Poland becomes a haven for Belarusians fleeing the action

WARSAW, June 18 (Reuters) – Thousands of Belarusians who escaped political crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko fled to neighboring Poland last year, but their long-term future there is uncertain.

Aleksei Zuk and his partner Ekaterina from the city of Brest in southeast Belarus only carried small backpacks when they arrived in Poland in February and only wanted to stay until the dust settled at home.

Both Zuk and Ekaterina, who refused to give her last name for fear of endangering their family at home, were among the thousands of protesters across Belarus who took to the streets after Lukashenko won one last August had declared controversial presidential election.

The authorities reacted with brutal crackdowns and mass arrests, and the couple were arrested and detained for several days: Ekaterina in August and Zuk, who had become a protest organizer in November.

Fearing that they might be detained again, the couple left Brest in February and arrived in Poland on tourist visas. They later received a humanitarian visa for Poland in Vilnius.

“I hope life will be good in Belarus and we can return, but that hope … is getting thinner every month,” Zuk told Reuters. “I want to stay. To work, to get official status.”

When the turmoil shook Belarus, Poland declared itself a European leader in helping Belarusian opposition politicians, requested more European Union funding, launched a special 50 million zloty ($ 13 million) aid program and eased visa procedures for Belarusians.

According to the Polish Foreign Ministry and the Polish Immigration Office, almost 10,000 Belarusians applied for humanitarian visas or asylum in the past year.

Ramona Konik came to Poland after her husband was arrested during a protest in Minsk and badly beaten by the police. After his release, the couple and their 10-year-old autistic son also decided to quit.

Poland granted them a humanitarian visa, but Konik said she feared for their future.

“I have a humanitarian visa, but only for one year. What should i do later With a residence permit, I can get an apartment, a mortgage, a loan for a car, medicine … ”, said Konik.

Organizations keen to support the community anonymously told Reuters that their aid was limited after the Polish government failed to extend part of funding for 2021.

Katarzyna Skopiec, who heads Mirnyj dom and the Humanosh Foundation, which provides shelter for Belarusian refugees, told Reuters that they never received government support despite trying to apply for a 50,000 zloty grant.

“With every step they take, they create additional hurdles for them,” Skopiec told Reuters. “I don’t think they are helping in Poland. [Belarusians] wouldn’t call me when I landed at the airport, scared. “

Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz told Reuters that the Polish government supports Belarus more than most European countries and that its aid program is intended as emergency aid in times of crisis.

($ 1 = 3.8120 zloty)

Additional reporting by Lewis MacDonald Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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