United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Belarus, 1 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8d32c.html [accessed 30 July 2016]
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At the end of 1997, about 33,500 asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection were in Belarus. These included 50 individuals granted refugee status during the year, 31,249 asylum seekers from the successor states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) who were registered with the Belarusan Committee on Migration (formerly the State Migration Service), and approximately 2,300 asylum seekers, mostly from outside the FSU, who were registered with UNHCR. However, government and UNHCR figures might significantly understate the number of individuals in need of protection in Belarus because many would-be asylum seekers reportedly do not to register, choosing instead to live in the country illegally. Estimates on the number of undocumented migrants in, and transiting through, Belarus range from 150,000 to 300,000. With the exception of asylum seekers from Georgia and Tajikistan, asylum seekers from FSU successor states registered with the Belarusan government but rarely with UNHCR. Conversely, asylum seekers from outside the FSU registered with UNHCR but less often with the Belarusan government. Some 359 asylum seekers registered with UNHCR during the year, the largest numbers coming from Georgia and Afghanistan. It is unclear how many asylum seekers registered with the Committee on Migration during 1997. Although Belarus has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol, it made some progress toward establishing a refugee status determination procedure during 1997, for the first time granting refugee status to 50 individuals, including 38 Afghans and 12 Ethiopians. Belarus rejected two applicants from Afghanistan, and four applications remained pending at year's end. Nevertheless, the Committee on Migration reportedly only accepted these applications for consideration on an exceptional basis because the applicants had been in Belarus for a particularly long time. The refugee status determination procedure, as mandated by the February 1995 law "On Refugees," remained irrelevant for the vast majority of asylum seekers during 1997. The Committee on Migration, for example, would not accept the applications of asylum seekers from other member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). FSU citizens and their descendants who left, or were forcibly deported from, Belarus but are able to demonstrate permanent residency in Belarus at some time before November 12, 1991 (the date the law on citizenship entered into force) are eligible for citizenship Although the Belarusan law "On Refugees" provides that recognized refugees should be accorded a residence permit (propiska), reportedly none of the 50 individuals granted refugee status during 1997 had received a propiska 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 is reportedly very difficult to obtain. The majority of asylum seekers rent apartments illegally because of the bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining even a temporary propiska. The government nevertheless reportedly grants access to health care facilities and schools to asylum seekers with UNHCR registration documents. Political Developments The process of democratization continued to move backward in Belarus during 1997. After dissolving the parliament in November 1996 by invoking a constitutional referendum viewed by most observers as illegitimate, President Alexander Lukashenko continued to consolidate his power during 1997. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in August that Lukashenko's government had launched a concerted effort to crush all aspects of civil society by severely restricting the media and freedom of expression, systematically harassing independent-minded civic organizations, and squelching public demonstrations and other forms of public protest. The political situation has sparked concern in neighboring countries that the number of Belarusans crossing the border in search of asylum might increase. At least ten Belarusans were granted asylum in other Eastern European countries during 1997.