Is there so little room for refugees in Latvia?

To follow up on Commissioner Muižnieks’ statements, let’s focus on the EU and imagine it were a super-state settling refugees based on the availability of land, without regard to their wishes and to those of the natives. A natural approach would be to examine the table of population density and land area from the bottom up. Sweden and Finland are sparsely populated but most of their uninhabited land is also uninhabitable because of the harsh northern conditions. On to the next three member states with the lowest population density (ignoring the tiny Faroe Islands): they happen to be Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The climate is temperate in all three. The terrain is agreeably flat to hilly. The infrastructure is not bad. The population density is 42 persons per square kilometer, compared with 108 in Hungary, 233 in Germany, and 256 in the UK.

And the total area of the three Baltic countries is a whopping 175,000 sq. km, more than the United Kingdom sans Scotland (165,000 sq. km). In other words, the 7.3 million of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are occupying more land than the 59 million inhabitants of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

A hypothetical central planner for a speculative Confederation of Europe would marvel at the imbalance and offer an instant solution: make them take in all the refugees in exchange for a stream of federal moneys. It’s also a common-sense approach: England and Wales are overcrowded, Germany but slightly less so, while the three Baltic countries are virtually empty in comparison, and perfectly livable. It only remains to get their citizenry to agree to the plan.

Which is going to be pretty hard. Yes, Latvia is bleeding people at about 15,000 or 0.8% of the population per annum. Yes, emigration was named a “very significant threat” by 76% of both ethnic Latvians and Russophones in 2012. Yes, at least 100,000 Latvians found refuge from near-inevitable Soviet repression at the end of WWII in Western Europe and overseas. Yes, 40% of Latvians are saying they would become refugees if an armed conflict broke out in the country. Still, the Latvian government is opposing any mandatory quotas for refugees as a matter of principle, and has offered to take in but a handful.

This stance is consistent with the attitudes of their electorate: in the fall of 2014, 79% opposed immigration from outside the EU, and 63% (!) opposed intra-EU immigration. This is a mirror image of Sweden (to which certain Latvians are fond of professing their country’s resemblance), where 72% were in favor of accepting non-EU nationals.

Eventually, I believe Latvia will budge on the numbers but talk its way out of bearing its fair share of the burden.


  1. The climate is temperate in all three.

    Whaaaat?!! I was in all three countries in December 2012, and I have never felt cold like the Baltic cold. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t just the reading on the thermometer: it was just so damned cold!

    Summer is lovely though: I’ve been in Vilnius in each season except Spring, and it’s great.

    • After Sakhalin, no way you can say that. My first time in Vilnius was in January, a little less than 30 years ago. I was very young and impressionable. There was green grass in Lazdynai, the part of Vilnius where we were staying. Green grass in January. It was an out of this world experience for the young me.

  2. After Sakhalin, no way you can say that.

    Sakhalin was deceptively warm (don’t believe the reports us expats would send to the management back in London HQ ;)) Down in the south the usual winter temperature was about -12 or -15 degrees during the day. It was much, much warmer than Siberia. Up in the north it was much colder, probably because of the wind. I remember the first time I felt *really* cold there was in Nogliki, about 2/3 of the way up, when I got off the train. It was in the -20s, and I really felt it. Further up north it could be around -20 or -30 regularly, but again not like Siberia.

    In truth, I think I felt cold in the Baltics because I had been living in Thailand and Nigeria for the 3 years prior to going, and had gotten soft. In my Sakhalin days I used to leave the coat at home once it got about freezing, and above 10 degrees it was a light jumper.

    • When it comes to cold spells, it’s hard to beat Western Siberia on those days when arctic air comes down. (To say nothing of Yakutia-Sakha.) But I think the Nogliki-Okha area is classed as subarctic because of the cold Okhotsk Sea, despite its low latitude – same as London for Nogliki and Liverpool for Okha.

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