U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Latvia
|Publisher||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants|
|Publication Date||1 January 1999|
|Cite as||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Latvia , 1 January 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8c234.html [accessed 21 October 2017]|
At the end of 1998, at least 11 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection were in Latvia. These included one Palestinian from Egypt and one Sudanese granted refugee status, and nine asylum seekers awaiting decisions on pending asylum claims. A total of 58 persons (35 cases) applied for asylum in Latvia during 1998. Of these, Latvia rejected 14 cases and deemed 9 "manifestly unfounded."
In December, Latvia's Ministry of the Interior finished constructing a refugee processing center in Mucenieki, Riga with the help of UNHCR and U.S. government funding. Plans to build a health clinic for asylum seekers and local people in neighboring villages within the center were underway at year's end.
Latvia's parliament adopted a National Law on Asylum Seekers and Refugees (hereafter "refugee law") and ratified Latvia's accession to the UN Refugee Convention on June 19, 1997. The law regulates refugee status determinations for persons from outside the former Soviet Union (FSU). Another law addresses questions of status for FSU citizens.
Under the refugee law, applications for refugee status are examined by the Center for Refugee Affairs (CRA) within the Department for Citizenship and Migration Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior. Appeals of negative decisions are examined by the Refugee Appeals Council (hereafter "appeals council"), an independent governmental body under the Ministry of Justice, consisting of a chairperson and four council members.
During 1998, the CRA considered 26 cases. The appeals council decided 18 cases.
Asylum seekers can submit their applications at land borders, airports, or, if within Latvian territory, at state police stations or CRA offices. A police officer interviews the applicant, makes an initial appraisal of the application, and forwards the case to the CRA, which first decides on the admissability of the case.
If the CRA finds the case to be admissible, the asylum seeker is transferred to the Mucenieki Refugee Processing Center. There, asylum seekers receive rooms or small flats, a modest food stipend, Latvian language classes, and computer training. The CRA is required to decide cases within three months from the date of application, although the refugee law allows for extensions up to six months. Persons accorded refugee status receive permanent residence permits and are eligible for financial assistance for their first year of residence.
Asylum seekers rejected in the normal procedure have seven days to lodge an appeal with the appeals council. The appeals council examines appeals within two months, and its decisions are final. Asylum seekers awaiting appeals decisions are not subject to deportation.
If the CRA deems the case "manifestly unfounded," the applicant is placed in an accelerated procedure under which the CRA decides the case within two days and forwards its decision to the appeals council for review. The appeals council reaches a final, nonreviewable decision within three days. Applications are ruled "manifestly unfounded" if the applicant: resided illegally in Latvia for more than 72 hours; came from a safe third country or safe country of origin; or has committed certain crimes in or outside Latvia.
In 1998, the appeals council upheld all nine cases that the CRA denied in the accelerated procedure.
Restrictions on Asylum
Several provisions of Latvia's refugee law limit access to the asylum procedure.
The refugee law contains an exhaustive list of "safe" third countries and "safe" countries of origin. All 122 countries that have ratified the UN Refugee Convention without geographic reservations are considered to be countries "where no threat of persecution exists."
Consequently, the CRA and the appeals council may reject asylum seekers who have transited such "safe" countries, including Algeria, Angola, Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. Latvia also considers 39 countries, including Croatia, the Russian Federation, Cyprus, and Turkey, to be "safe" countries of origin.
To implement the safe third country provisions of the refugee law, Latvia has entered into several readmission agreements with surrounding countries. During 1997 and 1998, Latvia signed readmission agreements with Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine, all of which were in effect by the end of 1998. Latvia has drafted, but not yet implemented, readmission agreements with Canada, Poland, Romania, and Russia, and reportedly plans to sign agreements with Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the Benelux countries in 1999.
UNHCR raised concerns regarding several aspects of Latvia's status determination procedure. Of these, UNHCR cited: the "wide application" of the accelerated procedure, including the use of safe country provisions to deem applications manifestly unfounded; inadequate access to legal assistance for asylum seekers; and the lack of an alternative status for asylum seekers who have been denied asylum but are in need of protection.
Throughout 1998, the Danish Immigration Service and the Swedish Immigration Board trained and assisted CRA staff in implementing the new refugee law. UNHCR was not directly involved with training migration officials or overseeing Latvia's status determination procedure.
Prior to signing the UN Refugee Convention, Latvia frequently detained and expelled asylum seekers.
In 1998, Latvia reportedly detained fewer asylum seekers than in previous years. According to UNHCR, Latvia detained 324 undocumented migrants – some of whom were asylum seekers – during 1998, compared to about 700 in 1996. At year's end, 28 undocumented immigrants remained at the Olaine immigration detention center.