Ali has been detained with six members of his family at a detention center in Lithuania since fleeing southern Iraq in July.
The 45-year-old is among thousands of people – mostly from the Middle East – who came to Belarus over the summer in hopes 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 was changed for security reasons, was captured by Lithuanian border guards while crossing the border.
He says he has since been banned from claiming asylum or leaving the detention center, where 200 others are also being held.
He complains about inhuman conditions, food shortages and mental illness. 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 telephone. “We just want to live.”
Last week, Iraq repatriated about 400 civilians – mostly from the Kurdish region in northern Iraq – who had been stranded at the Belarusian-Polish border for weeks.
A spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Jotiar Adil, told Al Jazeera that Erbil was working closely with Baghdad to repatriate more Kurdish refugees to Europe, but that it would not force anyone to return.
As the EU threatens more sanctions against Belarus, and Minsk refuses to back down, an agreement that will protect the interests of refugees seems increasingly far-fetched, prompting Ali – who says he would rather die than return to Iraq – and thousands of others left in limbo. as the migration crisis deepens.
“Even if they pay me, I will not return. We have seen death in Iraq. We will accept hell here, “said Ali.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has angered the West by fighting opponents after last year’s controversial election that gave him a sixth term, has been accused of masterminding the crisis in retaliation for subsequent sanctions by the West set.
The conflict also fueled hostility towards Russia, Belarus’s main supporter, who is also blamed.
Last week, Lukashenko proposed a plan involving Minsk sending 5,000 refugees back to Belarus should Germany take 2,000 of them – an idea that Berlin and the EU rejected as an unacceptable solution.
“We are witnessing the reluctance of many European leaders to make any kind of agreement with Lukashenko,” said Federica Infantino, a migration policy partner at the European University Institute (EUI).
“I do not see the EU funding Belarus to keep migrants as in other cases,” she said, referring to a 2016 agreement between Ankara and the EU that halted the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe in exchange for financial support of the block.
James Dennison, professor of migration policy at EUI, said Belarus hopes to recreate a scenario similar to the 2015 refugee crisis, which will result in the bloc paying sums of money and non-financial incentives to non-EU governments for migration flows to fail.
Although Dennison said that Belarus’s approach was unlikely to work, he predicted that the EU and Minsk would eventually agree on “some face-saving measure” involving the return of people to their countries of origin. paid by the EU or Poland. “
“How exactly both sides would achieve this, however, given that the majority of migrants refuse to go home, remains to be seen,” he said, emphasizing the uncertainty of their future.
Last week, the situation reached a boiling point.
People camped below freezing in temperatures and surrounded by barbed wire collided with armed Polish border guards; the guards sprayed water cannon and tear gas on those aiming to start new lives in Europe.
The crisis seems to have eased slightly after Belarus cleared a camp near the border crossing and moved people to another location, following a phone call between Lukashenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But within days, Poland accused again Belarus to continue to funnel refugees to the border. A solution seemed unlikely without Minsk’s demands being met.
“For Minsk, stopping the pressure on sanctions and EU cooperation on migration issues is a baseline for resuming the delivery of previous agreements,” said Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations.
“This is a matter of principle that Minsk will not compromise on.”
Deepening refugee problems
Kalina Czwarnog, a board member of Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish organization that supports refugees with legal and humanitarian aid, says most of those who crossed from Belarus to Poland were either sent back or detained at detention centers. It is estimated that about 1 800 people – mainly from the Kurdish region of Iraq – were detained.
Similar reports came from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Warsaw, which has built a razor wire fence along its border and imposed a state of emergency banning journalists and aid workers from a 3km (1.8 miles) strip along its border, has made it more difficult for people to access legal representation to get. seek asylum or humanitarian aid.
“Since the summer, many [refugees] “did not get the right to seek asylum and is being pushed back to Belarus where some say they are being tortured,” she said.
Tadeusz Kolodziej, a lawyer at the Ocalenie Foundation, said people who manage to cross the border are immediately repulsed or handed over for deportation – a procedure that usually takes about 30 days.
“It’s better, because they have the chance to seek legal representation for asylum at that time. “We can possibly represent them in court,” Kolodziej said.
He explained that the process of seeking asylum can be long, months or even years as people stay in detention centers or “open camps” where they have some freedom of movement and the opportunity to seek undocumented work.
In both cases, refugees have a legal right to state aid in the form of shelter, food and some material support, but Czwarnog said camps are usually overcrowded and have no legal or mental health support.
According to Czwarnog, only those who arrive in Poland in a critical medical condition are given a chance to seek legal protection and to apply for asylum while being treated at a hospital.
Lukashenko, what admit it that Belarusian action may have helped refugees reach the European Union even pushed the possibility of cutting gas supplies from Russia to the bloc if Brussels imposed new sanctions on the influx of refugees.
Monday he warned that if the crisis “has worsened too far, war is inevitable”.
His words reflect those of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who said the crisis could be a prelude to “something much worse”.
Polish authorities deployed 15,000 troops along the border with Belarus, while Russia increased its military presence near Ukraine, Belarus and the Kaliningrad enclave near Poland and Lithuania, sending two bombers out of Belarus’ airspace. to patrol.
“There is a danger that this could all lay the groundwork for military incidents,” Preiherman said, adding that an armed conflict would only put the refugees in an even more precarious state.
“They would be in a terrible position. “Nobody, on either side, will care about them,” he said.