At the end of 2001, more than 3,100 asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection were living in Belarus. These included 130 individuals granted refugee status by the Belarusan government, 353 asylum seekers with pending cases, 98 persons who had registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) but not with the authorities, and 2,545 persons – mostly from outside the former Soviet Union, including 1,959 from Afghanistan – who were rejected by the Belarusan authorities, but whom UNHCR continues to regard as "applicants." They remain of concern to UNHCR because Belarus lacks a humanitarian status to provide complementary protection to refugees fleeing generalized violence who do not meet the criteria for asylum under the UN Refugee Convention, and because of procedural barriers, including the government's wide application of the "safe third country" concept, which bars all arrivals from bordering countries from the asylum procedure. UNHCR recognized one Convention refugee rejected by Belarus in 2001.

During the year, 215 persons filed asylum applications with the Belarusan government, of whom 146 were admitted into the procedure and 65 ruled inadmissible. The majority came from Afghanistan (136).

Since it began hearing cases in 1997, the Committee on Migration (and its successor since December 2001, the Department of Migration in the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection – DOM) has granted refugee status to 460 persons. In 2001, DOM issued 183 merits decisions, granting 130 applicants refugee status, a 71 percent approval rate. The largest groups granted refugee status during the year were Afghans (85) and Georgians (25). Factoring in asylum seekers rejected at the registration phase as well as cases "otherwise closed" reduces the approval rate to 48 percent.

During 2001, almost 2,800 persons from Belarus applied for asylum in other European countries, nearly a 15 percent increase from the previous year, when about 2,400 Belarusans lodged asylum claims in Europe.

Another 20,500 stateless persons of former Soviet origin were living in Belarus in refugee-like circumstances.

In 2001, the government reported that 1,353 undocumented foreigners were apprehended, the largest number of whom were Afghans (270) and Vietnamese (140).

Asylum Procedure

In August 2001, Belarus ratified the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. The government adopted its national Law on Refugees in February 1995, and has conducted refugee status determinations since 1997.

The Belarus Migration Service determines admissibility of cases into the asylum procedure. At this preliminary stage, asylum seekers are often rejected on procedural grounds (and, under Article 8 of the Law on Refugees, can also be rejected on the grounds of not meeting the refugee standard, thereby being denied the chance to enter the status-determination procedure to establish their refugee claims).

The Law on Refugees includes a "safe third country" provision that bars asylum seekers from the procedure if they have traveled through countries where they ostensibly could have requested asylum. In 1999, the Council of Ministers issued a decree designating all neighboring countries – Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania – as "safe." The safe-third-country rule does not allow individual asylum seekers to rebut the presumption of safety in the third country to which they are to be returned. The law also allows the authorities to reject asylum applications from persons whose cases they deem "manifestly unfounded." During 2001, Belarusian authorities strictly applied the safe-third-country rule (in most cases with respect to transit through Russia).

Chechens fleeing the war in Russia were also barred from the asylum process. According to the Belarusan government's interpretation of the Union Treaty between Russia and Belarus, Chechens may settle legally and obtain residence permits based on their Russian citizenship, and have no need to enter the asylum procedure. During 2001, UNHCR provided legal assistance to some Chechens seeking to acquire permanent residence based on the Union Treaty.

Although the Law on Refugees explicitly states that asylum seekers should not be penalized for illegal entry, it also grants undocumented asylum seekers only 24 hours upon arrival to register their 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.

Although the Law on Refugees permits asylum seekers to apply at the country's borders, in practice, claims are only accepted in six regional Migration Service centers. Additionally, because of a Council of Ministers decree – Regulations on the Stay of Refugees – undocumented asylum seekers in the capital, Minsk, must contend with obscure and complicated rules governing registration for the asylum procedure. In most cases, the regulations effectively prevent them from applying for asylum in Minsk, the initial destination of nearly all asylum seekers; by the time they are able to present themselves to a regional Migration Service center, the 24-hour time limit on asylum applications has usually expired.

Another bar to asylum-procedure access are the fees – 50,000 rubles (about $30) – for registering asylum claims. Asylum applicants are not permitted to work, and receive insignificant aid from the state. The Migration Service does not issue a document when registering asylum seekers, which causes difficulties if applicants encounter the police and other authorities.

Using information provided by the Migration Service, the Department of Migration in the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection (DOM) judges the merits of the asylum claim. UNHCR registers applications of rejected asylum seekers and conducts some refugee status determinations, seeking resettlement for those found to be Convention refugees.

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.

Belarus maintains the Soviet-era propiska system, requiring residence permits for all its citizens, as well as foreign legal residents. To obtain a propiska , foreigners, including refugees, must establish their legal residency in Belarus, have a legal contract with a landlord, and obtain the consent of all other propiska-holders living in the housing where they will reside. In practice, propiskas are required for social benefits such as medical care and education, as well as legal employment, and to avoid police harassment.

Regional executive committees were responsible for providing recognized refugees with temporary housing. However, an acute housing shortage – particularly in Minsk – made accommodation hard to obtain. Bureaucratic difficulties in acquiring even a temporary propiska forced some asylum seekers and refugees to rent apartments illegally.


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