At the end of 1999, about 2,900 asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection were living in Belarus. These included 190 individuals granted refugee status by the Belarusan Committee on Migration, 541 asylum seekers with pending cases, and 2,175 asylum seekers – mostly from outside the former Soviet Union – who were registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but not with Belarusan authorities.

During the year, 773 persons filed asylum applications. The majority came from Afghanistan (413), followed by Russia (71), Tajikistan (47), Azerbaijan (46), and Georgia (41). UNHCR also registered 119 asylum seekers in 1999. How many of these also filed asylum applications with Belarusan authorities was unclear.

The Belarusan Committee on Migration issued 238 decisions on the merits of cases in 1999, granting 190 applicants refugee status, an 80 percent approval rate. The overwhelming majority of those granted refugee status were Afghans (141). Some 31 Georgians, 12 Tajiks, 3 Azerbaijanis, 2 Ethiopians, and 1 Indian also received refugee status. However, the Committee on Migration closed more cases (510) than it considered on the merits in 1999.

This high 1999 approval rate overstates Belarus's generosity toward asylum seekers and refugees because the authorities denied many asylum seekers access to the asylum procedure. At the same time, evidence also suggests that most 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 undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in Belarus in 1999 ran as high as 200,000.

Asylum Procedure

Belarus has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol. However, Belarus did adopt its domestic "Law on Refugees" in February 1995, which mirrors the Refugee Convention in some respects, but also denies many applicants access to the asylum procedure. In June 1999, the Belarusan National Assembly passed several amendments to the Law on Refugees that have mixed results for asylum seekers and refugees. Belarus also adopted a new immigration law in December 1998 (effective since July 1999) and passed several immigration decrees in 1999 that do not account for the special circumstances of refugees and asylum seekers.

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. In September, the government approved a list of safe third countries that includes all countries bordering Belarus. 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 1999, UNHCR reported that Belarusan authorities strictly applied the safe third country rule (in most cases with respect to Russia), refusing to allow most would-be asylum seekers to file asylum applications.

Although the amended Law on Refugees explicitly states that asylum seekers should not be penalized for illegal entry, it also stipulates that undocumented asylum seekers have only 24 hours after entering Belarus to register their asylum claims with the authorities. Apart from those who can demonstrate that exceptional circumstances (not specified in the law) prevented them from promptly applying, asylum seekers who do not meet the deadline are not permitted to apply for asylum. The new law also empowers the authorities to refuse to receive asylum applications from those whose cases they deem manifestly unfounded. The authorities sometimes only issue oral rejections. Without a written refusal, the rejected applicants have no way to appeal negative decisions.

The June 1999 asylum amendments also define the roles of government agencies involved in the refugee status determination procedure. Under the law, asylum seekers register with one of the six regional migration services, which forwards admissible applications to the Committee on Migration for status determinations.

Registered asylum seekers are eligible for social services, health care, and a one time modest cash allowance. According to the law, 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 another five years.

The Propiska System

Belarus made slight progress toward removing the restrictions of the age-old Soviet internal registration system (propiska) in July when the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional to require a propiska to obtain a work permit. Nevertheless, other aspects of the propiska system remained in force throughout 1999, preventing many recognized refugees from obtaining residence permits, housing, health care, and social services.

To obtain a propiska, refugees must show that a family or organization will provide them with housing. The acute housing shortage in Belarus made such a guarantee difficult to obtain. Bureaucratic difficulties in acquiring even a temporary propiska forced the majority of asylum seekers and refuges to rent apartments illegally. Police sometimes harassed and fined asylum seekers and refugees who did not have propiskas or residence permits. Most, nevertheless, did obtain primary education and health care.

Human Rights Violations

Democratization slid further backwards in Belarus during 1999, as President Alexander Lukashenko continued to consolidate his position in power through authoritarian tactics. Lukashenko extended his term in office through a controversial referendum in November 1996, which caused many to view his government as illegitimate. This led Lukashenko to crack down on perceived opponents, including demonstrators, those in civil society, and the independent media.

Human Rights Watch reported that three prominent opponents of the government "disappeared" in 1999, with strong suggestions of state security services involvement. In recent years, the political situation in Belarus caused some Belarusans to seek asylum abroad.


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