Migrants living in makeshift camps on the border between Belarus and the EU are permitted to claim asylum and seek safety within countries in the region, but nowhere else, one of the bloc's top officials has announced.
This would rule out Germany, the stated preferred destination of many.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday, European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas explained that the refugees could apply for asylum in the EU country whose border they were on, including Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, but not in other member states.
"If they don't request asylum in one of those three countries, they can also request asylum in Belarus itself, because Belarus is part of the Geneva Convention," he explained, pointing to the fact the Eastern European nation is a signatory to the refugees' rights pact.
European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson also asserted that refugees did not have the right to choose which European country they would live in. "If you came to EU territory illegally and don't want to apply for asylum in your country of residence, you can be made to leave," she said.
There were exceptions, she noted, for migrants who would be likely to face danger in their home countries. "This applies to those who would run into problems if they returned home. For example, Belarusian oppositionists," she clarified, implying this provision wouldn't apply to most of the Middle Eastern refugees fleeing war-torn nations. "For the rest, the rule is that you don't have the right to choose where you request asylum, if you came to the EU illegally."
In a decree published Tuesday night, Poland imposed a three-month ban on anyone entering the border region without permission. The ban will cover 183 towns and villages in areas along the frontier from December until March.
The lower house of the Polish parliament voted down an amendment that would have allowed journalists to freely enter the restricted zones. According to the law as it was implemented, journalists will need to get permission from the Polish Border Service to enter.
The EU has blamed Belarus for the sharp rise in the number of people illegally trying to cross the border, saying Minsk has put on flights for desperate people from countries like Iraq and Syria, and then funneled them to the border as retaliation against sanctions.
Speaking earlier this month, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko admitted it was possible some of his officials had helped the would-be asylum seekers to cross over, but said it wasn't worth looking into. Minsk accuses the bloc of orchestrating a "hybrid war" by hosting exiled opposition figures and media outlets banned within Belarus.