European Union foreign ministers are set to adopt a fresh package of sanctions against Belarus amid escalating tensions over the influx of migrants at the bloc's eastern border.
Meeting in Brussels on November 15, the ministers are expected to adjust the kinds of sanctions that can be imposed on authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his regime to include airlines, travel agents, and individuals allegedly involved in the standoff at Belarus's borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, which form the eastern flank of both the 27-member EU and NATO. Those to be hit by the measures, which involve asset freezes and travel bans, are expected to be named in the coming days. Thousands of people, mainly from the Middle East, are stuck in makeshift camps in dire conditions on the Belarusian side of the border, trying to illegally enter the EU, which accuses Lukashenka of flying in migrants and funneling them to the bloc's borders to retaliate against Brussels for sanctions imposed following last year's disputed presidential election.
Lukashenka's government, which is backed by Russia, has denied the EU charges and accuses the bloc of violating human rights by refusing to allow the migrants to apply for asylum.
Upon arrival in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Lukashenka was demanding that "we remove all sanctions." "We will give our answer today. We will further tighten sanctions" in response to "this inhumane system of using refugees as tools to exert pressure on the European Union," he said. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called for all Belarusian airports to be off-limits for airlines potentially carrying would-be migrants, and suggested helping with repatriations from Belarus back to the Middle East. "We need to make the Minsk airport a no-fly zone," he told reporters. Meanwhile, Lukashenka remained defiant, again denying on November 15 that Minsk was organizing the migration flow through Belarus and saying, "we will defend ourselves if the EU imposes new sanctions."
He also insisted that he did not want the migrant crisis to escalate into a "conflict," according to state news agency BelTa.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
The EU has already slapped four rounds of sanctions on Belarus over what the West says were fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020 that handed Lukashenka power for a sixth consecutive term and a security crackdown on the opposition and peaceful protesters that followed the vote.
In response to the migrant crisis, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania have been reinforcing their borders with Belarus. Polish border guards on November 15 warned migrants on the other side of the frontier over loudspeakers that force could be used against them if they disobeyed orders, after Poland and Lithuania reported they stopped over 100 people each attempting to enter the previous day. In an interview on November 14, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on NATO to take "concrete steps" to resolve the migrant crisis, and said he and his Baltic counterparts were discussing whether to call for emergency consultations at the Western military alliance. Belarus's state-owned air carrier Belavia, which is expected to be among the entities hit by EU sanctions, has announced that Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Afghans have been banned from incoming flights from the United Arab Emirates. In a statement to citizens of the four countries posted on its website on November 14, Belavia said such foreign nationals would not be allowed on flights from Dubai to Belarus "in accordance with the decision of competent authorities in the U.A.E." The move came after Belavia last week banned Syrians, Iraqis, and Yemenis from incoming flights from Turkey at Ankara's request. Last week, Turkey banned citizens of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen from flying from its airports to Belarus, while private Syrian carrier Cham Wings Airlines halted flights to the Belarusian capital.
In Iraq, the government said it was organizing a repatriation flight on November 18 for its citizens stuck on the Poland-Belarus border on a "voluntary" basis.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahaf made the announcement on Iraqi television without saying how many people would be able to board the Minsk-Baghdad flight. However, he said Iraq had recorded 571 of its citizens stuck on the border who have said they are ready to return "voluntarily." Regular air links between Baghdad and Minsk have been suspended since August. European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas was due to travel to Baghdad later on November 15 to discuss the situation.