expected. Within the framework of the EU refugee program, a few hundred refugees will come to Latvia, maybe a few thousand if we count their families. The politicization of the refugee question will continue. On the one hand, various “horror stories” will be spread about the conduct of refugees at their places of residence – and on the other hand, various “success stories” about the enrichment Latvia experiences through the influx of people from other cultures and religions. The efforts of the EU to forcibly distribute the refugees among member states will not be successful if they don’t invent a sophisticated incentive mechanism to motivate member states to accept refugees.

b) over the next two decades?

For the next twenty years, by contrast, there are larger possibilities for speculations. First, a lot depends on the streams of refugees, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa. A possible risk factor would be a change of direction of the refugee wave from the Middle East towards Russia as a country of transit which could put the Baltic states in the same position in which Greece and Italy are finding themselves today. In the next twenty years, there will be serious discussions on both integration policy and security policy and the battle against terrorism in all European states. One can only hope that the refugee question will not become the reason for a failure of the EU or for a stagnation of European integration.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

No. Of course, I would like to imagine a world without military conflicts, famine and natural disasters but such a vision would be too far from realty. Another question would be if we could imagine a world in which the term “refugee” would have lost its meaning – in so far as this term is connected to territorial nation states which can accept or refuse refugees as they wish. Possibly, we can imagine such a world as a positive perspective of development – such as Kant’s vision of eternal peace in which states are connected by the right of hospitality.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

People from both my father’s and my mother’s branches of the family fled in the course of World War II – westward, when Latvia was repeatedly threatened, in 1944, by Soviet occupation. Part of the family finally ended up in the USA, others in Great Britain and Australia. Of course, this was a very traumatic experience. Many family members saw each other again only after almost half a century, at the end of the 1908s, when the “iron curtain” became more permeable. But one cannot deny that the refugees relatively successfully integrated into their host countries during World War II, but did not, at the same time, lose their language, culture and conviction of the injustice they suffered. Especially surprising was that the “second generation” kept adhering to Latvian identity and loyalty toward an independent Latvia. Today, this serves as a reminder of the unpredictability of historical development and of the fact that refugee integration is by far less hopeless as one sometimes imagines.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

I am not sitting next to my suitcases, planning to leave my fatherland. Neither does the largest part of those people I know. But history taught us in Latvia to be prepared for various contingencies. For this reason, the possibility of having to flee cannot be completely excluded. There are many possible risk factors for this here: Russia’s growing geopolitical ambitions, a change of course in US-American foreign policy, a failure of the EU, international terrorism, problems in the control of nuclear weapons and more. None of these risk factors seems sufficiently dangerous today in order to pose a serious threat. But global crises mostly develop through the fateful combination of different factors which happen mostly at random – especially if there is an additional, completely unexpected factor or “black swan”, as Nassim Taleb said. For this reason, one cannot or may not completely exclude the possibility of having to flee. Where to? Certainly to a place which seems to be, at the time, more or less safe and can be reached.

How much “home” do you need?*

It’s interesting that there is no direct translation in Latvian for the German term Heimat or the English word homeland, which refers to home – the place where we are at home. We only have words which refer to our birth or our parents, such as “native country” or “fatherland”. We may take the liberty of assuming that historically, Latvians have rarely felt at home in their country, and thus, one connects one’s origins more frequently with one’s place of birth and one’s biological forebears.
When you ask how much “native country” (Heimat) I need, the answer is simple: Exactly as much as I need in order to be a person open to the world. In regard to the relationship of homeland toward the “rest of the world”: We should stop to compare terms which are mutually dependent. A positive attitude toward one’s native country and the desire to maintain its specific characteristics does by no means indicate xenophobia and isolationism, just as a cosmopolitan attitude does not mean nihilism towards one’s own native country and its people. To the contrary: Those who act respectfully toward their origins as well as toward the language and culture of their homeland are the ones who are globally successful. The homeland is the “blind spot” where we all stand while observing the processes of the world. We ourselves do not see it in any moment, it can only be seen “from the outside”. Nevertheless, it defines our perspective when we look at the world.
In the course of their lives, people want to leave their home or homeland as unchanged as possible, leave it as it has „always been“. Such a desire is natural – the more rapidly the environment changes, the more we wish for stable ground underneath our feet. But in reality, home is not a country, but a communication community. It consist of living people who, in the course of time, change ever so often, they travel, have new experiences and develop. For this reason, home is always a dynamic category: The question what home means is constantly discussed. Is our home the silhouette of our capital without minarets? Or is it maybe the politeness and tolerance toward strangers in our everyday life? Which relationship does the homeland have with the state – especially when political regimes have changed during our lifetime? These questions must be answered jointly by those who feel that they belong to a certain homeland and want to speak in its interest.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.