Belarus Trying to Stop Georgians Escaping to Europe

Border security between Belarus and European Union countries Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia has intensified over the past week in response to a reported surge of Georgian nationals attempting illegal crossings, reported the State Border Committee of Belarus through the official Belarusian news agency BelTA on Thursday.

On Wednesday Belarusian border guards near Grodno arrested four Georgian citizens within 300 metres of the border with Lithuania. The border guards reported through the State Border Committee that when asked why they had tried to cross the border illegally, the Georgians responded that they were trying to find better economic conditions in the EU than they had left behind at home.

The illegal border crossings have been part of an ongoing drama that has taken place through much of the summer along the Belarusian border with Poland. According to the BelaPAN news agency in July more than 1,200 Georgians attempted to cross from Belarus to Poland at the border crossing between Brest and Terespol (the direct highway and railway link between Warsaw and Minsk). Of these, half were turned back by the Polish authorities; the Belarusian authorities, after clearing travellers of any Belarusian restrictions against leaving the country, typically do not check to see if they can legally enter their destination country. Those who gained admittance into Poland typically did so by claiming refugee status, a process that involves up to three months of waiting in detention while paperwork is processed by an understaffed Government agency in Warsaw.

The drama reached its height in mid-August when up to 22 Georgian refugees held in the male wing of the Biala-Podlaska refugee centre (30 kilometres west of Terespol) locked themselves in and protested against the excessive time that their paperwork seemed to be taking. According to Radio Lublin the refugees claimed ill-treatment by centre staff and complained about an overcrowded facility that they weren't allowed to leave and the breaking of promises they felt had been given by Polish President Lech Kaczynski following the South Ossetian War last year that they would always be welcomed as residents of Poland. From just after lunch on Aug. 13 the protestors started a hunger strike and remained barricaded in the facility, refusing to see even the Georgian Ambassador to Poland or accept aid from the Caritas Catholic relief agency.

The protest came to an end after members of the Helsinki Foundation and the Polish border guard authorities convinced the Georgians that their hunger strike was not accomplishing anything and that Polish refugee processing procedures met international standards. Only one of the hunger strikers required hospital attention.

Several such refugee facilities exist in eastern Poland and have been put to use to process applications for asylum from Georgian applicants. It is not clear how many of the Georgians are Internally Displaced Persons who have decided to try their luck internationally or simply rural residents who have sold everything to go West (as reported by the State Border Committee of Belarus). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that as a result of the South Ossetian War 135,000 people became internally displaced in Georgia; the total number of IDPs in Georgia at the end of 2008 was 293,000.

A Belarusian writer for the Vecherny Brest newspaper wrote that a large part of the reason for the Georgian exodus appeared to be President Kaczynski's pledge to provide Georgian refugees residency after the war with Russia. "When the President of Poland Kaczynski, while in Poland, said that Poland waited for Georgians with open arms to welcome them to their country and Europe, many counted on being able to go to the border, say that they are Georgian, and at once be given citizenship, a decent job and a home," explained Vakhtang, a Georgian who writer Yuri Rubashevsky interviewed . "In the spring, let's say Irakli travels from a Georgian village to Austria and gets himself a job and a car. He sends a photo of his car to his native village. We all look and think, 'Well, am I worse than he is?' You decide to go after a better life yourself. It would be fair to say that in our villages these days, life is poor. I would not have wanted to give up my life in Georgia, but my girls will grow up to do what, vegetate there? I decided to try and find happiness in another country."

A review of press reports from Ukraine does not show that the mediawas placing any emphasis on Georgian refugees attempting to cross the Ukrainian-Polish border. The only media reports involving Georgians crossing borders into the EU, either legally or illegally, have been from Belarus and Poland.

Before the South Ossetian War Georgian asylum seekers entering the Central European region (exclusive of the Baltic States) appeared to be concentrated most heavily in the popular refuge of Hungary, (statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees showed 165 applicants to Budapest during 2008), followed by Slovakia (119 applicants to Bratislava in 2008), and Poland (76 applicants to Warsaw in the same year). Lithuania received only 13 applications from Georgians in 2008. It is likely that the events over the summer will change this distribution in 2009.

The Vecherny Brest newspaper indicated that a number of Georgians seeking to cross into Poland were falling foul of Belarusian law, particularly in regard to registration. Any foreign person arriving at a specific destination and staying there for more than three days must register with the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs. If they fail to do so, they can be fined 700,000 Belarusian Roubles (415 Georgian Lari), and possibly deported. Many of the visiting Georgians had arrived with the intention of staying in Brest for only a day, but ended up staying well past three days and have been fined.

With some facing punitive measures and others repeated deportations back to Belarus, some Georgians give up and decide to settle for a time in Belarus, while others choose to try their luck at getting into Lithuania. A few try to cross the border illegally. In August at least 60 tested their ability to get into the EU past Belarusian and Polish or Lithuanian border patrols, including five who were reported caught near the point where the Belarusian, Polish, and Lithuanian borders meet. Their footprints were reported by Belarusian guards to Lithuanian authorities, which intercepted the group on Aug. 13. The Belarusians have attempted to hunt down those responsible for guiding the Georgians into that restricted border zone.

The intensification of the border watch in Belarus this week included the recruitment of 60 hunters from the Belovezhskaya Puscha/Forest to track illegal aliens attempting to cross into Poland. Border troops along the Smargon border control district in the northern Grodnenskaya Oblast have also been put on alert. Thus far, in the town of Ostrovets, the nearest unguarded town to the main railroad border crossing (Gudagai) in the Smargon border control district, Georgian refugees have yet to make themselves known.

By Angel Ben, from Belarus



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