“We’re taking 1,105 refugees only and no more. We’ll house them in closed off areas and then ask them to leave. That’s how Lithuania will resist the EU 'Diktat', defend its sovereignty and avoid the trouble plaguing Europe”. That’s the talk of certain politicians who have remained silent about the fact that, in recent years, the number of foreigners has risen sharply without a single refugee having been accepted and with immigration challenges still to be faced.
Refugees in Rotterdam
© AFP/Scanpix

According to the Migration Department’s preliminary information, there were already 14,612 foreigners (excluding legal migrants and tourists, some of whom might have overstayed their welcome) in Lithuania as of 1 July 2015, and only 3,131 of them were citizens of the EU and European Free Trade Association member states. As of 1 July 2015, foreigners made up 1.43 percent of Lithuania's total population. Compared to the same data for 1 January 2014, this figure has risen by 15 percent. Who can guarantee that the foreigners currently living in Lithuania aren’t sponsors of terrorism, that the businesses they're creating are on the level, and that they aren't bringing corruption with them? What makes them better than those whom we have to shelter in the name of European solidarity?

It’s convenient to talk about refugees being a terrible risk and about EU pressure to distract from what’s happening domestically and avoiding serious work on establishing and implementing a migration and integration policy. The issue of taking in refugees should be the outside impetus that forces our government to address its problems, not only with migration but with the integration of people who have been living here for a long time already. Now that we’ve acknowledged the fact that we have been impacted by waves of human migration, this would be a good opportunity to start forging a clear migration strategy with strategic steps planned for the future. It will then finally be possible to do something about Lithuania’s most notorious ghetto – the capital’s gypsy camp.

When we talk about integration, we need to define it in terms of its meaning and aim. Whether the process will be successful or an ineffective sham will depend on this. Therefore, it's important to answer the following questions honestly: at what point is a person or community that is different already integrated? When they’ve learned the language? When they’ve found a permanent job? Taken on the norms of the local culture? When they start to identify themselves with the language, culture and territory of the country? When they assimilate? Integration is not an end in itself, it’s simply a waystation where “They” become “Us”. The more similar cultures, religions, traditions and historical experiences are, the easier and shorter the road. It’s not very good that newcomers whose clothes, names, customs, religion and behaviour are different are automatically categorized as “Them”.

Regina Statkuvienė
Regina Statkuvienė
© Asmeninio albumo nuotr.

“They” cannot identify themselves with “Us” and be accepted immediately because the differences are too obvious and deep. Countries in the West that espouse freedom, equality and brotherhood didn't only experience assimilation and acculturation – they also saw economic, social and cultural isolation based on nationality and religion because “They,” in the majority's opinion, are too different and not worthy or unable to have all of “Our” rights and commitments. For example, newcomers don’t have to perform compulsory military service and would not be required to defend their new homeland if this became necessary. Muslim garments covering the head or even the entire body were treated as specific pieces of clothing, signs of membership in a religion or a cultural tradition, and not one European country saw them as a visual expression of a serious integration challenge.

A girl is obligated to wear the headscarf when she has reached sexual maturity. In this way, she expresses her physical maturity, her professed religion, and that she is different from others. Does that comply with European tradition? To what extent can religion be expressed in public life? Questions like this are hardly considered worthy of attention in Eastern European countries and have been parried as being irrelevant. After the Great French Revolution, the influence of the Catholic Church waned and was minimized, whereas the establishment of Islam was ignored outright. However, when women in European clothing can no longer travel in peace on the metro and get harassed because of loose hair or a short skirt, when Muslim parents forbid their daughters to participate in general swimming lessons or demand that canteen menus be changed, it is timidly stated that integration has not worked.

Or maybe it just wasn’t implemented seriously. The European experience leads us to the conclusion that not all cultural differences are tolerated because, sometimes, they encourage behaviour that is not compatible with the European way of life. Insincere attempts at corrective action only complicate the situation. For example, in France it is proscribed to wear clothing that covers the entire body. This has caused anger and prompted logical questions as to why this hadn't been regulated before. When the number of women wearing clothing like that grew, the clothing was banned. The lesson is that something that “We” consider to be an insignificant detail or a good opportunity to refrain from interfering with another culture must be attended to from a legal perspective. It is important to show “Them” which cultural norms in this society can be cherished and which, in exchange for security and tolerance, will need to be relinquished.

Therefore, in order to prevent potential problems, it would be necessary to openly debate and, using our laws, regulate the “details” of adherence to a religion. This can mean permitting or banning attire, compulsory education of children (especially of girls) up to a specific age, food based on religious affiliation in public institutions, compulsory inoculations, compulsory sex education, prohibiting parents from arranging marriages, the regulation of religious holidays that clash with work time, etc. When the adopted country takes a hands-off approach to the “details”, and when there is no clearly desired result, integration comes to a halt: “They” and “We” function and evolve in opposite directions.

People have to be educated about local cultural traditions and norms and obtain practical information on possible vocational training. Those vocational training institutes must be ready to take them on. It is important to explain to newcomers that work relationships are managed by laws and that they can get information or assistance in case of problems. Effective assistance must be ensured. People who come from a patriarchal culture would need to be clearly informed that gender equality is an undisputable value in our society. Priorities like family planning, the education and employment of women and, finally, that families with many children must take care of them without becoming a burden the state must all be made clear to newcomers. Germany hopes that one day its “gastarbeiters” will leave and the French hoped that foreigners would adopt the identity offered to them. Lithuanian politicians today are also promising only to relocate refugees. The illusion of transience allows people to hope that they won’t face new challenges. This is convenient for politicians because they don’t have to worry about expensive integration programs that require a lot of work or the establishment, publication and implementation of new laws.

In the meantime, immigrants live and raise children. “They” start missing their lost country, idealising it in contrast with all of with the “bad,” foreign and poorly-understood things in society. Culturally different and unable to integrate economically, they support each other and form ghettos, where the processes of isolation start. Radicalism thrives. This, by the way, changes the faces of European cities. Swimming pools and sport clubs just for women and restaurants just for men are becoming regular parts of cities like Brussels or Lille. Ghettoisation in Lithuania, although not happening on the same scale as it is in cities in Western Europe, is also taking place. For example, the gypsy camp. The gypsies are now called Roma, a supposedly non-discriminatory ethnonym - but is the situation in the camp improving because of that? In the relatively small community, poverty, patriarchy, crime and under-education flourish.

It’s similar to Brussel’s Molenbeek, where the inhabitants are also called Belgians, although they don’t feel that way. The growth of closed residential areas like these is the sign of an ailing society where a section of ethnically and culturally different people cannot feel at ease in the society of the majority. In fact, they are not on equal terms with the majority. We pretend that this isn't true, but we focus on terminology and speak of tolerance instead of addressing or analyzing the reasons for the establishment and existence of ghettos. The same thing can happen with the rising numbers of migrants if we only focus on theoretical arguments instead of practical applications.

In this case, against the backdrop of today’s challenges, Lithuania is rather fortunate – we can learn from the mistakes and experience of others to find a modern expression of our tradition of historical multicultural coexistence.

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