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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Belarus

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Belarus , 1 January 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8c02c.html [accessed 5 December 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 1998, about 16,500 asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection were living in Belarus. These included 79 individuals granted refugee status by the Belarusan Committee on Migration, 521 asylum seekers who were registered or had cases pending with the regional migration services, 2,785 asylum seekers – mostly from outside the former Soviet Union – who were registered with UNHCR, and about 13,100 former Soviet nationals who had not registered with Belarus's regional migration services, but whom UNHCR considered to be potential asylum seekers.

During the year, 421 asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. The largest numbers were from Afghanistan (74 percent), Georgia (11 percent), Tajikistan (4 percent) and Algeria (2.4 percent). Approximately 150 asylum seekers registered with the regional migration services, most of whom were from Afghanistan (56 percent), Georgia (25 percent), and Tajikistan (8.4 percent).

Asylum

Belarus has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol. Instead, Belarus adopted a domestic law "On Refugees" in February 1995, which mirrors the Refugee Convention in some respects, but includes provisions that restrict access to the vast majority of applicants, particularly those originating from former Soviet states.

Barred from access, many bona fide refugees reportedly do not register and live in the country without documentation. Government and UNHCR figures may, therefore, significantly understate the number of individuals in need of protection in Belarus. Estimates of the number of undocumented migrants in, and transiting through, Belarus range from 100,000 to 300,000.

Belarus began implementing the law on refugees in 1997, for the first time granting refugee status to 38 Afghans and 12 Ethiopians – most of whom were long-time residents of Belarus. Under the law, asylum seekers register with the regional migration service, which forwards applications to the Committee on Migration for status determinations. The Committee's willingness to accept new applications was largely untested before 1998. The Committee granted refugee status to 29 persons in 1998 – a 42 percent decrease from 1997.

During the year, Belarus expanded its ability to accept and process asylum applications. By June, asylum seekers could file applications in any of Belarus's six regional migration services, including one city migration service in Minsk. By December 31, the regional migration services had forwarded 144 of 266 asylum applications to the Committee on Migration. At year's end, the Committee had recognized 79 persons – 63 Afghans and 16 Ethiopians – as refugees.

Belarus's new refugee status determination procedure remained irrelevant for the vast majority of asylum seekers in 1998, however. During the year, the regional migration services refused to register approximately 400 asylum applications. Although information on the nationalities of those rejected and the exact reasons for rejection is sparse, UNHCR attributed the rejections (and an even greater number of nonregistrations) largely to a safe third country provision in the law on refugees. Under the provision, Russia – through which almost 90 percent of Belarus's arrivals travel – is considered a safe third country. Consequently, Belarusan migration services refuse to register the asylum claims of persons who transit through Russia.

The Committee on Migration also refuses most applications from asylum seekers from other member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). CIS citizens and their descendants who left, or were forcibly deported from, Belarus but can demonstrate permanent residency in Belarus before November 12, 1991 (the date the law on citizenship entered into force) are eligible for citizenship. Others are not considered for citizenship or, in most cases, asylum. At least 13,100 asylum seekers from former Soviet states – most of whom arrived in Belarus years ago – remain unregistered because the government requires them to apply under the restrictive refugee law.

In March, Belarus signed the CIS agreement on Cooperation in Combatting Illegal Migration. The agreement does not affect registered refugees and asylum seekers. UNHCR expressed concern, however, that refugees who do not register or whose applications are denied under Belarus's restrictive registration practices will be arrested, detained, and returned to countries where they fear persecution.

In December, Belarus's parliament adopted a new immigration law that was unimplemented at year's end. Like the CIS Agreement, the law reportedly will not apply to registered asylum seekers and refugees but contains no exemptions for asylum seekers excluded from the registration process.

The Propiska System

The age-old Soviet internal registration system (propiska) remained in full force in Belarus throughout 1998, preventing many recognized refugees from obtaining residence permits, work authorization, housing, health care, and social services.

Although the law on refugees provides that recognized refugees should be accorded a residence permit through the propiska system, only 21 refugees had received residence permits by year's end. To obtain a propiska, refugees must show that a family or organization will provide them with housing. Given the acute housing shortage in Belarus, such a guarantee was reportedly very difficult to obtain. Bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining even a temporary propiska forced the majority of asylum seekers to rent apartments illegally. Most, nevertheless, were able to obtain primary education and health care.

Political Developments

Democratization slid further backward in Belarus during 1998, as President Alexander Lukashenko continued to consolidate his power through authoritarian tactics.

Human Rights Watch reported in July that the government's campaign to crush all aspects of civil society by restricting freedom of expression, systematically harassing independent-minded civic organizations, and squelching public protest continued unabated. The political situation led several neighboring countries to grant refugee status to Belarusans crossing the border in search of asylum.

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