Since the invasion of Ukraine, Latvia has taken in over 40,000 refugees. Martin Stakis, the Mayor of Riga, has been a solid supporter of Ukraine since the conflict with Russia broke out.
Last August Stakis travelled to Ukraine with a group of Eurocities mayors and joined Eurocities Mayors in discussions with President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen last October.
During a Eurocities event in which our members travelled to Riga in December to engage with the city’s approach to integrating migrant and refugee women into the local labour market, we had a chance to sit with Mayor Stakis for an interview on how Riga has dealt with the fallout of the war, and its actions to supporting Ukraine.
Read our interview and watch the highlights on YouTube.
Since the invasion, Latvia has taken in over 40,000 refugees from Ukraine, many of whom remain in Riga. Here, a refugee support centre saw over 1,000 people every day at one point. Can you walk me through the municipality’s work of hosting, employing and integrating all these newcomers during these months?
Even though the refugee challenge was well known in Europe, it was never the case in Latvia. Usually, they choose to live in Western countries. We used to have a couple of hundred refugees a year that stayed here for a few weeks to several months. One day, there are 1,000 refugees a day, with Riga as the final destination. This is a very new situation for us as a city and as a country in general.
In those days, Riga municipality took the initiative to tell the government, ‘let’s do the refugee centre here in Riga. We are ready to operate.’ The idea was to create a one-stop agency where all the governmental, municipal and non-governmental services are located.
We made three versions of the centre. The first was a rapid decision. We didn’t know how to operate it but within one week, we understood how it should be done.
The second was a much more advanced version of the centre. The refugee flow was very well organised, with everything being digital. All members of the European Parliament, the United Nations, and our government who visited the facilities said it is one of the best in Europe.
The third version is again adapted to the local situation. We no longer have 1,000 refugees daily, but about 40-50 and 700 to 1,000 visitors daily. They are locals that need some municipal services.
What are the main challenges?
In Latvia, we have more than 40,000 refugees that have been in our refugee centres. The challenges are the same as all of Europe faces. The first is accommodation. Housing was always an issue for European cities, including Riga.
We were lucky because we have a pretty significant community of local Ukrainians, also Latvians and Russians living here, that were ready to open the doors to their friends’ relatives. I’m thankful and proud of that. Families hosted the first wave of refugees. However, in the following months, we also had to use hotels and hostels, and we still do that.
The second challenge is schooling. Riga is the centre of education in Latvia. All universities and top colleges and schools are located here. People come from all the cities in Latvia, which makes our schools quite crowded. Finding a place for 1,700 children is not easy. We sometimes managed to keep children in school by renting extra classrooms. Similarly, there are more than 1,000 kindergartens but even locals can’t find a place for their kids.
This is an excellent example of what we can do if the government, the city and non-governmental organisations work in the same direction with the same target and face the same challenges. This will help us in the future. Not only on some crisis that could come, but also to be much more open as a city for people around the world.
Indeed, given the involvement of Riga in helping Ukrainians, how does the city plan to support different groups of people in the future?
From medieval times, Riga has always been a very open city. We were the Hanseatic City and Mersons from Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Russia were here. Every single citizen spoke, at least, four languages back then. We, as a city, were always open and our policy for openness was much more liberal than governmental policy.
We know that 40% of services provided by humans working on computers will be done remotely in the future. If you can work from your home, you can work from everywhere in the world. We want Riga to be the place to work. That’s why one initiative is the digital nomad visa, which means you can move from Spain to Riga, live here and still work in your company. The living standards you can find here are very affordable.
The second initiative will co-fund the talents who would move and work here in our international companies. All the cities fight for talent and we also want to be in this fight and win.
How do you hope to use the ideas learned or resources at hand?
Our refugee centre showed us how important is to have a one-stop agency and the particular requirements people coming have. What school kids will go to, where to live, and what kind of services the government and the municipality can provide.
We understood how important information is for those ready to move here. We uploaded a new webpage on Riga, where you can find this information in European and non-European languages. Now we are ready to provide it in one place.
You were part of Eurocities mission to Ukraine last August. Do you have any takeaways to share? How does Riga plan to help with reconstruction?
I may know a little bit better than others what’s happening there because I speak Russian and understand Ukrainian. You can understand it with your head, but only when you visit Ukraine can you understand it from your heart. You see the cruelty, the brutality of the occupants, the enormous size of the damage this army has made to this country, but also the bravery of those people, the resistance of Ukrainians.
Every politician who has visited Ukraine undergoes a mindset change, understanding the need to act quickly. The message from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was quite simple, ‘We know that cities provide us with heavy weapons or ammunition, but you can help us to win the information war and fight against the propaganda. Please, help us spread the truth.’ We, as opinion leaders, have pretty significant power in that.
The second message is, ‘There are cities without electricity, heating or water. We need support and we can’t wait for tomorrow.’ The third is ‘the war will end one day with the victory of Ukraine and we will rebuild this country, those cities. Please, be ready to provide us with this support because you know how to build cities’.
For instance, many schools, kindergartens and hospitals here in Riga were made in Soviet times. They are the same style buildings I saw in Ukraine. We know how to rebuild them.
I’m really proud to be part of Eurocities and really proud of this initiative ‘Generators of hope.’ We Latvians usually wish to have a bright and warm Christmas. It comes from our past that the worst thing that can happen to a family at Christmas is to stay in the dark, the cold, and the hunger. I think this is not only for Riga citizens but all European citizens.
🏘️ Heating homes in Ukraine this Christmas is essential.
🇪🇺 Our campaign #GeneratorsofHope is a call to all European cities to donate critically needed power generators and electrical equipment.
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) December 21, 2022
That’s why for us it was so important to send generators to Ukraine till Christmas. Yesterday, we sent the first truck full of generators and heaters and there were a few more trucks to come. This week we will help cities without water. How is life without water? Snow is melting and people are happy because at least they have some access to water. It shouldn’t be like this. We will provide help and I’m so proud that Eurocities took this initiative and show to other cities and the world what cities can do.
You were also in discussions with President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen last October. Why is the involvement of cities in the discussions at the European level essential? Why is the role of cities crucial in helping Ukrainians?
The first thing that Madame Ursula Von der Leyen said when meeting us, mayors, was ‘welcome my mayors.’ It was important to hear that we are part of the story and the mayors of the European Union. That the main idea of this meeting was, first of all, to show support for Ukraine. Mayor Klitschko was in this meeting, unfortunately remotely. We said, ‘we know you’re fighting for us, for European values, so you are not alone.’
Secondly, we wanted to underline how important cities are in this crisis and, since we know that the European Parliament and the European Commission are working now on the plans to rebuild Ukraine, we said, ‘Please don’t forget about cities because we could play a significant role in this, even more than the government.’ We know how to deal with the job, and we are much closer to our residents so we understand their needs.
She said it is a great idea, and some people entered the meeting to find out what cities can do right now and what the role of local governments will be in the future.
So as I said in this meeting, ‘Let’s make cities great again’ [laugh]. This is what we have to do in this century.