Faced with the migrant crisis, negative perception of refugees in Lithuania rising

At a detention centre in Lithuania. Skaraitis photo
At a detention centre in Lithuania. Skaraitis photo

As Lithuania faces the crisis of migrants from Belarus crossing the border illegally, the negative perception of refugees in the country is growing, according to the survey. lrytas.lt reported.

The representative survey was conducted by ‘Baltijos tyrimai’ and commissioned by the Ethnic Research Unit of the Institute of Sociology of the Lithuanian Social Science Centre (LSSC SI) and the non-governmental organisation Diversity Development Group.

“If we look at all the issues in general, and the refugee group in particular, we see that attitudes have changed to the negative side, they are stronger,” Giedrė Blažytė, a sociologist of migration and a spokesperson of the NGO, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

She said the attitudes are similar to 2016, when the European Union faced a migrant crisis at the bloc’s southern borders.

“However, that situation was a little further away from us,” said Ms Blažytė.

According to the survey, more than two-thirds of respondents said their attitude towards refugees had worsened over the last five years, while almost a tenth said it had improved.

Currently, 47.1% of people would not want to live in a refugee neighbourhood, compared to 27% last year, and 27.7% would not want to work in one place, compared to 19% last year.

48.3% of respondents would not want to rent housing to refugees, compared to 27% last year.

The representative survey of the Lithuanian population was carried out on 17 September – 3 October this year, with 1004 respondents aged over 18.

Media reports are the main source of information

According to G. Blažytė, similar trends are also observed regarding Iraqis and Syrians, the nationalities most often associated with migration.

She also pointed out that Lithuanians have the most positive perception of non-EU citizens coming to study and the least positive perception of illegal border crossers.

“The religious group to which a person belongs is also a very important aspect. For example, Christian war refugees are a group of people that around 60% of the respondents would support. However, if we look at Muslim war refugees, around 26% of the survey participants would be in favour of accepting such a group”, said the sociologist.

According to the NGO, these answers reflect the rhetoric in the public sphere.

According to the survey, slightly less than one per cent of the respondents had direct contact with migrants who had crossed the border illegally, and two-thirds of them said they had heard about them in the media.

Similar trends were observed for other groups of third-country migrants: those who have applied for or received asylum, those who have their own businesses.

“Public attitudes are an important indicator of public tolerance. (…) The fact that Lithuanian citizens form their opinions about migrants not from personal experience but from information in the public space, and the way certain events are portrayed in the media, have a direct impact on the change in public attitudes,” said G. Blažytė.

Appealing to the media’s responsibility

Neringa Jurčiukonytė, head of Media4Change, a movement that promotes media quality, pointed out that when the country faced a crisis of illegal migration from Belarus, the media also started to write about it, referring to those who crossed the border illegally as “illegal migrants”.

This is a “harmful and unethical term”, she said.

“It is inaccurate, it is not in line with democratic values, and it is harmful. Therefore, the United Nations recommends against its use. (…) If we were to be more detailed and precise, ‘illegal border crosser’ and similar terms would be appropriate. The UN recommends “irregular migrant”, “undocumented migrant”. There are quite a lot of synonyms”, said Jurčiukonytė.

It is essential to talk about the action, not the characteristic of the person, she said.

“A person cannot be illegal. If a driver commits an offence, we do not say that the driver is illegal,” explained the head of Media4Change.

She also pointed out that the number of reports referring to “illegal” migrants has decreased since July. The movement leader attributed this to the public appeal issued by Media4Change and the debate in the media.

N. Jurčiukonytė also pointed out that politicians and officials dominate the media, while activists and migrants themselves receive the least attention.

Last week, several thousand migrants gathered on the Belarusian border with Poland. They have set up camps on the border and are still trying to break through the barriers to get into Poland.

Lithuanian officials fear a similar scenario on its border with Belarus, which is why a state of emergency has been imposed on the country’s border.

More than 4,200 migrants have entered Lithuania illegally this year, and almost 7,000 foreigners have been turned back at the border.

Western countries accuse the Minsk regime of organising the migrant flows and call it hybrid aggression.

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