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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Is Europe turning its back on Belarusians fleeing Lukashenko’s regime?

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Olga has a white-red-white flag on her shoulders and a mask of the same colours on her face. Even her boots bear the shades of the old Belarusian flag, a symbol of protest against disputed president Alexander Lukashenko.

But while such a political display might have seen her jailed back in Belarus, the 52-year-old has no such worries in Sweden.

“I feel good and safe here,” she tells Euronews, recounting her life in the Scandinavian country since arriving in August 2019.

But while she feels more secure in Sweden, she faces an uncertain future: her long-running bid to gain asylum in the country has been rejected.

Her case is representative of a trend seen across Europe since Belarus was thrown into turmoil in August 2020.

There were huge protests as long-time leader Lukashenko was declared the winner of presidential elections with an 80 per cent vote share. His critics claimed the vote was rigged in his favour and demonstrators hit the streets.

But a brutal crackdown followed, with thousands of protesters jailed. The turmoil reached a wider audience when a Ryanair flight carrying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich was redirected to Minsk and the Lukashenko critic arrested.

Belarusians are being denied asylum in Sweden and across Europe

Despite the repression in Belarus, Olga is not alone in being refused asylum in Europe.

Over the first 11 months of 2021, only three Belarusians out of 125 were given asylum in Sweden, according to the Swedish Migration Agency, amounting to just 2%.

Compared to previous years, the percentage of positive decisions did not increase after the disputed presidential election in August 2020.

In June 2021, a liberal parliamentarian Maria Nilsson asked the Swedish foreign affairs minister Ann Linde what the government is doing to improve the situation.

“The government’s goal is to ensure a long-term sustainable migration policy,” Linde said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a recurring dialogue with local human rights and civil society organisations and obtains their views on how Sweden can best support democratic development in Belarus.”

The data shows a similar situation for Belarusian migrants in most EU countries.

According to Eurostat, only five countries granted more positive than negative decisions – Poland, Latvia, Czech Republic, Italy and Estonia.

International organisations have called for countries to support Belarusians amid growing repression.

In October 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, urging EU countries “to further simplify the procedures for obtaining visas and residence for those fleeing Belarus for political reasons”.

Some MEPs also called for greater recognition of Belarusian exiles.

“It is time that we granted refugees from Belarus temporary work and residence permits in the EU on top of finally adopting sanctions against Belarusian goods that finance the illegitimate Lukashenko regime,” wrote Thomas Waitz, Austrian, Green MEP, on Twitter.

‘A human catastrophe is happening in Belarus’

Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, supports the MEP’s stance.

“Unfortunately, the European bureaucracy does not always keep pace with the changes in Belarus,” he told Euronews. “In Sweden, as in many EU countries, the migration services consider Belarus a safe country. So, cases are being considered in the standard mode. Without additional evidence, people are not given asylum.”

According to Viačorka, the office of Tsikhanouskaya is working to soften the conditions for obtaining a visa, residence permits or asylum for Belarusian exiles.

“We call the European countries to consider Belarus as a country where a humanitarian catastrophe is taking place,” he added.

“We ask them to give re-locators residence and work permits without delay.

“Many people want to return to Belarus as soon as possible, so they need a special approach.”

Anaïs Marin, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, says she has received evidence and testimonies of serious violations in the country.

“This climate of impunity illustrates that people who may be victims of human rights violations in Belarus cannot seek justice in their home country.

“That is why it’s important that other countries stay true to their own values about protecting human rights.

“Under the [United Nations] Convention against Torture, it is absolutely prohibited to push back a person for whom there are grounds to believe that he or she will be submitted to torture back in his or her country. And here the risk of torture remains extremely high in Belarus, and I hope that all countries which receive applications for asylum will take this into consideration.”

According to Freedom House, Belarus ranks among the 15 countries with the weakest Global Freedom Score. But the country is also among the top 15 countries whose citizens are the least likely to be granted asylum in Sweden.

‘Beatings, torture, blackmail’

Olga arrived in Sweden a full year before the August 2020 election sparked political turmoil.

A decade before the presidential poll, she joined the opposition organisation Movement for Freedom and was responsible for a membership database. She was also a personal assistant to 2010 presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich.

Then, in preparations for the 2020 vote, she says authorities began asking her to tell them what Mikhalevich was up to.

“They threatened my business and my child in the hope that I would record compromising evidence,” she told Euronews.

“Many people believe that the repressions began in May 2020, but it’s naive to think so. Beatings, torture, blackmail — it all happened before, but not on such a scale.”

She fled in 2019 after being beaten up by a group of masked men.

After the 2020 election, Olga began to work as a volunteer with NGOs Imena and BYSOL, which support victims of repression in Belarus.

“I ran a Telegram channel and a database of beaten people,” she says. “There was a huge amount of data that needed to be organised.”

Imena was one of 200 Belarusian NGOs liquidated last summer. BYSOL was designated as extremist and is under criminal prosecution.

Olga has also volunteered for the Belarusians of Sweden and the People’s Embassy, which help the Belarusian diaspora.

“Criminal cases were opened against Tsikhanouskaya, Latushka and 15 more persons over the establishment of the People’s Embassies,” said Dmitri Vasserman, the representative of the People’s Embassy in Sweden.

“We don’t know who the other 15 people are. Therefore, any person who is associated or worked with The People’s Embassy is likely to be imprisoned.”

‘It looks like the migration court did not even read my case’

Olga applied for asylum when she arrived in Sweden and was rejected. The Swedish Migration Court rejected her appeal against that decision in November.

“In my refusal, the migration court writes that Belarus is a calm and safe country,” Olga said. “But everything that moves in Belarus is destroyed.”

The court decision, which Euronews read, states that the situation in Belarus is not “of such a nature that she can be granted a residence in Sweden” adding that Olga “did not have a prominent political profile”.

“It looks like the migration court did not even read my case,” Olga says. “I didn’t work as a herald, I made databases. I had a lot of information in my hands, which in no case should have fallen into the hands of the authorities.”

The migration court thinks that Olga did not prove that “in a forward-looking assessment there is a concrete and personal threat against her in her home country due to political opinion.”

But Marin, the UN special rapporteur, disagrees.

“People who even in their private conversations or in social media dare to criticise or mock the government can be subjected to harassment, intimidation, threats, and eventually detention,” Marin said.

Marin cannot identify specific groups of people who face a greater threat.

“Potentially anyone expressing dissenting views or trying to access his or her right to freedom of expression can fall victim to human rights abuses,” she said.

‘Not everyone needs protection just for being from Belarus’

A process specialist at the Swedish Migration Agency (SMA), Fredrik Jonasson, told Euronews that they don’t have statistics on the reasons for asylum being rejected.

“It’s the result of the individual examination of the asylum applications,” he said. “So, in all the cases we have not found that the applicant is likely to be in need of international protection.”

Jonasson noted that SMA does not have a legal position paper for Belarus. Such a paper is a binding guideline to recognise the security situation in a country as a reason to grant asylum.

“We have it for the other 15 countries from where many asylum seekers come to Sweden,” he explained. “So there have been people from Belarus, of course. A lot of people, but not that many that we need a legal position paper.

“Of course, we know the situation in Belarus is severe. And we know what is happening after last year’s election,” Jonasson said, adding that “not everyone needs international protection just for being from Belarus. For being in such a situation, there must be an internal or external conflict”.

Every weekday, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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