At the end of 2002, about 3,600 asylum seekers and refugees in need of protection were living in Belarus. These included 656 persons recognized as refugees by the Belarusan government, 37 asylum seekers with pending cases, 274 persons who were registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and 2,617 persons – mostly from outside the former Soviet Union, including 2,009 from Afghanistan – who were rejected by the Belarusan authorities, but whom UNHCR continues to regard as "of concern." They remain of concern to UNHCR because Belarus lacks a humanitarian status to provide complementary protection to refugees fleeing generalized violence that 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, barring all arrivals from bordering countries from the asylum procedure. In 2002, UNHCR recognized six persons as Convention refugees rejected by Belarus.

During the year, 163 persons – mostly Afghans – filed asylum applications with the Belarusan government: 113 applications were found admissible and 50 were not.

Since it began hearing cases in 1997, the Committee on Migration (and its successor, the Department of Migration in the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection [DOM]) has granted refugee status to about 660 persons, mostly Afghans (about 500). In 2002, the DOM decided 106 cases, granting 57 applicants refugee status. The largest groups granted during the year were Afghans (40) and Georgians (9). Factoring in asylum seekers rejected at the registration phase as well as cases "closed without consideration" yields an overall approval rate of 32 percent.

During the year, more than 4,400 persons from Belarus sought asylum abroad. Of these, 3,400 sought asylum in Europe, up from about 2,800 in 2001.

Another 16,900 stateless persons of former Soviet origin were living in Belarus in refugee-like circumstances, an 18 percent decrease from the previous year. According to the Department of Passports and Visas, some 10,500 stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year.

Asylum Procedure

Belarus adopted its national Law on Refugees in 1995 and began conducting refugee status determinations in 1997. Having ratified the Refugee Convention in August 2001, the government began work on amending its national Law on Refugees to bring it into compliance during 2002.

During the year, a governmental working group drafted, with advice from UNHCR and non-governmental organizations, a new Law on Refugees to enter into force in July 2003. The amended law removes certain grounds for inadmissibility into the asylum procedure, extends the duration of refugee status beyond three years, and includes provisions for the protection of unaccompanied minors.

The Belarus Migration Service determines admissibility of cases into the asylum procedure. Asylum seekers must register with one of the seven regional migration services, which forwards admissible applications to the DOM for status determinations. At this preliminary stage, asylum seekers are often rejected on procedural grounds and can also be rejected on the grounds of not meeting the refugee standard, thereby being denied the chance to enter the status-determination procedure.

The Law on Refugees also includes a safe-third-country provision that bars asylum seekers 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 law permits no rebuttal to the presumption of safety in the third country to which they are to be returned. The authorities may also reject applications they deem manifestly unfounded. During 2002, Belarusan authorities strictly applied the safe-third-country rule (in most cases with respect to transit through Russia).

UNHCR does not conduct refugee status determinations, except in compelling cases in need of third-country resettlement. However, UNHCR and the Belarus State University run a legal clinic – the Refugee Counseling Service (RCS) – with offices in Minsk and Vitebsk to assist asylum seekers throughout the process.

The RCS receives newly arrived asylum seekers who have not yet applied to the Belarus Migration Service and provides them with legal services, information, and referrals. Asylum seekers rejected at the registration phase or denied on the merits of their case are directed by the RCS to UNHCR for consideration for resettlement to other countries. During the year, the RCS helped 106 asylum seekers who had been rejected by the Belarus Migration Service, including 47 Afghans and 28 Chechens from the war-torn republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation.

Chechens are barred from the asylum process in Belarus. 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. In practice, however, because of Belarus's close political ties with Russia, officials discriminate against Chechens in granting residence permits. During 2002, UNHCR provided legal assistance to several Chechens seeking to acquire permanent residence based on the Union Treaty.

In November, the Belarusan media reported the denial of entry of several Chechen families to neighboring Poland. According to reports, about 150 Chechens seeking asylum in Poland became stranded in Brest (in western Belarus) after Polish border guards refused to allow them to enter, citing problems with their travel documents. Belarus's president, foreign minister, and state secretary for security intervened on their behalf, eventually convincing Poland to admit them.

In addition to Chechens, many asylum seekers and bona fide refugees remained barred from the asylum process during 2002.

The Law on Refugees acknowledges that asylum seekers should not be penalized for illegal entry, but grants undocumented asylum seekers only 24 hours after entry to register their claims. Unless they can demonstrate that exceptional circumstances prevented them from applying within 24 hours, asylum seekers who do not meet the deadline may be rejected at the registration phase, although this is not always enforced in practice.

Although the Law on Refugees permits asylum seekers to apply at the country's borders, in practice, claims are only accepted at the seven regional Migration Service centers. Additionally, the Council of Ministers imposes obscure and complicated rules on the registration of asylum seekers in the capital, Minsk – the initial destination of nearly all asylum seekers. One regulation limits eligibility to persons legally residing in Minsk, leading some asylum seekers to spend weeks trying to find shelter and arrange agreements with landlords in order to be admitted into the procedure.

Another bar to asylum-procedure access became less of a hurdle in April, when the Council of Ministers reduced the fees to lodge an asylum application from $30 (about 50,000 rubles) to $7 (about 12,000 rubles).

After applications are accepted, the DOM makes a status determination using information provided by the Migration Service. While the case is pending, registered asylum seekers are entitled to stay legally in the country, but are not entitled to work: leading many to work illegally to support themselves. Public schools permit asylum seekers to enroll their children if they possess a letter from UNHCR or the Belarusan Red Cross.

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.

Throughout 2002, Belarus required residence permits for all its citizens, as well as foreign legal residents. To obtain one, foreigners, including refugees, must establish their legal residency in Belarus, have a legal contract with a landlord, and obtain the consent of all other permit-holders living in the housing where they will reside. In practice, residence permits function much like the propiska system of the Soviet era. They are required for social benefits such as medical care and education, as well as legal employment and to avoid police harassment

At year's end, about 51 percent of recognized refugees had residence permits, according to the Department of Passports and Visas. However, many still experience difficulties finding accommodations, especially in Minsk. Bureaucratic difficulties in acquiring even a temporary residence permit forced some asylum seekers and refugees to rent apartments illegally.


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