A growing number of Lithuanians believe that many refugees are actually economic migrants and that they increase crime in the country, a new survey indicates. People fear what they don't understand, says the European Commission's representative Arnoldas Pranckevičius, and Lithuania largely stood aside when Europe was dealing with the refugee crisis.
Zabi Ahmad came to Lithuania from Afghanistan five years ago. He left his country, because the Taliban was beginning to threaten him over his collaboration with NATO.
“I'd been working with NATO for six years. Then the Taliban started asking me, why are you helping the NATO army? We will kill you. They threatened me several times,” Ahmad tells LRT TV.
He now lives in Vilnius and works as a theatre actor. He has a work visa, but has been denied the refugee status.
Lithuania's Migration Department says that asylum requests are usually rejected because applicants cannot prove that they are persecuted by their state.
Only about one in three asylum seekers get their applications satisfied in Lithuania.
“Asylum is granted to those who are persecuted by the state,” says Evelina Gudzinskaitė, the director of the Migration Department. “Those [whose applications are rejected] usually have stories about how they borrowed money from a neighbour and are now afraid of a fallout.”
A new survey by the Social Research Centre shows that a growing number of Lithuanians believe that the asylum seekers coming to the country are economic migrants rather than refugees. Almost two thirds, 64 percent, said so in the recent survey, compared to 44 percent in 2015.
“There is a lot of fear, people think that refugees bring risks, they don't see how they could bring opportunities for the society and the country,” says Giedrė Blažytė, a researcher at the Social Research Centre.
Over two thirds of the surveyed Lithuanians – more by one fifth compared to four years ago – also said that refugees can increase crime in the country and cause social problems.
Moods in Lithuania go against the general trend in Europe, says Arnoldas Pranckevičius, the head of the European Commission's mission in Lithuania.
“In the European Union, people's attitudes are changing to the better, I'd say. Eurobarometer shows that people are becoming less fearful, they better understand the significance and importance of integration,” Pranckevičius has told LRT TV. “In Lithuania, things are a little different, I think because people fear what they are not familiar with.”
Lithuania largely remained uninvolved in dealing with the humanitarian crisis when about 1.5 million people crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 to flee wars in the Middle East.
Under the EU's resettlement quota, Lithuania was to accept 1,105 refugees from Italy and Greece, but only 400 have been resettled. Many of them have already left the country.
“Lithuania hardly experienced the refugee crisis,” Pranckevičius says. “People fear because they have many stereotypes, but once they get to meet those people and see good examples, the fears disappear.”
The Social Research Centre's survey shows, however, that more Lithuanians, about half, think that their government should dedicate more resources to integrating refugees into the society. Allowing them to work is a key component of successful integration.
“It is definitely the duty of governments to guarantee that refugees can actually make a living, that they can have dignity, that they have some form of income, that they do have a chance to work, that is very important,” according to Jan Schill, a doctor and mission coordinator with Sea-Watch, a German NGO that supports efforts to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean.