What next for the refugees stranded between Belarus and Poland?
Even if Belarus and the EU reach a deal, analysts say refugees may be long left in limbo at the border or in detention centres.
Ali has been held at a detention centre in Lithuania along with six members of his family since they fled southern Iraq in July.
The 45-year-old is among thousands of people – mainly from the Middle East – who made their way to Belarus over the summer in hope of reaching 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.
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 frontier.
He says he has since been barred from claiming asylum or leaving the detention centre, where 200 others are also being held.
He complains of inhumane conditions, food scarcity and mental ill-health. He is especially worried about his eight-year-old son.
“We’re not criminals. Why are we being treated like this?” the father-of-four told Al Jazeera by phone. “We just want to live.”
Last week, Iraq repatriated about 400 citizens – mostly from the Kurdish region in northern Iraq – who had been stranded at the Belarusian-Polish border for weeks.
A spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Jotiar Adil, told Al Jazeera that Erbil was working closely with Baghdad to repatriate more Kurdish refugees in Europe, but that it would not force anyone to return.
As the EU threatens more sanctions on Belarus, and Minsk refuses to back down, an agreement that will protect the interests of refugees seems increasingly farfetched, leaving Ali – who says he would rather die than go back to Iraq – and thousands of others in limbo as the migration crisis deepens.
“Even if they pay me, I won’t return. We saw death in Iraq. We’ll accept hell here,” said Ali.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who enraged the West by cracking down on dissent following last year’s disputed election that secured him a sixth term, has been accused of masterminding the crisis in revenge for sanctions the West subsequently imposed.
The conflict has also fuelled animosity towards Russia, Belarus’s main supporter, which is also being blamed.
Last week, Lukashenko proposed a plan that involved Minsk sending 5,000 refugees in Belarus back home, if Germany took in 2,000 of them – an idea Berlin and the EU rejected as an unacceptable solution.
“We are witnessing the reluctance of many European leaders at making any kind of deal with Lukashenko,” said Federica Infantino, a migration policy fellow at the European University Institute (EUI).
“I don’t see the EU funding Belarus to keep migrants like in other cases,” she said referring to a 2016 deal between Ankara and the EU that stemmed the flow of refugees from Turkey into Europe in exchange for financial support from the bloc.
James Dennison, professor of migration policy at EUI, said Belarus was hoping to recreate a scenario akin to the 2015 refugee crisis, leading to the bloc paying sums of money and non-financial incentives to non-EU governments to keep migration flows at bay.
Although Dennison said Belarus’ approach was unlikely to work, he predicted the EU and Minsk may eventually agree on “some face-saving measure” that involve people being returned to their countries of origin, “possibly paid for by the EU or Poland.”
“However, how exactly both sides would achieve this, given that the majority of migrants are refusing to go home, remains to be seen,” he said, highlighting the uncertainty of their futures.
Last week, the situation reached a boiling point.
People camped in sub-zero temperatures and surrounded by barbed wire clashed with armed Polish border guards; the guards sprayed water cannon and tear gas on those aiming to start new lives in Europe.
The crisis appeared to ease slightly after Belarus cleared a camp near the border crossing and transferred people to another location, following a phone call between Lukashenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But within days, Poland again accused Belarus of continuing to funnel refugees to the frontier. A solution appeared unlikely without Minsk’s demands being met.
“For Minsk, stopping the sanctions pressure and EU cooperation on migration issues are a baseline for it to resume delivering on previous agreements,” said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.
“That’s a matter of principle that Minsk won’t compromise on.”
Deepening refugee predicament
Kalina Czwarnog, a board member of Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish organisation that supports refugees with legal and humanitarian aid, says that most of those who crossed into Poland from Belarus have either been sent back or held at detention centres, estimating that about 1,800 people – mainly from the Kurdish region of Iraq – were being held.
Similar reports have come out of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Warsaw, which built a razor-wire fence along its frontier and imposed a state of emergency that bars journalists and aid workers from a 3km-deep (1.8-mile) strip along its frontier, has made it harder for people to access legal representation to seek asylum or humanitarian aid.
“Since the summer, many [refugees] have not been granted the right to seek asylum and are pushed back into Belarus where some say they’re being tortured,” she said.
Tadeusz Kolodziej, a lawyer at Ocalenie Foundation, said that people who manage breach the border are being immediately pushed back or handed over for deportation – a procedure that usually takes approximately 30 days.
“That’s better because they have the chance to seek legal representation for asylum during that time. We can potentially represent them in front of the court,” said Kolodziej.
He explained that the asylum-seeking process can be lengthy, taking months or even years as people remain in detention centres or “open camps” where they have some freedom of movement and the opportunity to seek undocumented employment.
In either case, refugees have a legal right to government aid in the form of shelter, food and some material support, but Czwarnog said camps are usually overcrowded and lack legal or mental health support.
According to Czwarnog, only those arriving in Poland in a critical medical state have been given a chance to seek legal protection and apply for asylum while being treated at a hospital.
Lukashenko, who has acknowledged that Belarusian action may have helped refugees reach the European Union, has even floated the possibility of cutting gas supplies from Russia to the bloc if Brussels imposes new sanctions over the influx of refugees.
On Monday, he warned that if the crisis deteriorated “too far, war is unavoidable”.
His words echoed those of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who has said that the crisis could be a prelude to “something much worse”.
Polish authorities have deployed 15,000 troops along the border with Belarus, while Russia has increased its military presence near Ukraine, Belarus and the Kaliningrad enclave near Poland and Lithuania, and dispatched two bombers to patrol Belarusian airspace.
“There’s danger that all this may lay ground to military incidents,” said Preiherman, adding that an armed conflict would only put the refugees in an even more precarious state.
“They would be in a horrible position. No one, on either side, will care about them,” he said.