United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Latvia, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b924.html [accessed 22 February 2017]
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Although Latvia has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol, and lacks national legislation on refugees and asylum seekers, in 1996 it took important steps toward attaining those goals. An inter-ministry working group submitted a draft law on refugees and asylum seekers to the cabinet in November. The law addresses refugee status determination for persons other than citizens of the former Soviet Union (other legislation already addresses former Soviet citizens). The bill is expected to be submitted to Latvia's parliament in 1997. The Latvian government has expressed its intent to accede to the UN Refugee Convention once this legislation is in place. Detention of Asylum Seekers Without an established asylum policy, Latvia has frequently resorted to expelling or imprisoning asylum seekers. During the year, 821 third-country nationals were detained, according to the government. At the end of 1996, 16 remained in detention. Most asylum seekers in Latvia are from the Middle East and Central Asia; they enter Latvia through either Belarus or the Russian Federation. Because there is no readmission agreement between Latvia and Russia, those who are caught are often jailed. The head of Latvia's criminal police has said that between 30 and 50 "illegal" migrants a month are expelled across Latvia's borders. According to a July report in the Latvian media, the wives of two asylum seekers charged that authorities gave their husbands a choice between remaining in jail or crossing the border illegally into Russia. Russia subsequently arrested them. Upon release, they again crossed into Latvia to rejoin their families. Latvia's policy of making no distinction between illegal migrants and asylum seekers gained notoriety in the case of 130 asylum seekers, including 56 children, who in 1996 entered their second year of indefinite detention without trial in the Olaine detention center. The group of 130, mostly of Iraqi origin, was detained in Olaine in 1995 after a two-week stand-off between Latvia, Lithuania, and the Russian Federation known as the "train of despair" in which the asylum seekers were shuttled among the three countries by railroad at least thirteen times in an unsuccessful effort by Latvia to expel them. Their extended detention prompted USCR to write a letter in May to the Latvian ambassador to the United States, expressing concern about the imprisonment, which USCR said "in effect punishes people for seeking safety." The U.S. Department of State described the conditions at Olaine as "substandard." In September, a team composed of representatives from the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Human Rights Office, and UNHCR interviewed the imprisoned asylum seekers to assess their claims. Based on these interviews, UNHCR submitted the claims of 109 of the group of 130 to governments of the Nordic countries. By December, the Nordic countries had agreed to accept 108 of the Olaine detainees for resettlement, with Sweden accepting 52, Denmark, 25, Finland, 20, and Norway, 11. The Nordic countries emphasized this was an extraordinary measure, and that it was done with the understanding that Latvia would soon implement legislation in accordance with the UN Refugee Convention. Asylum System Development External pressures have motivated Latvia's moves toward compliance with the UN Refugee Convention. Norway and Sweden have stated that ratification of the Convention is a condition of the visa-free travel Latvia has been seeking to establish with them and other European countries. A readmission agreement between Finland and Latvia signed in December 1996 refers to the Refugee Convention, and is not expected to be applied to asylum seekers until Latvia establishes an asylum system. The Swedish minister in charge of migration and refugee policy stated in April that Latvia's current refugee policy would be a negative factor when considering Latvia for EU membership. Latvia and the other Baltic countries have been pressured to develop an asylum system because their lack of adherence to UN Refugee Convention standards has meant that Nordic countries cannot return rejected asylum seekers to the Baltics. Ironically, the Baltic countries' poor treatment of asylum seekers thus provides an incentive for asylum seekers to travel to the Baltics in the hope of eventually seeking asylum in Nordic countries.