U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Belarus
|Publisher||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants|
|Publication Date||20 June 2001|
|Cite as||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Belarus , 20 June 2001, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3b31e15ec.html [accessed 24 October 2016]|
|Disclaimer||This 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 2000, more than 3,200 asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection were living in Belarus. These included 200 individuals granted refugee status by the Belarusan Committee on Migration during the year, 411 asylum seekers with pending cases, 103 persons registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for potential resettlement to other countries, and 2,490 persons – mostly from outside the former Soviet Union, including 1,910 from Afghanistan – who were registered with UNHCR but not with Belarusan authorities.
During the year, 471 persons filed asylum applications with the Committee on Migration. The majority came from Afghanistan (229), followed by Chechnya in the Russian Federation (49), Tajikistan (40), Georgia (33), and Azerbaijan (25).
Since it began hearing cases in 1997, the Committee on Migration has granted refugee status to 458 persons. In 2000, the Committee issued 242 decisions on the merits of cases, granting 200 applicants refugee status, an 82 percent approval rate. The majority of those granted refugee status during the year were Afghans (171). Smaller numbers of Azeris (11), Georgians (4), Iranians (5), and others also received refugee status.
The 82 percent approval rate is deceptive, however, because it excludes asylum seekers whom the Committee rejected at the registration phase, reportedly some 60 percent more than it considered on the merits in 2000.
At the same time, evidence also suggests that some asylum seekers did not intend to remain in Belarus, but instead viewed it as a country of transit to countries farther west. Estimates of the number of undocumented migrants in Belarus in 2000 ran between 150,000 and 200,000.
During 2000, the political situation in Belarus contributed to more than 2,300 Belarusans seeking asylum abroad, up from about 1,300 in 1999.
Although Belarus has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol, the government adopted a national "Law on Refugees" in February 1995. Since 1997, the government has conducted refugee status determinations, improving the procedure every year with the help of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and UNHCR.
Under the law, registered asylum seekers are eligible for free social services, health care, and a one-time modest cash allowance. Recognized refugees have the same economic and social rights as citizens. Refugee status is granted for a three-year period, which can be extended for up to another five years if the situation in the country of origin remains unchanged.
During the year, the Belarusan National Assembly implemented amendments to the Law on Refugees, designed, in part, to improve the asylum system. In addition, the Belarusan Movement of Medical Workers, an NGO, set up a UNHCR-funded Refugee Counseling Service (RCS) in Minsk and Vitebsk to guide and monitor asylum seekers' movement through the status determination process.
The RCS receives newly arrived asylum seekers (who are registered as "newcomers") and provides them legal services, information, and referrals to the Committee on Migration. It directs asylum seekers rejected at the registration phase or denied on the merits of their cases back to UNHCR for consideration for resettlement to other countries (at which point they are registered as "applicants"). During the year, the RCS registered 193 "applicants" (who had been rejected by the Committee) through this new system, including 103 Afghans and 68 Chechens from the war-torn republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation.
Despite notable progress, many asylum seekers and bona fide refugees remained barred from access to the asylum procedure, reportedly living in the country without documentation.
The amended refugee law contains a "safe third country" provision that denies an asylum hearing to asylum seekers who have traveled through countries where they ostensibly could have requested asylum. The government has since approved a list of safe third countries that includes all countries bordering Belarus – Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The safe third country law applies to asylum seekers as a group, not allowing individual asylum seekers to rebut the presumption of safety in the third country to which they are to be returned. During 2000, Belarusan authorities strictly applied the safe third country rule (in most cases with respect to transit through Russia), refusing to allow most would-be asylum seekers to file asylum applications.
As a result, ethnic Chechens fleeing the war in Russia were barred from the asylum process. During 2000, all Chechens who registered with the Committee on Migration were subsequently denied asylum.
Although the amended Law on Refugees explicitly states that asylum seekers should not be penalized for illegal entry, it also grants undocumented asylum seekers only 24 hours after entering Belarus to register their asylum claims with the authorities. Apart from those who can demonstrate that exceptional circumstances prevented them from applying within 24 hours, asylum seekers who do not meet the deadline are rejected at the registration phase. The law also allows the authorities to reject asylum applications from persons whose cases they deem "manifestly unfounded."
Under the law, asylum seekers must register with one of the six regional migration services, which forwards admissible applications to the Committee on Migration for status determinations. During 2000, however, the regional migration service in the capital, Minsk, routinely refused to accept new asylum applications, reportedly instructing asylum seekers to travel to other regions to register their claims.
The Propiska System
The age-old Soviet internal registration (propiska) system remained in force in Belarus throughout the year, preventing many asylum seekers and refugees from obtaining residence permits, housing, and legal employment. Despite a 1999 Constitutional Court ruling declaring propiskas for employment unconstitutional, evidence suggested that the ruling had not been implemented at the local level at year's end.
To obtain a propiska, refugees must show a legal contract with a landlord and an agreement signed by all of the adults in the household. However, an acute housing shortage – particularly in Minsk – made such a guarantee hard to obtain. Bureaucratic difficulties in acquiring even a temporary propiska forced some asylum seekers and refuges to rent apartments illegally.
For those willing to move outside of Minsk, the government offered some housing assistance and residence permits. In one project, UNHCR and local authorities renovated two dormitories to encourage 29 refugees to settle outside of Minsk. However, the free shelter did not attract many refugees. UNHCR said that most refugees "preferred to stay in Minsk where they had better economic opportunities and the support of their communities."
At year's end, about 300 recognized refugees had obtained residence permits, according to UNHCR.