On Jan.1, 2000, in the west African port of Lome, Kofi Kondgo boards a ship which will take him to safety. His wife has paid $1000 to a people trafficker, who assures her Kofi will go to a "good" European country. Three weeks later the ship arrives in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. There, Kondgo meets a Pakistani trafficker who offers to take him to the nearest United Nations office for $500. But instead of being taken to Lithuania or Poland, where the nearest offices are, he is taken to Belarus. "Until I got here I didn't know it was called Minsk, and it's in Belarus," he says.
In Togo, where Kondgo's story begins, hundreds were extra-judicially executed last year, according to Amnesty International. As a driver for an opposition politician, he says he was imprisoned, but escaped. He briefly sheltered in neighbouring Ghana, not a safe place for Togolese refugees, judging from Amnesty's country report: nine were extradited back to Togo last year, where they were imprisoned, tortured and beaten, one dying from lack of medical care.
Kondgo is one of several thousand asylum seekers and refugees in Belarus. The Counselling Service of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) assists asylum seekers in claiming refugee status. This sometimes involves going to court, as in Kondgo's case. He still awaits a decision.
For Abdullah Mohammad, the waiting is over. One of many from Afghanistan, he has been granted refugee status. At the Counselling Service's offices, he tells The Baltic Times he was a university lecturer, until the Taleban attacked the city of Mazar-e Sharif, near his home. During the defence of the city he was asked to store weapons in his house. But after the first Taleban campaign, he decided to leave, with his wife and six children.
"My father was rich. We had everything - land, a house - but we had to leave. In the fighting the second and third floors of our house were destroyed," he says.
As a place of refuge, Belarus is far from ideal, as Ustina Kupreychik, UNHCR legal adviser confirms. "If you were a refugee, first you would save your life, but if you had the opportunity to choose the country, of course you would go somewhere where conditions are better," she says.
If life is a struggle for the majority in Belarus, it can be particularly difficult for asylum seekers and refugees. They can face a range of additional social problems. Kondgo complains of widespread racism. "It's difficult for Africans to live here. They don't like to rent a room to Africans. I can't work here," he says. "I don't have anywhere, here or in my country. All my life depends on the UN office."
"For Afghans it's a little easier because they have a community here," says Kupreychik. "They help each other and find illegal jobs on the market." But according to the refugees, they suffer prejudice, fuelled by memories of Afghanistan's war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. "People don't realize that there are good and bad people. They treat Afghans badly to blame them for killing their soldiers," says Mohammad.
Crossing the CIS is relatively easy for refugees, but Belarus's border with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland brings them to a halt. Nonetheless, the region, particularly Belarus and the Ukraine, is a major transit corridor for illegal migration to the West. Many of the 58 Chinese people who were found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck at the English port of Dover in June, for example, are thought to have travelled from Russia.
"This is a huge trafficking business, a well-organised, very lucrative business for those who deal in human misery," says Bohdan Nahajlo, head of UNHCR in Belarus.
Kabul pediatrician Dr. Abdul Rauf tells of how he agreed to pay $9000 to a Russian trafficker to take him, his wife, and daughter to Germany, but was left at Belarus's border with Poland. In Afghanistan he feared for his life because of his Soviet education, and his involvement with opposition politics. "The Taleban would have killed me. My friends who were caught were killed," he says. Dr Rauf now has refugee status in Belarus and makes a living in Minsk's Kamarovsky Market. "I can't work as a doctor. I have to work in the market," he says.
So should refugees and migrants be left to suffer such marginalisation in a country most have not chosen?
"We're trying to tell western, richer countries not to forget about this part of the world," says Nahajlo. "Europe doesn't stop at Poland or Germany. We promote a regional approach," he says.
Such a regional approach could arguably include letting more refugees and migrants into EU. Estonian President Lennart Meri was reported as lamenting his country's population decline in a Mother's Day speech earlier this year. Estonia does not see immigration as a possible solution, according to Mart Nutt, MP in the governing coalition. But a recent report by the United Nations Population Division said immigration could be an answer to problems associated with declining populations in Europe. Economically, migrants represent "a net contribution, rather than a net drain," says the report, which has had a positive response from some European governments.
Nahajlo suggests western countries should help Belarus with the cost of humanely dealing with those prevented from entering their territories. In its treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, Belarus has made "good, steady progress in difficult economic conditions," he says. This despite the fact that Belarus has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which protects the interests of refugees.
"There is a genuine fear in Belarus that they [the state] will be stuck. Already they don't have money to deport people or look after illegal migrants while they investigate their presence on the territory humanely. If you don't want these people coming to France or Britain, you should help out," says Nahajlo.
Financial help for Belarus in dealing with illegal migrants and asylum seekers "might be considered in future," says A. Gavenas, Director of the Migration Department at the Lithuanian Interior Ministry. "We could share our experience and knowledge with our Belarusian colleagues," he says.
Asked to comment on treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in the Baltic states, UNHCR officers speak of "good progress" with regard to asylum policy and practice. However, further progress is needed, they say, to avoid the return of people to countries where they would risk death, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment. They also highlight the problem of excessive processing times for asylum applications in Estonia and Lithuania, and single out the restrictiveness of Estonia's asylum system.
Meanwhile in Minsk, Kofi Kondgo is not confident about the Belarusian system. "Ask them what will happen to me if I am rejected," he pleads.
The names of all asylum seekers and refugees have been changed at their request.