At the end of 1999, at least four refugees and three asylum seekers were in need of protection in Latvia. These included three Pakistanis and one Iraqi granted asylum, and three asylum seekers awaiting decisions on pending claims.

A total of 22 persons applied for asylum in Latvia during 1999. The principal countries of origin were Russia (6 applicants), Azerbaijan (4 applicants) and Iraq (4 applicants). Seven applicants did not identify their nationalities.

In 1999, Latvia rejected 26 cases and deemed approximately one-third of all cases "manifestly unfounded." At year's end, only six people had received refugee status in Latvia.

Legislative Developments

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 determination for persons from outside the former Soviet Union (FSU). Another law enacted in 1995 addresses questions of status for FSU citizens.

In February 1999, the parliament adopted a law, "On the Status of a Stateless Person in Latvia." The law grants legal status to certain individuals who do not qualify for refugee status or who cannot acquire noncitizen passports under the 1995 law for former Soviet Union citizens.

Asylum Procedure

Under the refugee law, applications for refugee status are examined by the Center for Refugee Affairs (CRA) within the Department for Citizenship and Migration 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.

Asylum seekers can submit their applications at a land border, 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 admissibility of the case.

If the CRA finds the case to be admissible, the asylum seeker is transferred to the Mucenieki Refugee Processing Center in Riga, which officially opened in 1999, although it began operating in 1998. Asylum seekers at Mucenieki receive housing, a modest food stipend, and language and computer training. At the end of 1999, the center housed six asylum seekers and five recognized refugees.

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, permission to work, and are eligible for financial assistance for their first year of residence. Recognized refugees also receive financial assistance for Latvian language courses.

Asylum seekers rejected in the normal procedure have seven days to lodge an appeal with the appeals council. The appeals council has two months to examine appeals, and its decisions are final. Asylum seekers awaiting appeals decisions are not subject to deportation. UNHCR noted, however, that legal assistance is often not available to asylum seekers.

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 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 committed certain crimes in or outside Latvia. UNHCR expressed concern over the "wide application" of the accelerated procedure in 1999.

UNHCR and Latvian NGOs also expressed concern that the government had not developed programs to help recognized refugees integrate into their host communities or to reunite with family members abroad. Refugees face many barriers when registering for residence permits in most Latvian municipalities they said, and are ineligible for citizenship.

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 geographical limitations 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.


Prior to signing the UN Refugee Convention, Latvia frequently detained and expelled asylum seekers.

In 1999, Latvia reportedly detained fewer asylum seekers than in previous years. According to UNHCR, Latvia detained a small number of asylum seekers in 1999 on charges of illegal border crossings, but released them by year's end.

The government detains rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants at two centers – the Olaine Temporary Camp for Illegal Immigrants and the Maintenance Place for Illegal Migrants (also called Gaizina after its street address). Few services are provided to detained illegal migrants, but the International Organization for Migration provides counseling and emergency medical care. At year's end, 15 persons remained in detention at the Olaine camp. Another 20 persons were held at the Gaizina center.

NGOs expressed concern regarding the poor conditions at the Gaizina center. In April, 35 detainees (some of whom had been held for more than a year) began a hunger strike to protest the unsanitary conditions. Latvia's Interior Minister reportedly agreed that the living conditions at both centers did not meet European standards, but said budget limitations prevented the government from making the necessary improvements.


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