By Olevs Nikers February 19, 2016
Different time zones and long geographical distance separate Latvia from the southern borders of the European Union, which, since last year, has been absorbing an unprecedented influx of thousands of displaced persons escaping war and poverty in Syria and the wider Middle East or looking for a better life in the richest European countries. Latvia, with its much smaller economy and lower standard of living has generally not been a serious destination goal for these refugees or migrants. Nonetheless, in a show of solidarity with the other members of the EU, Latvia has pledged to admit up to 776 asylum seekers over the coming two years (Lsm.lv, September 9, 2015).
But the flood of refugees from the Middle East moving through Southeastern Europe is not the only problem that currently worries the Latvian government or its security services. In fact, growing numbers of migrants have been illegally crossing Latvia’s border from the East. The recorded cases of such violations has increased from 196 persons in 2014 to 501 persons last year. Latvian Border Guard statistics collected last year note that officials detained 144 persons illegally crossing the border in 2015, which is the largest number of detainees since Latvia joined the Schengen Zone on December 21, 2007. Up to 95 percent of these detainees were illegal immigrants from Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (Rs.gov.lv, accessed February 17). “Generally, these people come from Russia. In light of the ruble’s devaluation and low wages, they are trying to migrate to Europe,” noted State Border Guard representative Colonel Vladimir Zaguzovs (TVNET.lv, January 12). And the problem of such illegal crossings is further exacerbated by cases of trans-border smuggling.
The fact that greater attention should be paid to the issue of migrants and refugees coming across the EU’s collective eastern border was raised by Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs during the last informal meeting of EU foreign ministers (Gymnich), in Amsterdam, on February 5–6 (Mfa.gov.lv, February 6).
Almost unprotected, Latvia’s 449-kilometer-long eastern border—that is, its border with non-EU countries Belarus (173 km) and Russia (276 km)—is in need of substantial investment. According to former prime minister Laimdota Straujuma, fundamental improvements to this border, which is also the external border of the European Union and the Schengen Area, will require several tens of millions of euros (TVNET.lv, January 12). The Latvian-Russian border alone will necessitate new infrastructure, including additional fencing, which is estimated to cost 17 million euros ($19 million). Officials in the Ministry of Interior (MOI) have prioritized strengthening border crossing point infrastructure, boosting construction and maintenance work, as well as increasing the number of border guard service employees. According to the plan, the MOI expects to hire around 263 additional border guards in the coming years (Latvijas Avīze, August 10, 2015).
Among the most immediate goals are securing the border crossing points with biometric visa issuance and verification machines as well as providing necessary software and Internet connectivity at border checkpoints. Also this year, Latvian authorities are scheduled to resume the longer-term renewal of their fleet of border security aircraft, including the purchase of two small unmanned surveillance aircraft. Furthermore, they will begin installation of a sensor and video surveillance system along Latvia’s “green” (land) border and sensor systems along its “blue” (maritime) border. Between 2015 and 2018, the MOI, in collaboration with several other agencies, plans to spend about 38 million euros ($42 million) in total on border security improvements. Border strengthening work is expected to be completed by 2019 (Latvijas Avīze, August 10, 2015).
Strengthening the physical border will take time. Therefore, in the meantime, parliamentary members want to make sure that the Latvian security services actively screen all potential legal asylum seekers that will be sent to Latvia. The security services will be expected to check migrants for any possible criminal records or past connections to violent non-state organizations. The new Latvian government, which was approved by the parliament on February 11, is committed to improving the country’s eastern border as well as the strength and capabilities of its military forces. The government has committed itself to boosting defense funding to 1.7 percent of GDP in 2017, and 2 percent of GDP by 2018. It also plans to improve Latvia’s self-defense capabilities by strengthening the combat readiness and response time of the National Armed Forces as well as enhancing the presence of the Armed Forces in the country’s easternmost regions (Ventas Balss, February 9).
The Baltic States—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—have become much more concerned about their border security since the beginning of 2014, when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine began. For example, Estonia—whose eastern border is currently in a similar condition to Latvia’s—plans to invest 75 million euros ($83 million) to strengthen security along its frontier with Russia (Skaties.lv, October 18, 2015). Specifically, Estonia will renew the network of border markings and improve its border video surveillance system. Estonia also plans to construct a fence, about 110 kilometers long and 2.5 meters high, along its entire eastern border.
In the continued absence of a common external border protection strategy for the EU’s eastern and southern flanks, planned border security investments, like the aforementioned plans by the Latvian and Estonian governments, represent an important step forward in the Baltic region. Granted, such border security investments represent only the first steps in the Baltic States’ long-term development of more secure and effective control over their territories. However, in so doing, these countries will not only be strengthening their own national borders, but also the external borders of the European Union as a whole.