On September 7, 2023, a decree came into effect stating that Belarusians living abroad will not be able to renew their passports at overseas consulates, thereby forcing exiled Belarusians abroad to either return home, where they would likely be persecuted, or remain abroad with an expired passport.
The decree signed by Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka means Belarusians can only obtain new passports from the internal affairs bodies at the place where they were last registered (meaning, in most cases, Belarus).
Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians left the country after the peaceful protests in 2020 were brutally broken up by the regime. Since then, the number of political prisoners in the republic has been growing almost daily; by some estimates, there are between 1,500–1,800 political prisoners in the republic.
While implementing targeted repression with prison sentences reminiscent of Stalinist times, the regime also intentionally pushed the dissidents out of the country. Thus, many of those who participated in protests and others who showed solidarity with the opposition have left Belarus.
If they are made to return in order to renew their passports — for many, the only identification document they have — they could face jail time or other punishment from the regime.
While some Belarusians are optimistic, for example, in the Euroradio Broadcast, lawyer of the Belarusian Solidarity Center Marina Hryshchenko said some countries provide a travel document for Belarusians, including Poland.
However, this reassurance isn't stopping Belarusians from worrying. One member of a Belarusian abroad Facebook group said:
Новую карту пабыта без пашпарта ўжо не атрымаеш пасля сканчэння яе тэрміну. Для паступлення ў ліцэі і вну патрэбны менавіта пашпарт. Праезны дакумент не падыйдзе. І ў банк з праезным дакументам не пойдзеш і г.д. Таму па факце толькі абарона. Якую дадуць не ўсім. Што будзем рабіць?
You will not get a new [residence] card if you have lived without a passport after its expiration date. A passport is required for admission to schools and universities. A travel document will not do that. And you can't go to the bank with a travel document only. Therefore, in fact, [we can only apply for asylum], which will not be given to everyone. What will we do?
Stephen Phillips, Mobile Futures project researcher specializing in immigration and refugee law at the Åbo Akademi, Institute for Human Rights in Finland, said in the interview with Global Voices:
Sometimes in exceptional circumstances countries will issue documents to non-citizens, but exactly what that document allows the holder to do can vary from place to place. I don't have the specific information about these Polish and Lithuanian travel documents.
For those outside of Poland and Lithuania people will likely be at the mercy of their country of residence, it will depend on each country's willingness to accommodate Belarusians in this situation. Some might be stuck in limbo, with a right to remain in their country of residence but with travel rights heavily restricted.
Indeed, while some citizens can obtain travel documents from other countries (including Poland), they are not a substitution for a citizen's passport. So, people with residences other than those who applied for protection or asylum will not be able to extend their residencies without a passport.
The percentage of Belarusians who immigrated and applied for international protection is very low, partly because these processes are tedious, long, and uncertain.
For example, in 2021, there were only 2,300 Belarusians seeking protection in Poland. But overall, according to the data from Poland’s state Office for Foreigners (UdSC) there were over 50,000 Belarusians with residence permits in Poland already in 2021, around twice as many as at the start of 2020. Since the unrest, Poland has actively welcomed those fleeing repression in Belarus and sought to attract professionals such as IT workers and doctors.
Another person in the Belarusian Facebook group writes:
Речь идет о не просто о фактической дискриминации в отдельных случаях, а о формальной (то есть закрепленной в законодательстве), на уровне политики, дискрминации граждан, которые живут за границей. Это логичное продолжение тенденции законодательного закрепления неравенства по признаку лояльности государству, которая началась в конце прошлого года и активно разворачивается в 2023. Но в этот раз, в отличие от предыдущих, под каток попали не только “политические”, но вообще все, кто живет за границей. Но в отличие от всех (хотя в их отношении это конечно тоже нарушение), политическим эмигрантам не доступна возможность поменять паспорт и все остальное в Беларуси. И не доступна по вине самого же государства. Поэтому в этой ситуации они – наиболее уязвимая группа.
This is not only about actual discrimination in individual cases, but about formal (that is, enshrined in legislation), at the policy level, discrimination of citizens who live abroad. This is a logical continuation of the trend to inequality on the basis of loyalty to the state, which began at the end of last year and is actively unfolding in 2023. But this time, unlike the previous ones, not only ‘political’ migrants, but in general everyone who lives abroad, are targeted. But unlike everyone else (although this, of course, is also a violation in their regard), political emigrants do not have the opportunity to change their passports and everything else in Belarus. And it is not available due to the threat from the state itself. Therefore, in this situation they are the most vulnerable group.
It remains to be seen how this diplomatic limbo will play out. Belarusian opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya met with the Lithuanian deputy minister for foreign affairs, and they discussed the possibility of Lithuania continuing to accept documents for residence permits from Belarusians with expired passports. However, each such case will be considered individually. As reported by Zerkalo, children born in Lithuania will be able to receive foreign passports, confirmed the press-office of Tsikhanouskaya.