On June 19, Latvia's Saeima (parliament) adopted a National Law on Asylum Seekers and Refugees and ratified Latvia's accession to the UN Refugee Convention. However, no asylum seekers had registered in Latvia by year's end. Following pressure from nationalist elements in the Saeima, Latvia opted for a "geographical limitation" clause in its original accession to the Refugee Convention, which meant that it would take responsibility only for refugees from Europe. However, on October 2, after criticism by UNHCR, the United States, and other governments, Latvia dropped the geographical limitation. After acceding to the Refugee Convention, Latvia entered into several readmission and visa-free travel agreements with surrounding countries. Latvia signed visa-free travel agreements with Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, and readmission agreements with the Ukraine and Denmark. Latvia and Russia also drafted a border agreement, but had not signed it at year's end. New Asylum Law The national law addresses refugee status determination for persons other than citizens of the former Soviet Union, whom another law already addresses. The law provides for constructing a refugee processing center accommodating up to 300 persons, with administration, day care, medical, and education facilities. UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior signed an agreement for building the refugee center at a cost of $960,000. The U.S. embassy pledged $850,000 of that amount. The government chose a site for the center in Mucinieki, to open in mid 1998. Under the law, applications for refugee status are examined by the Center for Refugee Affairs, a new agency 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, consisting of a chairperson and four council members. The Cabinet of Ministers appoints the chairperson following a recommendation by the minister of justice. Whether they apply at ports of entry, border points, or inside Latvia, asylum seekers submit their applications at the nearest state police station, according to the law. They remain at the police station and police officers interview them, making an initial appraisal of the application. If the officer considers the application to be "manifestly unfounded," the applicant is placed in an accelerated procedure. Applications are ruled manifestly unfounded if: the applicant resided illegally in Latvia for more than 72 hours; the applicant is either a national of, resided in, or came from a country where Latvia believes the threat of persecution does not exist; or the applicant has committed a serious crime in or outside Latvia. The law says that the Cabinet of Ministers will approve a list of "safe" countries from which persecution claims are considered manifestly unfounded. If the Center for Refugee Affairs and the Refugee Appeals Council verify that the asylum application is manifestly unfounded, the application is rejected without the right of appeal. Those rejected in the normal procedure, however, have seven days to lodge an appeal with the Refugee Appeals Council. The council examines the appeal within two months, and its decision is final. Persons accorded refugee status receive permanent residence permits and financial assistance for their first year of residence, if needed. Detention Prior to establishing an asylum policy, Latvia frequently resorted to expelling or imprisoning asylum seekers. Latvia detained more than 700 "illegal immigrants" in 1996. However, Nordic countries bordering Latvia accepted most of these asylum seekers in late 1996 on the assumption that Latvia would adopt and implement asylum legislation in 1997. Only 33 undocumented immigrants remained at the Olaine immigration detention center at the end of 1997. Conditions were reportedly poor at Olaine, with insufficient food and physical activity for the detainees, and reports that police and prison personnel beat them.

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