Belarusian Churches and Migration: 2010-2020. Chechen refugees in Brest: A Local Migration Crisis in 2016-2017.

Belarus has never been an attractive country to migrants, neither as a final destination (the number of immigrants does not exceed 30,000 per year[1]), nor as a transit country. There have been three exceptions.

1.

Chinese migrants, mainly students and guest workers on temporary assignments for the projects following “tide loan” agreements between Belarus and China. The agreements assume that from the Chinese loans Belarus would purchase equipment from China and employ Chinese contractors. This cooperation started in 2009 when an est. $15bn loan line was opened. This cooperation intensified in June 2012 when Lukashenko signed a decree establishing the Belarusian-Chinese industrial park Great Stone. This vast occupying over 80 sq km meant to host a large number of advanced technology enterprises, offices, research and entertainment facilities with 120,000 employees[2]. These ambitious plans have not been fully realised, however. When in 2018 Belarus enabled visa-free travel for Chinese citizens their number in Belarus was around 7,500, most of them lived in the town of Sokal near the Great Stone.[3] This type of Chinese migrants normally returned home at the end of their contracts.

Churches in Belarus did not have any particular ministries for the Chinese migrants except sporadic missionary activities and occasional conversions of Chinese into Orthodox Christianity.[4]

2.

Following the 2014 events in Ukraine – Maidan protests, the annexation of Crimea and conflicts in the Donbas region – two categories of migrants came to Belarus: refugees leaving the conflict zones in the east of Ukraine and those who chose Belarus for political reasons. In the former group, as many as 17,000 persons came in 2014-2015.[5] The latter group consisted of the military and special police officers (Berkut) connected to Viktor Yanukovich’s regime. A large number of this latter group were rapidly granted Belarusian citizenship and admitted to the Belarusian militia.[6] Ukrainian migrants quickly integrated into Belarusian society.

Churches in Belarus did not develop any particular initiatives towards Ukrainian migrants. Some organisations, e.g. St Elisabeth’s Convent in Minsk, provided humanitarian aid, mainly to the break-away Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics[7]. Some refugees from Ukraine joined St Elisabeth’s Convent as nuns, for example, Irina Kolesnikova who advocated against the democratic movements during the political crisis in Belarus following the 2020 presidential elections. She supported the existing Belarusian regime on the basis of her negative post-Maidan experience[8].

3.

Chechen migration from Russia to the EU intensified in 2016-18 when Poland stopped admitting refugees from Chechnya. Since Russia and Belarus have formed some elements of the Union State, Chechen migrants, as Russian citizens, could easily travel to Belarus and stay there without additional border control. Following frequent denials of entry to Poland, large numbers of those migrants were concentrating in the Belarusian city of Brest on the border with Poland. The Polish authorities admitted asylum applications only from those who entered the country by rail, and Brest was the only point of crossing the border in that way. Daily, 400 to 800 people, mainly women with children, tried to enter Poland. For hundreds of applications, only three or four families were allowed in. By denying entry and refusing to consider their applications, the Polish authorities violated the existing legal procedures for international protection: Belarus could not be considered a safe country for the Chechen refugees. Those who were denied entry travelled back to Brest to attempt the same again and again, often – for dozens of times.

Many stayed in Brest for months. They either rented flats or lived at the railway station. At the peak, there were 3,000 waiting to cross the border. In August 2016, around two hundred people gathered at the open-air camp at the Belarusian-Polish border to protest. They expected a Polish consul to meet with them. Belarusian human rights workers from the Human Constanta NGO opened a special mission in Brest. They monitored the situation, helped individuals and families with writing asylum applications and complaints, and provided aid.[9] Using the international advocacy mechanisms, Human Constanta managed to get several affirmative decisions on its complaints against Poland at the European Court of Human Rights. In the following years, the number of people seeking asylum via this route declined to 100 to 200 people[10] until in the Sring 2020 travel from Russian to Belarus became virtually impossible due to the Covid 19 pandemics.

Human rights workers call those migrants invisible: neither the Belarusian society, nor media, nor the authorities gave much attention to situation. All of them preferred to treat it as a localcrisis.

The church involvement in this crisis was minimal. The following religious groups in Brestwere known to assist the migrants: a Greek Catholic parish of St Peter and Andrew (Fr Igor Kondratyev), which provided aid and gave shelter to some families; and an Orthodox parish of St Nicholas, which helped a volunteer Uladzimir Vialichkin to take care of sick Chechen children.[11]


[1] Numbers according to demographical yearbooks of Belarusian Statistical Committee.

[2] Можейко, Геннадий. «ТОП-7 крупнейших китайских проектов в Беларуси. «Комсомолка» посмотрела, насколько сильны белорусско-китайские экономические отношения». Комсомольская правда, 25.04.2019, https://www.kp.ru/daily/26971/4027379/

[3] Чайна-таун под Минском: из Китая перевозят даже бабушек. Спутник-Беларусь, 11.12.2018, https://sputnik.by/20181211/Chaynataun-pod-Minskom-iz-Kitaya-perevozyat-dazhe-babushek-1039098581.html

[4] Пустовит, Вероника. «Как китаец по национальности стал славянином по мировоззрению». Звязда, 28.03.2017, https://zviazda.by/ru/news/20170327/1490623911-kak-kitaec-po-nacionalnosti-stal-slavyaninom-po-mirovozzreniyu

[5] Numbers according to demographical yearbooks of Belarusian Statistical Committee. 

[6] Ivashyn, Dzianis. «Runaway Ukrainian Berkut fighters in the Police Service of Belarus». Informnapalm, 08.20.2017, https://informnapalm.org/en/runaway-berkut-policemen-from-ukrainian-on-active-duty-with-belarus-police/; Ivashyn, Dzianis. «Special investigation: what does Berkut defend in Belarus? Part I». Informnapalm, 27.03.2021, https://informnapalm.org/en/special-investigation-what-does-berkut-defend-in-belarus-part-i/; Ivashyn, Dzianis.»Special investigation: what does Berkut defend in Belarus? Part II». Informnapalm, 30.03.2021, https://informnapalm.org/en/special-investigation-what-does-berkut-defend-in-belarus-part-ii/; Ivashyn, Dzianis. «Special investigation: what does Berkut defend in Belarus? Part III». Informnapalm, 5.05.2021, https://informnapalm.org/en/special-investigation-what-does-berkut-defend-in-belarus-part-iii/

[7] Панковец, Змитер. «Кто он, Дмитрий Лемешенок? Человек в майке «ДНР», близкий к женскому монастырю в Новинках», Наша Ніва, 12.09.2017, https://nashaniva.com/?c=ar&i=197309&lang=ru

[8] «Как мы пережили революцию. Личный опыт монахини из Украины». Ютуб-канал Свято-Елисаветинского монастыря, https://youtu.be/bB9tPeVR2L0

[9] «Invisible refugees on the Belarusian-Polish border 2016-2017», Human Constanta, Minsk, Belarus, 2017,  https://humanconstanta.by/en/invisible-refugees-on-the-belarusian-polish-border-2016-2017/

[10] «Overview of the situation with “transit refugees” in Brest in September-December 2018», Human Constanta, 26.02.2019, https://humanconstanta.by/en/overview-of-the-situation-with-transit-refugees-in-brest-sep-dec-2018/

[11] «Беларусы навучыліся ненавідзець», «Людзкія справы», Белсат, 25.11.2016, https://belsat.eu/promotion/belarusy-navuchylisya-nenavidzets/