Turkey bans citizens from Syria, Yemen and Iraq from flying to Minsk
Turkey has blocked citizens of Syria, Yemen and Iraq from buying flight tickets to Belarus, in an apparent attempt to avoid sanctions on Turkish entities over their role in the arrival of hundreds of people from the Middle East along the EU’s eastern border.
Turkish Airlines, which is 49% state-owned, and Belavia, the Belarusian state airline, have confirmed they will no longer carry citizens of those countries to Belarus, days before a planned announcement of new sanctions from the EU that could target major airlines.
The EU has accused Belarus of encouraging people fleeing war-torn parts of the world to fly to Minsk then facilitating their travel to the border with Poland. Late on Thursday the US and European delegations on the UN security council urged action over Belarus’s behaviour, describing the migrant crisis as “orchestrated” and accusing the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko of endangering people “for political purposes”.
Hundreds of people are now living in a tent camp on the Belarus-Poland border in near-freezing temperatures. Poland, which has established a state of emergency in the border region enforced by hundreds of troops, refuses to allow them in.
Turkish Airlines and Belavia airlines have denied any role in trafficking people to Belarus. However, Belavia had previously said it could not deny a ticket-holder the right to fly if their documents were in order.
The decision by Turkey’s aviation directorate should effectively close Istanbul as a major transit hub for people who want to reach the EU via Belarus from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Other routes, including through Damascus and Dubai, remain open.
Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission vice-president, welcomed the move. “Overall we are seeing progress on all fronts,” he said. “This is the moment when the EU is counting on our friends and we are very happy to see we have many.”
Lukashenko’s decision to spark a crisis on the Polish border is seen as an act of revenge for the EU’s criticism of his brutal crackdown on the Belarusian opposition, and also an attempt to move the conversation on domestically from last year’s pro-democracy protests.
New EU sanctions are expected on Monday, targeting 30 Belarusian individuals and organisations involved in the crisis. Lukashenko has promised to retaliate, threatening to block supplies of natural gas from a pipeline linking Russia to Europe.
On Friday, a Kremlin spokesperson appeared to contradict Lukashenko’s threat, saying Russia would honour its existing contracts regardless of Belarusian actions. “Russia’s reliability as a supplier and a partner under current and future contracts is beyond doubt,” said Dmitri Peskov.
While sidestepping some of Lukashenko’s most aggressive threats, Russia continued to flex its muscles in Belarus on Friday, landing paratroopers on a training exercise in the Hrodna region just miles from the borders with Poland and Lithuania.
Russia this week has also sent nuclear-capable bombers on rare patrols over Belarusian airspace in a move viewed as a warning to Nato countries. Russia called the paratrooper deployment a training exercise and said they had already returned to Russia. But Belarus’ defence ministry claimed that it was a “readiness check” prompted by the “rise in military activity close to the border”.
Poland and Lithuania have both declared a state of emergency and sent legions of troops and police to the border area due to the arrival of thousands of people. Reports have continued on Friday of people successfully crossing into Poland.
The situation in the improvised refugee camps on Belarus’ borders remains dire. In a statement on Friday, the World Health Organization said its team of experts found that 60% of people it spoke to on the Belarus-Lithuania border needed some form of medical attention.
Russia clashed with western countries at the UN security council on Thursday as both sides blamed the other for the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the border.
After an emergency meeting on the crisis, the western delegations at the security council in New York issued a joint statement condemning “the orchestrated instrumentalisation of human beings … with “the objective of destabilising neighbouring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations”.
The statement called for a strong international reaction, without mentioning any concrete measures.
In response to a Guardian request, Belavia denied that it was involved in trafficking and claimed it had previously blocked suspicious bookings.
Asked whom it had blocked from travelling and when, Belavia said: “Belavia wouldn’t like to specify the names of travel agencies, as we can’t be 100% sure that these agencies are consciously engaged in trafficking migrants.”
The airline said it had blocked a number of travel agencies as a preventative measure based on their activities. “The examples include ‘hidden groups’ – several individual bookings with seven to nine passengers on the same flight who are citizens of ‘high-risk’ countries, or [where] the passport details of passengers are not specified in such bookings by the agents. Or in the case of bookings which were initially created for passengers with European names which afterwards, right before the ticket issuance, were changed by the agents to Arabian ones.”