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Belarusians who fled repression face new hurdles as they try to rebuild their lives abroad

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Andrei, a 29-year-old computer programmer who fled to Germany from Belarus two years ago amid a harsh crackdown on political dissent, is facing a serious dilemma.

His Belarusian passport has expired, along with his German residence permit. But Belarus has stopped renewing passports at its embassies abroad under a new decree by authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

“I have a terrible choice to make: become an illegal immigrant in Germany, or return to Belarus, where I will probably be arrested,” said Andrei, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he fears for his safety.

Authorities in Minsk, he told The Associated Press, “managed to turn the life of Belarusians into hell even here.”

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An estimated 500,000 Belarusians fled to the West after Lukashenko was declared the winner of the 2020 election, which was widely seen as fraudulent. Many of them face having no valid documents after the Sept. 4 decree halted passport renewals.

Human Rights Watch has condemned what it called the “draconian” decision, labeling it retaliation against the regime’s “critics-in-exile” by putting them at risk of “politically motivated prosecution if they have to return to Belarus to process their documents.”

Lithuania and Poland, which host the largest number of Belarusians, are trying a temporary fix by issuing them a one-year “foreigner’s passport” that verifies their identity and gives them the right to travel. At least 24 such documents have been issued by Lithuania’s Migration Department.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it expects “further repression” in Belarus and wants to put the issue on the European Union’s agenda, but it’s unclear when that will happen.

Anitta Hipper, a spokesperson for home affairs for the European Commission, said those who can’t get a passport from their country of origin should seek support from the one where they reside. She added the EC welcomed Lithuania’s temporary solution and said it was monitoring the overall situation.

Germany, where Andrei lives, deals with immigrants’ cases individually.

Germany’s Interior Ministry said if a foreign national’s passport has expired, authorities can examine if it’s “reasonable” for the person to get a new passport from their home country or whether Germany can issue replacement papers. The person must state why getting a new passport from their country would not be a reasonable expectation and must have residence status in Germany to get replacement papers.

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Andrei needs an immediate solution because he’s lost his job and can’t get a new one without a residence permit. To apply for refugee status, his lawyers say he needs documents from Belarus to prove he was persecuted in the country, where he said he was arrested and beaten during the 2020 protests.

“This is the authorities’ revenge against all Belarusians who fought for democracy and opposed Lukashenko’s policies,” he said, noting his brother was sentenced to seven years in jail.

Analysts believe Lukashenko wants to neutralize a significant part of the opposition in the country of 9.5 million ahead of parliamentary elections in 2024 and a presidential election in 2025.

“The authorities are making it clear they do not want opposition citizens in any form and are doing everything to prevent them from participating in the elections,” said independent Belarusian analyst Valery Karbalevich.

Lukashenko, he added, wants to avoid another uprising like in 2020, when months of anti-government protests saw more than 35,000 people detained, with many saying they were tortured. About 1,500 people remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski.

Lukashenko has not commented publicly on the passport decree.

Oleg Gaidukevich, deputy head of the parliament’s Commission for International Affairs, said “only extremists are afraid to return to Belarus.” The decree “deals a final blow to the fifth column within the country,” he added.

“Those who escaped have long been working for other countries — for Poland, Lithuania, the United States — so get passports from these countries and stay there,” he told Belarusian state television.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in the election and has since become the leader-in-exile of the opposition, said no Belarusians should return home under these circumstances.

“Not a single document in the world is worth human freedom,” said Tsikhanouskaya, whose activist husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski is serving a 19 1/2-year sentence for organizing protests.

She said the opposition has developed a “Passport of New Belarus,” which can serve as confirmation of citizenship and could be used as a travel document for Belarusians abroad.

“We are taking lessons from the Baltic countries, which issued passports in exile during the Soviet occupation,” she told the European Parliament. “Very soon we will go to governments in the European Union with a request to recognize our new passports.”

Valery Kavaleuski, the foreign affairs representative of Tsikhanouskaya’s government in exile — the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus — said at least 62,000 Belarusians “are in dire need of a new passport.”

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Although no country recognizes the government in exile, Kavaleuski said dozens of them have expressed interest in the idea for the new passport. He would not identify them,

Each EU country must decide whether to recognize it, he said. adding it would “show solidarity with Belarusians” and “be a response to policies taken by Minsk.”

“This will become not only a symbol, but also a practical tool that will unite the huge community of Belarusians around the world,” Kavaleuski said.

One Belarusian couple who were arrested for several days in the protests but later moved to Poland and got relocation visas now need a passport for their daughter, Katya, who was born in Warsaw this year. Their appointment at the Belarusian Embassy was canceled.

“It’s hard to believe, but the Belarusian authorities have deprived not only me of a future but also my child,” said Nina, 27, who also asked that her last name not be revealed for fear of retaliation. “We will be forced to get a passport from a foreign country, because I will definitely not go back to Belarus.”

Independent experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Commission urged Minsk to annul the Sept. 4 decree, since it will further restrict “the rights of Belarusians who are unable to return to their homeland, including the right to register births and grant citizenship to children born abroad.”

The experts said in a report that the decree was part of “a deliberate policy to punish exiled Belarusians, including human rights activists, journalists and opposition figures, for their alleged political disloyalty.” They also urged countries not to deport people to Belarus if their passports are expired.

Aleh Osipau, a 33-year-old artist who was accused of extremism in Belarus for participating in the protests, lost his passport and refugee application after fleeing to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. In 2022, a Russian missile destroyed the building where the documents were kept, and he’s been living in Ukraine for over a year without any papers.

“Without a doubt, for people in a hopeless situation, the ‘Passport of New Belarus’ and its global recognition will come as real salvation and hope,” Osipau told AP.

“The world enthusiastically watched the courage of Belarusians in 2020, but now the world’s help is urgently needed for those who ended up in a difficult situation after challenging the dictatorship,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Lorne Cook in Brussels, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.