Policy Description

Migration Policies: Latvia (2015)








Migration policies in Latvia have strongly followed the historical events that have taken place over the years. The necessity for migration policies in Latvia rose along with the half a million immigrants and their descendants inherited from USSR. In mid-20th century, in some largest towns in Latvia around 50% of the population were foreigners who brought own traditions, culture, mentality, and language to the country (PMLP 2015). There was a necessity for a definite migration policy in order to control these flows along with the renewal of independence. 

Latvia is one of the Baltic countries and a former republic of the Soviet Union. With its multiple shifts in development, Latvia is an interesting case for migration research as it changed from a country of immigration to a country of emigration. The table below displays long-term migration trends of both immigration to and emigration from Latvia in the period from 1946 and 2013.

Source: Statistical database of the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia

Latvia has experienced massive migration turnover in the previous century up until the present. Emigration from Latvia mostly relates to the Soviet-era deportations and refugee flows from the country. But the highest immigration numbers were reached during Soviet rule. Most current emigration patterns from Latvia, however, have more economically-based roots and are concentrated within the EU. But this also highlights serious effects on the social and economic development of the country.

Starting from the early eighteenth century until World War I, Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire. Latvia and Estonia became two of the most important industrialisation centres of the region (Katus 1989; Bleiere et al. 2005). Emigration in large numbers from Latvia occurred during the World War I, which marked the beginning of the great exodus period that lasted until the end of World War II. A sizeable number of forced and voluntary refugees were evacuated during World War I from the Baltic provinces to the hinterland of the Russian Empire. 

Latvia gained independence in 1918, and this effectively ended the mass emigration to Russia. In addition, nearly 300,000 people returned home between 1918 and 1928, after Latvia and Russia concluded a peace treaty (Bleiere et al. 2005; Kangeris 2006). The wave of emigration peaked by the end of World War II, when the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – were finally incorporated into the Soviet Union (Tammaru et al. 2010). The Soviet occupation of Latvia started with large-scale immigration, mainly from Russia, which remained high through the 1980s (Eglite 2009). This immigration to other republics of the Soviet Union was part of an ideological and political agenda to spread communist party members, militarists, and the workforce (Lindemann 2009). Latvia had the highest net immigration of all Soviet Union countries. As a result of large-scale immigration, the share of ethnic minorities in Latvia reached 48 % at the time of the last Soviet census in 1989. This share decreased somewhat as a result of ethnic minority return migration in the first half of 1990s, when Latvia had regained its independence.

The social and economic reforms in the 1990s placed minorities in a new situation that substantially altered the patterns of the labour market inherited from the Soviet period. Members of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia had more difficulties to adjust to economic restructuring and suffered to a higher extent from employment losses in different industrial sectors in which they were overrepresented (Aasland 2002; Lindemann 2009; Hazans 2011). 

Since the 2000s, the migration flows are mainly directed westward. Emigration from Latvia has accelerated since the country joined the European Union in 2004. Latvia as a small and open economy provides an interesting example of a relatively fast economic boom over the past decade of the 2000s. Steady economic growth in Latvia at the turn of the twenty-first century was driven by large-scale capital inflows and the rapid expansion of mortgage markets, propelled by low interest rates and the entry of foreign banks. This contributed to large economic imbalances and when the economic crisis began, the Latvian economy faced a notable decrease in employment and wages (Martin 2009; Woolfson et al. 2010; Smith and Swain 2010).

Beginning of migration policy in Latvia
In the beginning of 90s, along with independence, the Citizenship Law was one of the main topics of political discussion (Rozenvalds 2010). The first Department of Migration Affairs was established after the renewal of independence on 19 April 1991, with the aim to regulate migration processes and provide migration services. In the following year, the department was incorporated under the Ministry of Justice. In 1992, this service was renamed the Citizenship and Immigration Service. According to the law “On Population Register”, the Citizenship and Migration Service of the Ministry of Justice was in charge of the developing the utilisation of the Register (PMLP 2015a). This was a complicated task due to several reasons. First, the process was new in Latvia and had to be structured and created from the beginning. Secondly, the total amount of the population of around 2.6 million who were about to register as citizens of Latvia had to be separated from those who were not citizens of the country. This also specified the persons to whom the law “On Population Register” did not apply. Several regional registration offices were established with an increasing number of employees. Since 1993, the service has been under the Ministry of Interior. During the process of creating the population register, two laws on migration control measures came into force: in 1992, the law “On the Entry and Residence of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons in the Republic of Latvia” and, in 1993, the law “On the Procedure of Issuing Entry Visas and Control of Persons Crossing the Border in the Republic of Latvia” (PMLP 2015a). Just after regaining independence, a number of industrial sites welcomed employees from former Soviet countries offering work and accommodation, thus creating dissatisfaction among locals. This created the necessity to stop the flow using immigration policy as a tool. 

After the regaining of independence, the target for Latvia was the European Union. The process of legislation collation started in 1998. The new Law of Immigration came into force 1 May 2003 and was developed according to international human rights documents.

The next aim for Latvia was to become part of the Schengen Agreement and the opening of internal EU borders. Latvia became part of Schengen on December 2007, along with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Malta, Slovakia, and Slovenia.  

From 1996 to 2015, the responsible service was called the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs. Since 1998, there has been a Refugee Affairs Centre within the Office, which deals with applications for refugee status. In 2010, functions of the Office expanded as the Naturalisation Board was incorporated. Thus it is the only institution dealing with issues related to naturalisation and/or the loss of the citizenship. 

There are several functions the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs performs pursuant to the laws and regulatory enactments in force in Latvia:

  • Maintenance of the Population Register;
  • Issuance of identification and travel documents;
  • Visa issuance for entry into the Republic of Latvia and crossing its territory;
  • Developing and implementing repatriation policy;
  • Developing and implementing asylum policy;
  • Determination of legal status of persons and naturalisation
    • Determining persons belonging to the totality of Latvian citizens, Latvian non-citizens, or stateless persons;
  • Implementing migration policy
    • Participate in conducting research related to migration issues;
    • Cooperate with international organisations, migration services in other countries, participate in various related events;
    • Analyse the experiences of Latvia and other countries in solving migration issues (PMLP 2015a).

The following laws and regulatory enactments regulate the activities of the Citizenship and Migration Affairs office: 

  • Law on Citizenship
  • Population Registry Law
  • Voter Registry Law
  • Repatriation Act
  • Asylum Law
  • The Law on the Status of Former USSR Citizens who do not have Latvian or other country citizenship
  • Immigration Law
  • Stateless Persons Act
  • Identity Documents Act
  • The law "On the protection of a deceased human body and human tissues and organs for use in medicine"
  • Declaration of Residence Act
  • Law on the Status of a Long-term Resident of the European Community in the Republic of Latvia.

However, the main legal acts regulating the area are the Immigration Law, Asylum Law, and the Law on the Status of a Long-Term Residents of the European Community in the Republic of Latvia.

The Immigration Law and related regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers determine the procedures for:

  • Entry;
  • Residence;
  • Transit;
  • Exit and detention of third-country nationals;
  • The temporary custody of third-country nationals in Latvia.

The Asylum Law and regulations of the Cabinet of Ministers ensure the:

  • Rights of persons to receive asylum in Latvia;
  • Refugee status;
  • Temporary protection or alternative status. 

The Law on the Status of Permanent Residents of the European Community in the Republic of Latvia determines the procedures for:

  • Granting and withdrawing the status of long-term residency of the European Community in the Republic of Latvia concerning the status of third-country nationals who are long-term residents of a Member State (Law on the Status of Long-term Residents).

There are number of institutions in Latvia working in the field of migration issues: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Welfare, the Ministry of Economics, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Culture, the Ombudsman, security services, and regional municipalities. Other policies relating to migration policy are employment policy, with the main focus of attracting highly-qualified employees, and education policy, as it is essential to attract international students to Latvia, where the necessity raises from the local demographic situation. 

Additionally, integration policy also relates to migration issues (EMN 2011), however, this has not been a priority in Latvia. The institution responsible is the Ministry of Culture. There is governmental approval for the valid policy document, “The Guidelines on National Identity, Civil Society and Integration Policy 2012 - 2018”, since 2011. It aims to strengthen and unite the nation of Latvia through language, culture, national identity, European democratic values, and cultural space. Societal integration is defined as the social inclusion of all people living in Latvia regardless of ethnicity and self-identification background. The Education Law allows third-country nationals to take part in mandatory education in Latvia and guarantees access to education to asylum seekers. Attracting foreign students based on education policy is very important for the sustainability of the Latvian higher education system. Welcoming foreign students is important for several reasons: Firstly, the number of foreign students compensates for low local student population numbers. Secondly, they are an important source of income for both private and public higher education institutions. Thirdly, they enrich the academic environment.

Latvia is still in the process of defining a strategy towards immigrants. The economic development plan is targeted at achieving rapid economic growth in next 15 years, but that requires a large workforce which, due to demographic trends in the country, cannot be achieved without an immigrant workforce. The labour market in Latvia could facilitate 200,000 available job vacancies by 2030, which would partially need to be filled with workers from other countries and achieved with a selective employment-based immigration policy (Mangule and Akule 2014). Even though Latvia is not recognised for being welcoming to immigrants, it aims to receive highly-skilled migrants in order to fill possible vacancies, thus employment policy must implement an appropriate migration policy (EMN 2011). 

The main reasons for acquiring a temporary residence permit in Latvia are family reunification, employment (workers and qualified workers), investment (in real estate, company, in credit institution), studies, or refugees or persons with alternative status. Persons with a temporary residency permit have limited access to healthcare, legal and social assistance, and unemployment benefits. Persons with a permanent residency permit receive the same healthcare services and unemployment benefits as non-citizens of Latvia and, according to the law, non-citizens of Latvia are considered third-country nationals (PMLP 2015a). Latvian legislation stipulates that immigrants need to have minimum financial resources to acquire a residence permit – for employment-based immigrants (a minimum of 716€ gross per month), for immigrants willing to engage in business activities (1,432€) (Mangule and Akule 2014). In April 2012, a new form of personal identification was introduced – an identity card, which means that residence permits are also issued in ID card format.
In order to promote economic development, the Ministry of Economics introduced the ‘One stop agency principle’ under the Plan for the Impovement of the Environment of the Entrepreneursip 2009. It aims to improve the procedure for work invitations, receiving work permits, and residence permits allowing to individuals to carry out these activities within the framework of one institution and one visit (EMN 2011).

Naturalisation policies

The legal basis for the naturalisation process in Latvia lies in the Law of Citizenship. Due to changes in the territory of Latvia over time, issues of citizenship and naturalisation have been among the most discussed issues on the political stage. Several periods can be recognised in the whole process. Latvia was one of the socialist countries and was part of USSR from 1940 to 1941 and 1944 to 1990. 

Since 1991, the Republic of Latvia is an independent country recognised by most countries worldwide. At the time of independence, Latvians constituted only about 52 % of the population, while other citizens with Russian or other non-Latvian origin comprised 48 % of the population. This was a source of insecurity concerning the Latvian state and identity. Around 30 % of the total population, or 673,398 people, were left with undetermined status due to citizenship policies based on jus sanguinis. Due to the fact that there were so many persons without determined status the decision was made to create a specific category for those persons, namely so called non-citizens of Latvia (Kruma 2013). In early 90s, many of the former residents of Latvia who emigrated were Russian military personnel and their families.

In general, the requirements for naturalisation are not complicated. The main problem just after regaining independence and even now concerns groups of persons who, due to their characteristics, are excluded from this possibility. Those are mainly persons who were involved in political and repressive structures during the Soviet period in Latvia. The naturalisation process for children of non-citizens and stateless persons follows a specified procedure. 

The new status of the country required setting regulations in all fields, and the matter of citizenship and migration issues have always been issues of discussion. The Law of Citizenship was accepted in 1994 despite the number of complaints from both non-citizens and opposition parties. The main reproaches were about the limited number of non-citizens allowed to apply, the slow process of naturalisation, and legal contradictions with international agreements. An amendment of the Law of Citizenship was accepted in 1998. After 1998, the number of non-citizens applying for citizenship increased. However, there were complaints that the examination for naturalisation was too difficult. In spite of that, more and more Russians were granted citizenship. The reform in 2013 liberalised dual citizenship policy and eased citizenship acquisition for non-citizen children.

Naturalisation policy
The 1922 Constitution of Latvia was renewed on 21 August 1991 and was instituted in July 1993. After governmental elections, the power structure system of the government, stipulated by the 1922 Constitution, was renewed. A working group was established in order to develop a new conception of citizenship. A draft citizenship law was developed. In October 1991, the Supreme Court adopted the decision “On the Renewal of the Rights of Republic of Latvia Citizens and the Basic Regulations for Naturalisation”. According to it, a Latvian citizen includes the following groups: 

  • Persons who were citizens of the Republic of Latvia on 17 June 1940, along with their descendants, who at the time of the passing of the decision live in Latvia and register by 1 July 1992. 
  • Persons who were citizens of the Republic of Latvia on 17 June 1940, and their descendants, if they did not reside in Latvia or were citizens of another state and had submitted an expatriation permit.
  • Persons born and residing in Latvia if their parents are unknown (Ziemele, 1998).

Latvians residing in western countries also gained the right to dual citizenship. This regulation did not give citizenship rights to about 40,000 Latvians from Russia who moved to Latvia after 1940 (Bleiere et al. 2006).

The Citizenship Law was adopted on 22 July 1994. Initially it was passed on 21 June 1994 but received criticism from the Organisation of Security and Corporation in Europe and Russia about the embedded regulation on the naturalisation quota – 0.1 % of the number of existing citizens per year. The law was refused to proclaim. In this version of the law, quotas were removed but the ‘window system’ was introduced. This means that every year people of a certain age would have the right to submit an application for naturalisation. According to the law, citizens of Latvia were recognised as those who were citizens before the occupation and their descendants, naturalised citizens, and a few other categories. Other permanent residents who had registered with the Register of Residents had the right to apply for the citizenship and naturalise.  

The law was slightly amended in 1995, strongly following the jus sanguinis principle. The amendments allowed a few more groups of people to qualify for citizenship such as Latvians and Livs (indigenous group of Finno-Ugric descent settled in region around the Baltic Sea) residing in Latvia and not holding another citizenship, women who lost citizenship upon marriage, orphans, and persons who completed their educations in schools with Latvian as a language of instruction (Kruma, 2015). Children could acquire Latvian citizenship if at least one parent had Latvian citizenship and the parents mutually agreed upon this. The law allowed naturalisation for persons who had resided in Latvia for more than five years, had a regular income, were proficient in the Latvian language, were familiar with the Constitution, and swore an oath of loyalty (Bleiere et al. 2006).

Naturalisation began with the establishment of the Naturalisation Board, which started operating on 1 February 1995. Since then, the Board has received 143,312 applications for naturalisation from 156,644 persons. Of these applicants, 143,239 have been successful, including 14,391 under-aged children who naturalised along with their parents (PMLP 2015).

Despite the fact that there were high numbers of possible citizens, the actual number of applications for naturalisation in the period between 1995 and 1998 was low, as only 15,853 persons applied and 11,431 of those received citizenship (PMLPb 2015). At that time, low interest in submitting applications was explained by the lack of language knowledge, a strategy of avoidance of obligatory military service, easy access to Russian visas for Latvian non-citizens, disappointment with not having Latvian citizenship automatically, and the general identity crisis after the collapse of the USSR (Kruma 2015). Due to the negative perception of immigrants in Latvia, many chose to receive Russian citizenship, be categorised as a non-citizen, or become a citizen of other country rather than go through the complicated process of naturalisation.  

The next amendment to the citizenship law took place in 1998 under pressure from the European Union and NATO. International partners requested to facilitate the naturalisation of USSR immigrants in Latvia as their undetermined status was viewed as a threat to social cohesion and internal stability, which could lead to external influence. The amendments to the law repealed the window system and allowed children born in Latvia after 21 August 1991, whose parents were stateless persons or non-citizens, to receive citizenship (Kruma 2015). Latvia received important assistance from western countries and international organisations with the main issues relating to increasing the number of applicants for the naturalisation process. The main attention was paid to language training. It resulted in number of published study materials, campaigns, and projects on naturalisation.

The last amendments to the citizenship law took place in 2013 and further allowed for dual citizenship. Dual citizenship is permitted for the following countries: EU, EFTA, and NATO countries, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, and countries with which Latvia has concluded an international agreement. Dual citizenship is also allowed if a person acquired another citizenship in cases of marriage (ex lege) or as a result of adoption. Dual citizenship is also permitted in cases where a person acquired citizenship after 1 October 2013, in cases when citizenship is acquired by Latvians and Livs after 1 October 2013, and in cases of naturalisation (Citizenship Law). In cases in which a Latvian citizen is also a citizen of another state, he or she would be considered solely a Latvian citizen in relation with Latvia (Kruma 2015). 

According to the Citizenship Law, those who are citizens of Latvia include:

  • Persons who were citizens on the date of occupation and their descendants if they register as citizens by 1 October 2013, or persons who had the right to register according to the law in force before 1 October 2013;
  • Persons born to parents (one or both) who are Latvian citizens;
  • Latvians and Livs whose ancestors from 1881 or later have permanently resided in Latvia as it existed until 17 June 1940. 
  • Must prove knowledge of Latvian. 
  • Submit documentary evidence of belonging to the constituent national or autochthonous population or provide reasons why such evidence cannot be submitted. 
  • Women who permanently reside in Latvia and lost their citizenship according to the Citizenship Law of 1919 as well as their descendants.
  • Children who are found in the territory of Latvia whose parents are unknown or children left without parental care, except for a child whose parents’ custody rights have been suspended.
  • Orphans who are in extra-familial care in Latvia (Citizenship Law).

In addition to the general liberalisation of dual citizenship policy, the government inserted a specific article in relation to Latvian exiles and their descendants. Before the amendments, the Transitional Regulations of the Citizenship Law provided that those Latvian citizens and their descendants who, during the period from 17 June 1940 until 4 May 1990, left Latvia as refugees or were deported could register as Latvian citizens until 1 July 1995. Dual citizenship for individuals who went abroad during the occupation is not illegal. However, it was legitimate to require registration and to set a deadline for keeping dual citizenship. The amendments to the Citizenship Law provide that if a person who was a Latvian citizen on 17 June 1940, or a descendant of such a person, submits a certification of the fact that, from 17 June 1940 until 4 May 1990, he or she left Latvia owing to the Russian or German occupation or because he or she had been deported, and due to the referred to reasons had not returned to Latvia for permanent residence until 4 May 1990, such a person and their descendants shall retain the right to register as Latvian citizens. The same applies in cases of descendants born until 1 October 2014. These persons can become dual citizens (Kruma 2015).

According to the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, the naturalisation rate in past years has been moderately low. The only increase is observed among third-country nationals applying for Latvian citizenship. A survey among non-citizens of Latvia conducted by the agency revealed possible push and pull factors for acquiring Latvian citizenship. Results suggest that non-citizen status allows free travel to CIS countries and these persons expect an easement of the naturalisation procedure. The general opinion of Latvian non-citizens is that they should be granted nationality automatically (EMN 2013). 

Several internal and external factors have a significant influence on the naturalisation intensity, for example, the socioeconomic situation in the country, political debates, the reflection of citizenship and integration issues in media, and the visa-free regime with Russia for non-citizens. The number of naturalised persons in 2014 was lower than expected. From an expected 2,300 persons, only 939 were granted citizenship. This is mainly explained by the decrease in non-citizen interest in obtaining Latvian citizenship. Previous studies at OCMA shows that non-citizens have no practical use for Latvian citizenship, thus applying for citizenship and taking the exam is an unnecessary encumbrance. 

According to the latest amendments, dual citizenship is allowed for citizens of:

  • European Union Member States
  • European Free Trade Association Member States
  • NATO countries
  • The Commonwealth of Australia, The Federative Republic of Brazil, New Zealand
  • Countries with which Latvia has an agreement on the recognition of dual citizenship
  • Countries not mentioned above if a Latvian citizen has received permission from Cabinet of Ministers to retain Latvian citizenship according to important governmental interests. 

Permanent residents who have resided  in Latvia for ten years qualify for citizenship after going through the process of naturalisation. On the other hand, this is not appealing for third-country nationals as they in most cases would need to renounce their own citizenship if their countries are not listed above. 

Process of naturalisation
One of the functions of OCMA is to provide information on naturalisation through informative events, and detailed information is available on the website of the agency (www.pmlp.gov.lv). The application for naturalisation is available either online http://likumi.lv/doc.php?id=260437 in Latvian, Russian, and English or in regional branches.  Preparation for the examination requires studying the Latvian language, Latvian history, the Constitution, and anthem.

The procedure of naturalisation is stated in the ‘Procedures for the Receipt and Examination of Applications for Naturalisation’ regulation adopted on 5 July 2011. The applicant should submit a completed application form, display valid ID or passport, proof of legal income -a document testifying that State duty is paid or a document on exemption from payment- and a photo. Children have a more detailed procedure for document preparation. In the case that an applicant is a non-citizen of Latvia or a stateless person the applicant has to sign a confirmation that he/she is not a citizen of another state and sign a pledge to Latvia (PMLP 2015b).

Knowledge of the Latvian language is one of the most important parts of the examination. However there are exceptions, for example, for persons who have graduated basic, secondary, or higher education in the Latvian language are exempted from the language exam. Also persons who have reached 65 years of age are exempted from the written part of the exam. The procedure for the examination is regulated by ‘The Examination of Knowledge of Latvian and the Knowledge of the Fundamental Principles of the Constitution, the Text of the National Anthem and the History of Latvia According to Citizenship Law’. Regular State duty for naturalisation is 28.46€ and there are also some exceptions with a reduced fee (PMLP 2014).

After passing the examination, the applicant is listed in the draft decree of the Cabinet of Ministers on ‘Admission to Latvian Citizenship on Basis of the Naturalisation Procedure’. A person becomes a citizen of Latvia after the decree of the Cabinet of Ministers becomes effective (Kruma 2013). 

There are several cases in which the outcome of the naturalisation process is negative:

  • An applicant has not submitted all documents;
  • The information submitted does not correspond to the requirements of the Citizenship Law;
  • The applicant refuses to sign the pledge;
  • The applicant has not observed provisions concerning children below the age of 15;
  • An applicant has not given up another citizenship (PMLP 2014).

However, naturalisation can be refused if:

  • An applicant has submitted incorrect information;
  • The legal grounds for naturalisation are not valid or do not exist;
  • An applicant has violated the procedure of the naturalisation exams (Kruma 2013).

According to the Law, the naturalisation procedure can take a maximum length of one year after the submission of all documents.


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Elina Apsite-Berina
University of Latvia

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2015.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2015): Policy: "Migration Policies: Latvia" (Information provided by Elina Apsite-Berina). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].