Belarus Hopes That Ukraine’s Refugees Will Rescue Its Agriculture
On 9 September chief of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees mission in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova Oldrich Andrysek reported that Belarus accepted more than 25,000 Ukrainian citizens over the last two months.
In 2013, only 2,200 Ukrainians made their way to Belarus to live, according to the official statistics. Earlier, on 6 September Aliaksandr Lukashenka in an interview to Russia 1 TV channel said that around 3,000 Ukrainians want to stay in Belarus and had applied for a refugee status.
In June, Lukashenka publicly admitted that Belarus welcomes people from Ukraine and will provide them with jobs and shelter. To meet the needs of migrants, he signed a special decree to legally facilitate their integration into society.
Now, Belarus indeed offers plenty of jobs in agriculture, but Ukrainians, who mostly come from urban centres, seem to be unhappy with such a potentially radical change in their own professions. Some problems also remain unresolved for Ukrainian citizens, like healthcare access and pension payments.
Typically, Ukrainians say they will stay in Belarus for a while to wait for the war to end, but apparently many will become Belarusian residents as the conflict's resolution appears to be complicated.
“We Need a Labour Force”
Most incoming Ukrainians are asking for residency permits, which allows them to work and study in Belarus. According to Ambassador Vialička, 1,500 already have the permit, and 3,000 more are waiting for it. Belarusian media often call arriving Ukrainians refugees, but the government shuns this term, as legally they do not have refugee status. The government is considering granting refugee status only to 500 Ukrainians at the moment.
In June, Aliaksandr Lukashenka publicly admitted that Belarus welcomes migrants from Ukraine. “A lot of people are willing to move to Belarus from Ukraine. We ordered the embassy to create lists of them, to accept them with due organisation. We need a labour force, and we are ready to place them in various parts of the country, provide them with shelter and jobs,” he said.
The chief of the Migration and Citizenship Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs Aliaksej Biahun said that "the government seeks to avoid refugee camps or any places of dense concentration of Ukrainian migrants. They will be spread out all over the country, and we recommend to them that they visit regions which have a labour force shortage."
What Problems Ukrainians Faced in Belarus
The problem of employment becomes crucial for those who are running away from war to go to Belarus, as the Belarusian government barely provides any financial support for refuge seekers. Instead, it suggests that Ukrainians take up jobs which are unpopular among Belarusians.
In the end of July the Ministry of Labour published a list of vacancies available to Ukraine citizens in Belarus “in response to numerous inquiries of Ukraine citizens regarding the employment”. The list provides vacancies in the six regions of Belarus and Minsk city, around 300 vacancies in all. These jobs usually come from the public sector and offer low wages.
Most of the vacancies come from the agricultural sector, as rural areas suffer from the highest shortage in their labour force. Here, the employers usually offer a $300-400 salary, not much considering the tough conditions and working schedule. Moreover, as most migrants come from the urban centres of Ukraine, they seem even more reluctant to master collective farming. The education and healthcare sector offer prospective employee even less – $200-300 per month. Industry alone offers a more competitive salary, sitting between $400-700, but job openings remain few and far between.
Ukrainians report other numerous problems after arriving in Belarus. As non-citizens, they have no access to the healthcare system, nor the educational for their children. Obtaining a work permit involves dealing with a lot of red tape, so Belarusian employers from areas not suffering acute labour force shortages prefer not to deal with Ukrainians.
Another problem Ukrainians face in Belarus concerns their pensions. Belarus and Ukraine have no agreement on mutual pension payments, so Ukrainian pensioners cannot get their money here. So, for retired people it is virtually impossible to live by themselves.
Making the Migrants' Lives Easier
To address these problems, on 30 August Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed a decree which made the stay of Ukrainians in Belarus easier. It removed the residence permit fee and the fee for a health certificate, both of which are necessary for legal employment. It also simplified the employment procedures for foreigners – quite an important step, and children have received the right to a free education.
Some categories of people, like families with small children, received the right to receive welfare benefits equal to that of a Belarusian citizen. However, some problems remain unresolved – for instance the migrants can have access to Belarusian health service only in the case of an emergency. The issue of pensions also remains unchanged, as it requires a more substantial legal process.
Chief of UN High Commissioner for Refugees for the mission in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova Oldrich Andrysek visited Homiel's temporary refugee centre for Ukrainians. He said the Belarusian government does a good job to helping the migrants, as it tries to resolve any problems that arise in quick order. However, it is still unclear whether or not the UN is going to address the problem of Ukrainian migrants in Belarus in any way.
Civil Society Offers Its Support
In the situation where their neighbours are in trouble, Belarusians have shown that they are actively trying to get involved in helping them. Strikingly, all sectors of society, be it the opposition, pro-government forces or the politically indifferent, have joined in on charity campaigns to help displaced Ukrainians.
The Belarusian Committee for Solidarity with Ukraine appeared on the scene back in March 2014, uniting several dozen opposition politicians and intellectuals who decided to organise support for Euromaidan inside Belarus. In August the Committee launched an initiative to create a registry of vacant of accommodations from their own property holdings, which Belarusians could offer to Ukrainian refugees.
Belarusians can submit such offers online, while Ukrainians can request living space there. “The people in Ukraine are forced to hide in basements, they are at risk of being killed at any minute, and there are children among them. Many of them have nowhere else to go, and we need to do everything we can to help them,” one committee announcement says.
Government-backed civil associations such as Bielaja Rus and BRSM have also joined in the charity campaign. For instance, they organised a week of refugee support on 18-25 August in Rahačoŭ, which hosts about 100 families from Ukraine.
The Belarusian Orthodox Church also decided to launch a charity campaign for Ukrainian refugees. It announced a collection all kinds of basic necessities at its parishes.
Ukrainians usually say that they came to Belarus on temporary basis in order to escape the war, but it seems that Belarus may yet become a new home for many of them. As the solution to the conflict appears to be a complicated issue, the Donbass will remain in turmoil for a long time to come. The new Ukrainian residents of Belarus will hardly save the depressed agricultural sector, but they will definitely improve on the nation's negative demographic trend.
Belarus’ Prisoner Dilemma
Earlier this month, Aliaksandr Lukashenka noted that, during his presidency, the Belarusian prison population has halved. He stressed that despite its dictatorship label, Belarus does not “throw everyone in prison.”
Statistics present a more complicated picture, however. During Lukashenka’s first term, in the mid-1990s, the incarceration rate dramatically increased, placing Belarus third worldwide in prisoners per capita.
Even though frequent amnesty laws are slowly decreasing its prison population, Belarus to this day has one of the highest shares of prisoners per capita in Europe.
Amnesty laws also provide no lasting solution to the country's high rates of recidivism. Because every second crime in Belarus is committed by a former prisoner, deeper changes to the penitentiary system are needed.
Improving conditions in prisons and reintegrating former prisoners into society are key to reducing the prison population in the coming years.
Why So Many Citizens Serve Prison Sentences
In 2002, Belarus placed third in the world in the number of prisoners per capita, after the United States and Russia. Currently it ranks 25th in the world and second in Europe.
In May 2013, the country had 31,270 prisoners, or about 325 prisoners per 100,000 people; in Western Europe, the median rate is just 98. And this is after having reduced its prison population by more than half since 1998, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. Clearly, Belarus still has a long way to go.
Why do so many Belarusians go to jail? After all, Belarus's crime rate is not any higher than in other post-Soviet states.
One reason may be the lack of due process. Being charged almost always results in being found guilty. Belarus's likelihood of acquittal (0.3% of all sentences) is even lower than in Russia (3%) and much lower than in Europe as a whole (6%).
Another reason may be the long-lasting consequences of the surge in incarceration rates during Lukashenka's first term as president. Belarus experienced a nearly 350% increase in the number of prisoners in the 1990s, by far the largest change in the post-Communist space. Many of those imprisoned then have not been released.
To be sure, Lukashenka's zealousness alone does not explain the early incarceration spike. Larger macro-economic forces, unleashed by the dissolution of the USSR, led to profound economic and social uncertainty.
Most post-Communist states responded to rising criminality by increasing pre-trial detention and imprisonment rates and by imposing harsher sentences.
In Belarus, however, the spike in imprisonment was the most dramatic. What is more, its effects have persisted to this day – due not only to the challenges of reducing the prison population, but also to the extremely high rates of recidivism.
Amnesty Laws: Honouring WWII by Emptying Prisons
Belarus's preferred approach to reducing incarceration rates has been passing amnesty laws. Nearly 10,000 prisoners were released or received shorter sentences under the most recent June 2014 amnesty.
This was the 13th amnesty in Belarus’s independent history, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Belarus’ liberation from the German occupation. Previous amnesties were timed to the 65th, 60th , and 50th anniversaries of victory in WWII.
Belarusian amnesty laws generally cover prisoners who committed relatively minor crimes, have young children, as well as pregnant, underage, elderly or disabled prisoners. As a rule, amnesties do not extend to political prisoners. However, Ales Bialiacki, the vice-president of the human rights organisation Viasna and one of the best known political prisoners, was released under the 13th amnesty in June.
In Belarus, amnesty is used for political purposes. It signals that the government takes an uncompromising stand against corruption or drugs. This is why Lukashenka frequently repeats that no amnesty will ever cover offenders charged with corruption.
Amnesty also signals the state's willingness to forgive and empathise with its citizens. Indeed, Lukashenka has emphasised that amnesty laws serve the society and are always “free of politics.”
How to Reduce the Number of Belarusian Prisoners
The Belarusian authorities are currently drafting a law that seeks to reduce incarceration rates and change important aspects of the penal system.
The draft law will allow defendants to reduce prison terms by cooperating with the investigation before the onset of trial. The authorities hope that this measure will not only reduce the size of prison population, but also facilitate investigation.
The law also envisions replacing imprisonment with monetary compensation for some types of crimes and decriminalising some behaviours completely.
Even as Belarus sought to reduce the number of future prisoners, it has devoted little effort to improving lives of the current ones. This is important because so far Belarusian prisons have done more harm than good: repeat offenders commit about 50% of all crimes in Belarus.
Recidivists commit every third murder, two thirds of all robberies, more than half of all other forms of theft. Most of them break the law already in the very first year upon leaving prison. Furthermore, in the last seven years, recidivism has increased more than two-fold.
Prisoners Need to be Reintegrated
High recidivism may be partly due to the dysfunctional prison culture in Belarus. Wardens beat and humiliate prisoners.
Last year, political prisoner Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič cut his abdomen in protest to the abuse by the prison administration.
Living conditions in prisons are deplorable. Single cells do not exist, and prison overcrowding is a problem. This produces a lot of diseases.
An even larger problem, however, is the failure to integrate the released offenders back into society. Unlike west European nations, Belarus has not developed an adequate system of post-penitentiary integration.
Last year, the first reintegration project was launched with the help of a 300,000 Euro grant from the EU, as well as the technical guidance by the international Federation of the Read Cross and Red Crescent.
The project seeks to provide psychological, legal, professional, medical, and humanitarian help to the former prisoners. It will begin work with prisoners half a year prior to their release and only interested prisoners will be participating. Currently only three penitentiary institutions, all in Mahiliou oblast, are participating, with about 120 prisoners.
Turning prison from crippling into corrective institutions is a difficult but necessary task. While recidivism cannot be completely eliminated, reducing it will improve not only the lives of prisoners but also potential victims and is a less costly alternative to keeping offenders incarcerated.