War and discrimination

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Don’t the benefits for Ukrainian war refugees discriminate against Lithuanians?

As more and more Ukrainians fleeing the war come to Lithuania, Lithuanian business, cultural, scientific and other institutions offer them various benefits – discounts, tickets to events, free classes for children, free studies, scholarships for higher education students and others. The Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson has been receiving more and more inquiries about whether granting such benefits to Ukrainians is not considered discrimination against Lithuanian citizens. The Service’s lawyer replies that there is no discrimination here.

How is discrimination determined?

People have already contacted the Office about possible discrimination in offers of free higher education for Ukrainians or free intercity train travel.
The Law on Equal Opportunities obliges Lithuanian state and municipal institutions, educational institutions, as well as service providers and sellers of goods, to ensure equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender, race, nationality, citizenship, language, origin, social status, religion, beliefs or opinions, age, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, religion.
However, Karolis Čepas, Legal Adviser to the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, points out that establishing the presence or absence of discrimination requires comparing a number of people with different identities and assessing whether they are being treated equally in the same or similar circumstances.
“It is very important to establish whether the persons being compared are in similar, comparable circumstances,” he stresses. – In the case of Ukrainian war refugees, no comparison is possible. People arrive without the bare essentials, without a place to live once they arrive, and children and adults with traumatic experiences may have very specific needs. We cannot compare people fleeing war with other people, i.e. those who have not fled war. As the circumstances are not comparable, different conditions, such as preferences, do not constitute discrimination”.

It’s not only Ukrainians who are fleeing the war in Ukraine

It is important to note that, for the first time in the EU since its adoption (2001), the Temporary Protection Directive was activated on 4 March, 2022 due to a massive influx of asylum seekers. According to the decision of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, from 4 March, all persons who have fled or have been displaced from Ukraine since 24 February as a result of the military Russian aggression, who are its citizens or who had a permanent residence permit, will be granted temporary protection for one year. Such temporary protection is granted to individuals for a limited period of time and may be renewed.
K. Čepas makes another point: “It can be noted that the benefits discussed are not only for Ukrainian citizens, but also for other persons who have fled the Russian military aggression against Ukraine and who were living in Ukraine. Public or business bodies offering incentives or otherwise seeking to help should take note. If you have any questions about discrimination in this area, please contact the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, and we will assess the specific situations.”

What if Russian speakers are bullied at school?

Increased anxiety in society is reflected in the behavior of our children. The Office of the Ombudsman for Equal Opportunities and other institutions have been receiving a number of calls from parents, teachers, and heads of educational establishments, who report isolated cases of hatred towards children speaking other languages. Experts say action is needed to prevent children from bullying their Russian-speaking peers or peers of other nationalities: recognizing bullying on the basis of nationality, tackling stereotypes and taking preventive measures.

Why children bully

Gabrielė Lesnickaitė, a second-grade teacher at Taškius, a private science and arts school, says bullying can happen for several reasons:
• Some children bully others because they think it will make them “cool”;
• Others bully because they want to feel stronger and superior to weaker children;
• Children may also bully because they have been bullied in the past and want to get even;
• Sometimes those who bully just feel really bad and are trying to make themselves feel better by doing so;
• There may be times when a child finds themselves in an environment where this is the way they communicate.
“That’s why it’s so important to have regular conversations with children about how to stop bullying and why it is unacceptable. Age is not relevant to bullying. Look around you, because bullying can be perpetrated by adults too. The most important thing is that we all understand why this is hurtful and how we can do it without hurting each other. Once we understand what behavior can hurt others, we can learn to control and stop it,” she says.

It’s important to see and react

Vilma Gabrieliūtė, Head of the Equal Opportunities Integration Group at the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, encourages adults to observe their own behavior, as children often repeat what they see their parents, educators and politicians doing or saying.
“Children need to be told that the war in Ukraine was started by the Russian government and President Putin. It is important for children to understand that the aggressor is to blame, not the Russian nationality, and to remind them that there are Russians and Belarusians in Lithuania who condemn aggression. Nationality is a person’s identity. Identity-based bullying is different from normal bullying because it no longer hurts one person, but everyone associated with that identity: loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues. Whether it’s a verbal comment, a derogatory note on the blackboard or jokes during breaks, they offend everyone, especially Russian speakers and people of Russian nationality. The impact of nationality-based bullying is broader because it is about identity, and we cannot change it,” – explained V. Gabrieliūtė.
She believes that bullying among children needs to be identified as soon as possible. “Children use nicknames, make all sorts of comments about their peers, and associate Russian-speakers with abusers. Any comments intended to humiliate a person because of their identity must be identifiable, because only if they are identifiable can they be responded to.”

It is important to always react

Both interlocutors unanimously agree that the mechanisms to prevent bullying and violence in educational institutions are currently working quite well.
“It is important for schools to remember that the same tools used to prevent bullying and violence are also used to tackle bullying based on nationality, religion, gender, etc. In other words, on identity. It is important that the school community is able to identify and respond immediately to humiliating behavior based on a person’s identity. The responsibility falls on our shoulders as adults, because by recognizing and reacting, we draw a clear line that this behavior is not appropriate. It is noticeable that children only report bullying when they know it will be addressed and they will be protected. If a child has told a teacher and all that has happened is the child is being told “Why are you exaggerating?” or “It’s just a joke”, the next time the child is bullied, he or she is unlikely to turn to adults again. Children need to feel safe and respected in order to come forward, which is why it is so important to build a respectful interpersonal relationship in the school environment,” advises equal opportunities integration expert V. Gabrieliūtė.
“Taškius” teacher G. Lesnickaitė recalled the recent conference “A School Without Bullying” held at their educational institution, “We explained the harm of bullying through engaging activities for children, through acting and games, so that everybody could understand what a person experiencing bullying feels. With the children, we learned that observing bullying is also contributing to bullying, thus increasing everyone’s sense of responsibility and encouraging proactivity. We role-played different situations and tried out ways to stop hurtful behavior.”
She added that the most important advice for those who see bullying happening is to react quickly and stop the bullying. “I understand that nowadays we are all in a hurry, running around and forget to stop and just talk. But the best advice for everyone is to talk to each other. It’s important to show that bullying never goes far and that we hurt not only the other person, but also ourselves,” says the teacher.
G. Lesnickaite also advises:
• giving children time to talk, analyses and understand for themselves why bullying needs to stop;
• letting children understand how the child being bullied feels and why we need to stop it;
• learning to look deeply into ourselves, into who we are, how we behave when we are angry or frustrated;
• learning to calm your feelings, which will make life so much more beautiful and bright.

Bullying prevention

The best way to tackle bullying is to keep prevention activities in schools. Research on the effectiveness of prevention programs shows that bullying can only be reduced through prevention programs such as programs in Great Britain, which have reduced bullying by 20-80% and in Norway by up to 50%.
However, in the opinion of the expert of the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, a bullying prevention program alone is not enough. “Already in pre-school and primary education, a strong emphasis should be placed on fostering the diversity of identities. Now is a good time to give children a lesson on what makes up a person’s identity, to see how diverse we are in terms of nationality, language and religion, and to discuss how to react when you see someone being humiliated or otherwise harmed because of their background, language or nationality. The general education curriculum must include more space for intercultural competence, including the prevention of hate speech. It is up to us to raise a generation that is empathetic, indifferent and open to diversity”, says V. Gabrieliūtė.

How to prepare for the recruitment of foreigners and people fleeing war?

Vilma Gabrieliūtė, Head of the Equal Opportunities Integration Griup at the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, encourages companies employing foreigners to keep in mind the principles of creating an inclusive organization, to consider the language of internal communication, how meetings will be organized, and to develop a policy to ensure a safe and respectful working environment.

Calls for a distinction between state aggression and nationality

“The hatred that prevails in the public sphere spills over into the workplace: russophobic comments can even escalate into fights between colleagues with different opinions. Recently, it has been noticed that Russian-speaking people living in Lithuania who have a non-Lithuanian name and surname do not feel safe in their workplaces – the anger of colleagues, and sometimes even of clients, is directed towards them. It should be remembered that people of different nationalities, speaking Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and other languages, are also fleeing the war in Ukraine”, says V. Gabrieliūtė.
In her view, it is now particularly important for companies and organisations to clearly draw the line that any comments that demean people on the basis of their nationality, origin or language are not tolerated: “Organisations need to communicate clearly within their organization what behavior is inappropriate in the workplace. All employees need to feel safe and to work in a respectful environment.”

Emotional support is important

She says that anyone who is feeling anxious at the moment, whose emotional state is not stable because of the times, can be understood.
“Many people go through a full range of emotions, and sometimes a difficulty at work or in their personal life can result in a less than adequate reaction. Organisations have just had to cope with the challenges of coronavirus, and now there is the huge worry of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Some organisations are already looking for and finding ways to provide emotional support to their employees: they organize training, meetings with specialists on how to avoid drowning in the information flow, how to avoid anxiety-provoking stimuli, and how to express their feelings in a constructive way. Companies now need tools that can help ensure the emotional well-being of their employees”, V. Gabrieliūtė.

It’s easier to accept someone similar to us

V. Gabrieliūtė notes that Lithuanian society is not willing to easily accept people from more distant countries or from a particular religion because of prejudices about other cultures: “Companies wishing to recruit foreigners have to overcome not only bureaucratic challenges, but also negative prejudices about a person’s nationality, origin, religion and other personal identity traits. According to the Institute of Ethnic Studies, Lithuanians have a much more favorable opinion of Ukrainians and Poles compared to Roma, Iraqis and Chechens. There is also a great social distance towards Muslims.”
We find that we show more empathy to people we perceive as more like ourselves. An expert on gender integrating says we know too little about other countries’ cultures.
“Children are not taught about religious diversity in schools, and the curriculum lacks a broader approach to the diversity of peoples, the prevention of stereotypes and the promotion of respect for otherness. The gaps in human rights education are reflected in our attitudes, both among children and adults,” says the expert. In her view, this is why it is so important for organisations to focus on diversity.

Employment practices for foreigners

Integrating foreigners quickly into the workplace is not an easy process, but efforts to create a work environment that is friendly to all do pay off in the long run.
“If an organization has not yet invested in diversity management competences, it is likely to face more challenges as diversity increases. Diversity in itself does not add value – value is created if a company is prepared to create an inclusive environment. Diversity management is an ongoing process. It is encouraging when employers organize awareness-raising events and team-building activities to ensure the smooth integration of employees of different nationalities, backgrounds, religions and languages, so that colleagues can get to know each other better. The Newcomer’s induction pack is also useful, providing key information in several languages,” explains V. Gabrieliūtė.
An equal opportunities integration expert says there are many questions that companies need to answer when they are looking to recruit foreigners:
• Do we have a program in place for the introduction and adaptation of foreigners?
• Which language(s) will we use for internal company communication?
• What measures will be needed to adapt the workplace for non-Lithuanian speaking workers?
• Are flexible working arrangements available to employees?
• Do we have a room of silence that could be used for prayer?
• Do we have a Safe and respectful working environment inventory to ensure that every worker can feel dignified?
It stresses that all initiatives promoting inclusion are welcome. Sometimes it is enough to consider the practicalities, to prepare memos for staff in English, Russian, and now possibly Ukrainian, to adapt the labelling of premises, to “switch” from conventional thinking to a broader one that includes meeting the needs of different groups of people.

It is important not to be afraid to seek expert help

“Organisations that already have a track record of integrating equal opportunities and managing diversity will find it easier to welcome people fleeing war, because they have already considered certain aspects. Feel free to seek advice from those companies or institutions that are already implementing inclusion strategies, and if possible consult equal opportunities experts”, – the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson expert encourages organisations to be proactive in creating an inclusive organization and invites them to follow the Equal Opportunities integration steps prepared by the Office’s experts.
V. Gabrieliūtė emphasizes that effective diversity management not only improves economic results and increases market exclusivity, but also contributes to the improvement of social processes: ‘Of course, when employees feel that they are cared for, their commitment and loyalty to the organization increases, and productivity grows.’

Where to find information and help?

There are several resources and experts available to businesses and organisations that want to prepare properly for the admission of foreign workers and create a safe working environment for all:
• The Lithuanian diversity charter association brings together organisations that can share their experience in implementing equal opportunities principles. She can be contacted for advice and guidance;
• Lygybesplanai.lt discusses the most important issues on how to ensure equal opportunities in organisations and companies;
• The Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson provides advice on mainstreaming equal opportunities and helps organisations to build their competences in this field.