Belarus Learns to Absorb Tens of Thousands Ukrainians

Photo: firstsocial.info

On 15 January 2016, the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka commented on the refugee crisis in the EU, noting that the latter is “drowning in the streams of migrants, accompanied with terror and criminality.”

The numbers of the asylum seekers from the Middle East in Belarus remains rather modest, as Belarus is difficult to reach and is not a particularly wealthy country. On the other hand, Belarus remains an attractive option for Ukrainians, who can easily integrate into the Belarusian society. As a result, Belarus was able to boast a controlled and regulated migration process.

Belarusian legislation tries to keep up with adapting to the possible new challenges, unifying procedures and regulations for handling refugees and migrants. However, recent statements by the Belarusian officials also indicate that rising security concerns might dominate the refugee politics agenda in 2016.

Growing Ukrainian minority in Belarus

With the highest numbers of Ukrainian migrants per capita in 2015, Belarus had to adapt to the new migration trends in the region. Ukrainian citizens from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions enjoyed preferential treatment from the Belarusian state. Simplified procedures for temporary and permanent residence applications helped to expedite formalities for migrants from eastern Ukraine.

The overall number of Ukrainians who came to Belarus since the start of the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine lies at around 150,000 persons. This figure includes refugees, economic migrants, and people with family ties in Belarus, who potentially could soon apply for citizenship. This category of migrants demonstrates high degrees of adaptability and integration due to cultural and linguistic closeness.

As of December 2015, 46,000 Ukrainians have already secured permanent resident status in Belarus. Overall, by the end of 2015, 180,000 foreign nationals (making up less than 2% of the total population of the country) held Belarusian permanent residence status.

Refugee quotas and exemplary Syrians

Nearly 1,200 persons applied for refugee or complementary protection status in Belarus in 2015. Ukrainians accounted for the majority of the refugee status applicants (75%), while the number of applications submitted by the Syrian citizens remained below 10%.

According to the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior, the country saw a sharp rise in the number of refugee applicants in 2014 and 2015, even though it is not the preferred destination for displaced people seeking better life. Ukrainian migrants tend to choose the path of becoming temporary or permanent residents, rather than applying for asylum.

While Belarusian authorities continue to prioritise Ukrainian migration, they do not exclude the possibility of the growing number of refugees of other nationalities. Yet according to BelTA, only 20 Syrians received refugee status in Belarus between 2013 – 2015. By September 2015 this number grew, and about 40 Syrians held complementary protection status in Belarus.

The UNHCR Representative in Belarus, Jean-Yves Bouchardy, does not expect millions of Syrians coming to Belarus. He suggests that numbers will continue to grow steadily, yet within the current Belarusian trends.

In 2016 the authorities plan to grant refugee status in Belarus to 1,200 persons, to be settled across various regions of the country. “Our competent organs check every person, who is admitted to Belarus. Families are our priority,” said the Belarusian president.

For instance, the Ministry of the Interior and the UN sponsored three Syrian families' arrival and accommodation in Belarus. Reports in the media tend to focus on a few Syrians, currently residing in Belarus. On the one hand, they target to create a positive and competent image of the state policies, while on the other hand, they also emphasise expected integration of the newcomers.

“Regulating negative moments”

Similarly to the European societies, Belarus has the problem of an ageing population. Belarusian president admitted that migration appears to be the natural solution of the demographic issues. At the same time, he also noted that sudden unregulated influx of migrants can potentially result in growing security risks and discontent among the local population. “We are not about to start playing democratic games in these issues,” the president stated resolutely.

Recent migration-related tensions in Germany made Belarusian authorities acutely aware of the dangers of the insufficient control over who is allowed into the country. “We should take into account experiences and issues, which the EU states face currently,” noted deputy Interior Minister Mikalaj Mielčanka.

In terms of security concerns Mielčanka warned about the possible liabilities in the unguarded large section of the state border to Russia. However, according to the Belarusian Department of Citizenship and Migration, annual numbers of illegal migrants detained in Belarus keep steady between 500 and 1,000 persons.

Changing legislation to accommodate refugees

The Belarusian Parliament recently discussed several amendments to the law on forced migration to facilitate the process of applying for refugee status, asylum, and complementary protection. Designed to decrease the application processing times from 18 to 6 months, new regulations aim to limit the time that foreign nationals spend in Belarus and make use of its social system, while awaiting the decision on their cases.

Further, amendments foresee situations of the mass arrival of refugees to Belarus, incorporating the European experiences. They specify which state institutions are in charge of compulsory fingerprint registration, medical exams, and identification of the persons.

In all likelihood, global security concerns will define and dominate the refugee agenda in Belarus in 2016. Internally, recent amendments of the legislation assure Belarusians that the authorities have possible increases of the migration streams under control.

On the other hand, strict refugee quotas, the existing visa regime, and its geographical location, placing Belarus on the periphery of the main routes to the more prosperous EU, suggest that it should not fear mass arrivals of asylum-seekers.

 

Lizaveta Kasmach is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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