Since fleeing southern Iraq in July, Ali and his six family members have been held in a detention center in Lithuania.
The 45-year-old is one of thousands-mainly from the Middle East-who traveled to Belarus in the summer, hoping to join the European Union.
As an activist in anti-government protests in 2019, Ali said that when armed groups targeted him and threatened his family, he was forced to leave Iraq.
After landing in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Ali, whose name was changed for security reasons, was captured by Lithuanian border guards while crossing the border.
He said that since then he was barred from applying for asylum or leaving the detention center, where another 200 people are still being held.
He complained about inhumane conditions, food shortages and mental health. He is particularly worried about his eight-year-old son.
“We are not criminals. Why are we treated like this?” The father of four told Al Jazeera by phone. “We just want to live.”
Last week, Iraq repatriated about 400 citizens stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland for several weeks, most of them from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesperson Jotiar Adil told Al Jazeera that Erbil is working closely with Baghdad to repatriate more Kurdish refugees in Europe, but will not force anyone to return. .
As the European Union threatens to impose more sanctions on Belarus and Minsk refuses to make concessions, an agreement to protect the interests of refugees seems increasingly far-fetched, leaving Ali — he said he would rather die than return to Iraq — and thousands Tens of thousands of others are in trouble as the immigration crisis deepens.
“Even if they pay me, I will not come back. We saw death in Iraq. We will accept hell here,” Ali said.
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, angered the West by suppressing dissent after the controversial election last year, earning him a sixth term. He was accused of planning a crisis in retaliation for subsequent sanctions imposed by the West.
The conflict has also increased hostility towards Russia, the main supporter of Belarus, and Russia has also been blamed.
Last week, Lukashenko proposed a plan for Minsk to repatriate 5,000 Belarusian refugees, if Germany accepts 2,000 of them-this idea was rejected by Berlin and the European Union as an unacceptable solution plan.
Federica Infantino, an immigration policy researcher at the European University Institute (EUI), said: “We have seen many European leaders unwilling to enter into any form of deal with Lukashenko.”
“I don’t think the EU will fund Belarus to retain immigrants as it does in other cases,” she was referring to an agreement reached between Ankara and the EU in 2016 that prevented refugees from flowing into Europe from Turkey in exchange for EU finances. support.
James Dennison, professor of immigration policy at EUI, said that Belarus hopes to reproduce scenarios similar to the refugee crisis in 2015, which led the group to pay large amounts of money and non-financial incentives to non-EU governments to stop the flow of migrants.
Although Denison said that Belarus’s approach is unlikely to work, he predicts that the EU and Minsk may eventually agree on “some face-saving measures” to allow people to return to their countries of origin, “may be paid by the EU or Poland.”
“However, given that most immigrants refuse to go home, it remains to be seen how the two sides will achieve this goal,” he said, emphasizing the uncertainty of their future.
Last week, the situation reached a boiling point.
People camped in sub-zero temperatures, surrounded by barbed wire, and clashed with armed Polish border guards; guards sprayed water cannons and tear gas on those planning to start a new life in Europe.
After Lukashenko had a phone call with German Chancellor Merkel, after Belarus cleared a camp near the border crossing and moved people to another location, the crisis seemed to ease slightly.
But within a few days, Poland again accused Belarus of continuing to send refugees to the border. If Minsk’s requirements are not met, a solution seems unlikely.
“For Minsk, the suspension of sanctions pressure and EU cooperation on immigration issues are the basis for its resumption of implementation of previous agreements,” said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk International Relations Dialogue Committee.
“This is a matter of principle that Minsk will not compromise.”
Deepen the plight of refugees
Kalina Czwarnog, a board member of the Polish organization Ocalenie Foundation, stated that most people who crossed the border from Belarus into Poland were either repatriated or detained in detention centers. It is estimated that about 1,800 people, mainly from the Kurdish region of Iraq, are being held.
There are similar reports in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Warsaw built barbed wire fences along the border and implemented a state of emergency, barring journalists and rescuers from entering the 3-km (1.8-mile) strip along its border, making it more difficult for people to obtain legal representation to seek asylum or humanitarian assistance.
“Since summer, many [refugees] They were not granted the right to seek asylum and were pushed back to Belarus, where some people said they were tortured,” she said.
Tadeusz Kolodziej, a lawyer for the Ocalenie Foundation, said that those who manage to break through the border will be immediately pushed back or handed over for deportation-a process that usually takes about 30 days.
“That’s better because they have the opportunity to seek asylum legal representatives during that time. We might represent them in court,” Kolodziej said.
He explained that the process of seeking asylum can be lengthy and can take months or even years because people stay in detention centers or “open camps”, where they have a certain degree of freedom of movement and the opportunity to seek undocumented work.
In either case, refugees have the legal right to receive government assistance, including shelter, food, and some material support, but Czwarnog said that refugee camps are usually overcrowded and lack legal or mental health support.
According to Czwarnog, only those who arrived in Poland in critical medical conditions have the opportunity to seek legal protection and apply for asylum while receiving treatment in a hospital.
Lukashenko acknowledged that Belarus’ actions may help refugees enter the European Union, and he even raised the possibility of cutting off Russia’s natural gas supply to the European Union if Brussels imposes new sanctions on the influx of refugees.
On Monday, he warned that if the crisis “worses too much, war is inevitable”.
His words echoed those of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who had said that the crisis could be a prelude to “worse things.”
The Polish authorities deployed 15,000 soldiers along the border with Belarus, while Russia increased its military presence near the Kaliningrad enclave near Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland and Lithuania, and sent two bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace.
“All of this can lead to military incidents,” Prechman said, adding that armed conflict will only put refugees in a more dangerous state.
“They will be in a terrible situation. No one will care about them,” he said.