What next for the refugees stranded between Belarus and Poland?

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Even if Belarus and the European Union reach an agreement, analysts say refugees could be confined for longer periods at the border or in detention centres.

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Ali has been held in a detention center in Lithuania along with six members of his family since his escape from southern Iraq in July.


The 45-year-old is among thousands – mainly from the Middle East – who made their way to Belarus in the summer hoping to reach the European Union.

As an activist in the 2019 anti-government protests, Ali says he was forced to leave Iraq when armed groups targeted him and threatened his family.

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After landing in the Belarusian capital Minsk, Ali, whose name has been changed for security reasons, was caught by Lithuanian border guards while crossing the border.

He says he has since been barred from claiming asylum or leaving the detention center, where another 200 people are also being held.

He complains of inhuman conditions, lack of food and mental unwell. He is especially concerned about his eight-year-old son.

“We are not criminals. Why are we being treated like this?” The father of four told Al Jazeera over the phone: “We just want to live.”

Last week, Iraq repatriated nearly 400 civilians – mostly from Kurdish territory in northern Iraq – who had been stranded on the Belarusian-Polish border for weeks.

A spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Jotiyar Adil, told Al Jazeera that Erbil was working closely with Baghdad to bring back more Kurdish refugees to Europe, but it would not force anyone to return.

As the European Union threatens more sanctions on Belarus, and Minsk refuses to back down, an agreement that will protect the interests of refugees, except for Ali – who says he will rather die than go back to Iraq. Will – and thousands of others have become limited. As the crisis of migration deepens.

“Even if they pay me, I will not come back. We saw death in Iraq. We will accept hell here,” Ali said.

Refugees gather during the distribution of humanitarian aid at the border in Grodno, Belarus [File: Maxim Guchek/Reuters]


Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who angered the West by cracking down on dissent after last year’s controversial election that secured him a sixth term, has been accused of masterminding the crisis to avenge the sanctions later imposed by the West. Has been charged.

The conflict has also fueled animosity towards Russia’s main supporter of Belarus, which is also being blamed.

Last week, Lukashenko proposed a plan that would include sending 5,000 refugees home to Belarus to Minsk if Germany took 2,000 of them – an idea Berlin and the European Union dismissed as an unacceptable solution.

“We are seeing the reluctance of many European leaders to make any deal with Lukashenko,” said Federica Infantino, Migration Policy Fellow at the European University Institute (EUI).

“I don’t think the EU is funding Belarus to hold migrants like in other matters,” he said, referring to a 2016 deal between Ankara and the European Union.

James Dennison, professor of migration policy at the EUI, said Belarus was hoping to recreate a scenario similar to the refugee crisis of 2015, giving non-EU governments funds to keep migration flows at bay. And non-financial incentives had to be paid.

Although Dennison said Belarus’ approach was unlikely to work, he predicted that the EU and Minsk might eventually agree on “some face-saving measures”, including returning people to their countries of origin. , “Possibly paid for by the EU or Poland.”

“However, how both sides will achieve this, given that most migrants are refusing to go home, remains to be seen,” he said, highlighting the uncertainty of his future.

Last week, the situation reached boiling point.

People camped in sub-zero temperatures and clashed with Polish border guards surrounded by barbed wire; Guards fired water cannons and tear gas at those beginning a new life in Europe.

After a phone call between Lukashenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the crisis eased slightly after Belarus cleared a camp near the border crossing and moved people to another location.

But within days, Poland again accused Belarus of sending refugees to the border. A solution appeared impossible without meeting Minsk’s demands.

“For Minsk, the pressure of sanctions on migration issues and the cessation of EU cooperation is a baseline for it to resume previous agreements,” said Yauheny Prehrmann, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.

“It is a matter of principle that Minsk will not compromise.”

Refugees clash with Polish authorities as they attempt to enter Poland at the Brzeggi-Kuznica border crossing [File: Leonid Shcheglov//AFP]

deepening refugee crisis

Kalina Czwarnog, a board member of the Okleni Foundation, a Polish organization that supports refugees with legal and humanitarian aid, says the majority of those traveling from Belarus to Poland have either been deported or held in detention centres, Estimating that around 1,800 people – mainly from the Kurdish region of Iraq – were being held.

Similar reports have emerged from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Warsaw, which erected a razor-wire fence along its border and imposed a state of emergency that prevents journalists and aid workers from a 3 km-deep (1.8-mile) strip along its border, has threatened people. has made it difficult for them to access legal representation. Seeking asylum or humanitarian aid.

“Since the summer, many [refugees] They have not been given asylum rights and have been pushed back to Belarus, where some say they are being tortured,” she said.

Tadeusz Kolodziej, a lawyer for the Ocalenie Foundation, said those who violate the limit are immediately pushed back or handed over to deportation – a process that usually takes about 30 days.

“It is better because they have a chance to seek legal representation for asylum during that time. We could potentially represent them before the court,” Kolodzij said.

He explained that the asylum-seeking process can be lengthy, taking months or even years because people live in detention centers or “open camps” where they have some freedom of movement and the opportunity to seek unspecified employment.

In any case, refugees have a legal right to government assistance in the form of shelter, food and some material aid, but Zvarnog said the camps are usually overcrowded and lack legal or mental health support.

According to Czwarnog, only those arriving in Poland with a serious medical condition are given the chance to obtain legal protection and apply for asylum while being treated in hospital.

Dozens of refugees have been detained after entering Poland from Belarus [File: Oksana Manchuk/AFP]

‘terrible situation’

Lukashenko, who has acknowledged that Belarusian action may have helped refugees reach the European Union, even floats the possibility of cutting gas supplies from Russia if new restrictions on the influx of Brussels refugees. puts.

On Monday, he warned that if the crisis is “too far away, war is inevitable”.

His words echoed the words of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who has said the crisis could be the prelude to “something even worse”.

Polish authorities have deployed 15,000 troops to the border with Belarus, while Russia has increased its military presence in Ukraine, Belarus and the Kaliningrad enclave near Poland and Lithuania, and sent two bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace. Huh.

“There is a danger that all this could become grounds for military incidents,” Prehrmann said, adding that an armed conflict would only put the refugees in an even more precarious position.

“They will be in a terrible situation. No one, from either side, will care about them,” he said.

Polish military police guard the Poland-Belarus border near Kuznica, Poland [File: Irek Dorozanski/Reuters]


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