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Poland becomes haven for Belarusians fleeing crackdown

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Katarzyna Skopiec, a human rights activist running the House of Peace (Mirnyj Dom) and Humanosh Foundation, which provide shelter for Belarusian refugees, poses for a picture in Warsaw, Poland June 15, 2021. REUTERS/Kuba Stezycki

WARSAW, June 18 (Reuters) - Thousands of Belarusians escaping a political crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko have fled to neighbouring Poland in the past year, but their long-term future there is uncertain.

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

Both Zuk and Ekaterina, who declined to give her last name for fear it would compromise her family back home, had been among the thousands of protesters across Belarus who took to the streets after Lukashenko declared victory in a disputed presidential election last August.

The authorities responded with a brutal crackdown and mass detentions, and the couple were both arrested and detained several days: Ekaterina in August and Zuk, who had become a protest organiser, in November.

Fearing they could be detained again, the couple left Brest in February, arriving in Poland on tourist visas. They later obtained a humanitarian visa for Poland in Vilnius.

"I hope that life will be good in Belarus and that we can go back but this hope ... is growing thinner with every month," Zuk told Reuters. "I want to stay. To work, to get an official status."

As turmoil shook Belarus, Poland proclaimed itself a European leader in supporting Belarusian opposition politicians, calling for more European Union funding, launching a special aid program for 50 million zlotys ($13 million)and easing visa procedures for Belarusians.

According to the Polish foreign ministry and Poland's Office for Foreigners, nearly 10,000 Belarusians have applied for humanitarian visas or asylum in the past year.

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

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

"I have a humanitarian visa but only for a year. What do I do later? With residency, I can get an apartment, a mortgage, a loan for a car, medicine…," Konik said.

Organisations seeking to support the community told Reuters anonymously that their aid was limited after the Polish government did not renew some funding for 2021.

Katarzyna Skopiec, who runs Mirnyj dom and the Humanosh Foundation, which provide shelter for Belarusian refugees, told Reuters they have never received any government support, despite trying to apply for a 50,000 zlotys grant.

"At every step, they are creating additional hurdles for them," Skopiec told Reuters. "I don't believe that they help in Poland. If they did, [Belarusians] wouldn't be calling me upon landing at the airport, terrified."

Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz told Reuters that the Polish government does more to support Belarus than most European countries and that its aid programme was intended as an emergency injection of money at a time of crisis.

($1 = 3.8120 zlotys)

Additional reporting by Lewis MacDonald Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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