Refugee housing in Lithuania: asylum without shelter?

In Lithuania, the independence from the Soviet Union was instantly followed by a large-scale privatisation process. It was to send a liberal message to the rest of the world and, at the same time, to fix empty national budget. The privatisation, however, was not only about industry or infrastructure. Houses and appartments previously owned by the government were released for the privatisation as well. Almost each family had such appartment, since in the Soviet Union, it was quite easy to get one: already in the first years of employment, a person could apply for a hostel-type appartment, while in five years, they could move to a good new appartment in a block of flats. After independence, they were offered to buy the same flats for a relatively small price, so that they did not lose what they had before, yet remaining in the same accommodation.

For many people, it was a reward for their hard work, while for others, it was a result of the so-called ‘blat’, which refers to the widespread corruption in the Soviet Union. Those, who managed to keep their property up to the accession of Lithuania into the European Union, have won many times more – by selling them for a high ‘European’ price or renting them in the conditions of respectively increased demand. In any case, they won.

Much more difficult reality was there for the young generation, especially for those, who had to start their lives from zero. By each year, the prices of accommodation have been dramatically increasing, leaving many young people with two main options: renting or taking a loan. Both options would, however, endure for the bigger part of their lives, therefore others have decided to work for a year or so abroad and, back home, to invest the earned money in the accommodation.

Nevertheless, these are still not the only difficulties that had to be faced by refugees. Far from that. Lack of necessary education or skills, lack of their recognition, language barrier and xenophobic attitudes – altogether these circumstances make the social mobility to a higher stratum of the society a hardly achievable goal. Not surprisingly, most refugees end up working in a second-class sector with salaries being too low to qualify for a loan and still not always sufficient to secure a proper rent. In many cases, refugees are told about the increased price of the rent or have to move because the apartment is being sold.

Some families have to change their accommodation once or twice per year. Due to very high prices, limited availability, limited governmental support and xenophobic attitudes, it has become extremely difficult for refugees to find another apartment. In worst cases, they cannot find anything and become homeless. Many such families have been temporarily sheltered by Lithuanian Red Cross, which does not have any suitable facilities, but which, however, cannot leave families with minor children on the street.

One Chechen family, for example, became homeless for a couple of months. As a result, the education of four minor children was disrupted, since each second night they had to stay at a different family or even to travel to another city. The Refugee Reception Centre, although having many free rooms, refused to temporarily accommodate the family, arguing that they must follow the law. The question, however, is: what democratic law can indifferently leave five minor refugee children, the youngest being just over one year old, sleeping on the street?

Despite that, refugees cannot apply for social accommodation until they acquire permanent residence permits. Controversially, only few refugees have such permits, since they are granted only after five years of continuous residence and after having met certain criteria. The same applies for the bank loans, which can be obtained only by permanent residents with relatively high income. Moreover, after the integration programme is finished, refugees in Lithuania become excluded from social welfare system, i.e. can apply neither for social benefits, not for the support related to the costs for electricity, water or heating.

At the same time, numerous abandoned houses, which could be renovated and converted to functioning social apartments, are left for the will of God. It is true that only few of them belong to the government, but it is doubtful that the privatisation or the lack of funds can justify current situation. There are always ways how to reach a compromise with the owners and to encourage their participation. Moreover, recently, the support of at least three European Union funds has been available – European Social Fund, European Integration Fund, and European Refugee Fund.

Similar initiative, with the help of EQUAL I funding, has been successfully implemented by Portuguese Refugee Council, which constructed a new reception centre for refugees and local community. Another example is Italy, where municipality, province, NGOs and house-building companies cooperate to renovate apartments and to rent them to refugees and other disadvantaged persons. In Finland, the cooperation between various stakeholders includes also banks, funds, insurance companies and the owners.

However, the evidence suggests that the privatisation and the ignorance of the abandoned houses are not the only obstacles for possible improvement. Recent inspection in the capital Vilnius revealed that 70 per cent of the currently available social accommodation has been unconditionally rented for indefinite term and, in some cases, to the relatives of the officers working in the municipality. The Member of the Parliament, L. Mogeniene claims that in other cities, the queues for the social accommodation are also very long – not so much because of limited funds, but more because of the lack of transparency.

Can refugees expect to win something in the game, the result of which has been determined long before it started? Hopefully, yes, although the evidence shows the opposite. Many Lithuanians have moved to other countries, such as Ireland, England, or Spain. Is there something to keep refugees in the country, which is not their own and which is, perhaps, even less generous to refugees than to their own nationals?

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