Now, no one is offering to take the migrants, even as they suffer through life-threatening conditions. The E.U. is united behind Poland, which is portraying itself as the first line of defense for the bloc, and Warsaw and Minsk have traded ominous threats.
Migrants, but Not Always Refugees
Many of the Middle Easterners in Belarus are economic migrants who do not appear to qualify as refugees, though that does not make the danger they face — at least 11 have died in the cold — any less real.
International accords define refugees as people with legitimate fears of violence or persecution, and give them a right to asylum. Many people in the migrant flood of 2015-16 were fleeing wars.
Understand the Belarus-Poland Border Crisis
The repressive governments in Syria and Afghanistan still pose a severe threat to many of their people, but the wars there have quieted and Iraq is relatively secure.
But many of the people now in Belarus left Iraq and Syria seeking economic opportunity. They would not qualify for asylum.
The Polish and Lithuanian authorities have reportedly abused migrants, forcing them back into Belarus without hearing their asylum claims, which rights groups say violates international law. Now the migrants are trapped in a potentially lethal clash.
“We became like a chicken in a cage in the hands of Belarusian and Polish police,” Bayar Awat, an Iraqi Kurd stuck at the border with his wife and infant daughter, said in a telephone interview.