The European Commission on Tuesday proposed targeted measures to hit transport companies that “engage in or facilitate the smuggling or smuggling of people to the EU” – a measure aimed at preventing Belarus from sending migrants to its borders with the block.
“We propose rules to blacklist all means and modes of transport involved in human trafficking and smuggling of migrants”, noted Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The Commission calls on Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to send migrants to EU borders in retaliation for sanctions imposed on his regime as “hybrid war”.
The measures – which are expected to be approved by the European Parliament and member countries – would blacklist any transport company involved in helping migrants gain access to EU airspace, land at airports, arrive in ports or cross EU territory.
The list would last up to a year and could be renewed with individual cases decided by the Commission once the regulation is approved, said Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean.
She compared the measure to EU regulations already in place blocking access to the EU for airlines that do not follow the bloc’s safety rules.
If passed, the measures would increase pressure on Belarus to stop transporting people from the Middle East to Minsk and then sending them attempting to cross the EU via Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Belavia, the Belarusian national airline, was banned in June from flying in EU airspace or landing at any of the Union’s airports after Belarus hijacked a passenger plane to Minsk to arrest an opposition blogger. These sanctions prompted Lukashenko to step up his smuggling operation.
EU pressure persuaded the Iraqi national airline, Iraqi Airways, to suspend scheduled flights to Minsk in August. The threat of new sanctions also saw Syrian airline Cham Wings Air cancel flights to Belarus this month.
Earlier this month, Turkish Airlines agreed to stop selling one-way tickets to Belarus to people from several countries in the Middle East. Belavia has said it will stop allowing Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens to board flights between Turkey and Belarus.
Uzbekistan has also imposed restrictions on flights to Belarus for transit passengers from half a dozen countries.
Announcing the plan, Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said the migrants had been “sold a lie” by governments and airlines and that the problem was a security concern for the bloc. The Commission said that as of 14 November, there had been 2,649 asylum applications in Lithuania, 294 in Latvia and 6,498 in Poland related to flights to Belarus.
“Attempts to destabilize the EU by instrumentalizing people will not work,” said von der Leyen. “The EU is united and is taking various measures to resolve the situation at the EU’s external borders with Belarus… We will never accept the exploitation of human beings for political purposes.
The three border countries are building fences and have sent their military to prevent people from crossing. Polish authorities have been criticized by human rights groups for forcibly returning migrants to Belarus.
Pressure has eased in recent days, with some migrants returning to Iraq and Belarus pushing some people away from the border.
The Commission is also making an additional € 200 million available for border management in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, but the funding cannot be used for border fences, Schinas said.