August 4, 2015 / 6:09 PM / 3 years ago

Pledge to accept asylum seekers sparks protest in Latvia

RIGA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Latvians protested on Tuesday against a government decision to accept 250 asylum seekers over the next two years as part of a European Union plan to deal with migrants flooding into Greece and Italy.

People hold placards during a protest against European Union plans to host 250 refugees in Latvia over the next 2 years, in Riga, Latvia, August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

The economies of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania still bear the scars of the recent downturn, and EU plans to relocate some of the 40,000 migrants now in Greece and Italy to the Baltics over the next two years has sparked heated debate.

“In my view, the way the European Union tackles the issue only deepens the problem,” said Raivis Dzintars, a parliamentarian from the National Alliance All For Latvia! – For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, part of the coalition government, told Reuters during the demonstration.

He said Latvia, with a population of two million, already had problems integrating immigrants. “Therefore, it would be much harder for Latvia to carry additional load than any other European Union country.”

The National Alliance is the smallest of the three parties in Latvia’s governing coalition.

The Alliance’s stance on the issue puts it at odds with the Unity party of Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, also from Unity, said Riga had to show solidarity with its European partners.

“Countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal have each participated in air patrol missions in the Baltic states twice already,” Edgars Rinkevics said in an article published in the daily newspaper Diena shortly before the protest.

“Solidarity is a two-way street.”

NATO allies have mounted demonstrative patrols in the Baltic region in response to activity by the Russian air force and as a show of support for formerly Soviet Baltic states uneasy over a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine. All Baltic states have, like Ukraine, significant ethnic Russian minorities.

Last month EU leaders failed to agree on how to relocate migrants landing in Greece and Italy among member states over the next two years, with several countries rejecting their quota or offering only limited support.

Reporting by Gederts Gelzis; Editing by Simon Johnson and Ralph Boulton

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