Brussels disrupts part of the migrant smuggling network set up by Lukashenko | International

A Turkish Airlines plane takes off from Istanbul in a file image.Umit Bektas (Reuters)

The European Commission took just over four days to thwart part of the plot mounted by the Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko to push migrants from third countries to violate European borders. The Commission’s contacts with the countries of origin and transit of migrants transported by Belarus have halted – for the time being – arrivals from direct flights from Turkey and prevented the resumption of flights from Iraq . Brussels has also contacted a dozen airlines to warn them that they could be banned from flying on European territory if they lend themselves to being complicit in human trafficking orchestrated by Belarus.

For the time being, Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis will not be able to use the air link between Istanbul and Minsk, which they used, according to the Polish government, to reach the capital of Belarus and from there to the border with the member countries of the European Union. The decision was taken by the airlines Turkish Airlines and Belavia (Belarus) at the request of the Ankara government, fearing to be included in the sanctions that Brussels is finalizing after the migration conflict triggered on the border between Poland and Belarus .

“We have powerful instruments to act and we hope not to have to use them,” Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas warned on Friday from Beirut, the second leg of his Middle East tour to cut off the flow of migrants. to Belarus. In the first leg, Schinas traveled to the United Arab Emirates, one of the main connection points in the region and whose airports and airlines were used by Lukashenko.

Schinas was “impressed” by the degree of cooperation he found in Dubai to stop the “unscrupulous instrumentalization of migration” that the Belarusian leader has implemented. The Vice-President of the Commission assured that the same collaboration was offered by the Lebanese authorities. Next week the tour will continue with stops in Baghdad and Ankara.

Brussels has also entered into contact with the employers of Arab airlines and with the international organization of the sector (IATA), as well as with the main companies of the countries from which the Belarusian consulates encourage irregular migration to Europe. The companies contacted are Fly Dubai, Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Etihad, Air Arabia and the lines of Iraq, Oman and Egypt. “All condemned human trafficking,” said an official Commission spokesperson.

“We see who our friends are and we check that we have a lot of them,” Schinas celebrated the early successes of his strategy. “We will not allow this smuggling activity to continue transporting people to Minsk by showing them that they will have a safe route to Europe,” he added.

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A Turkish Airlines source confirmed on Friday that the airline will no longer accept passengers of Iraqi, Syrian or Yemeni nationality on flights to Minsk, except those with diplomatic passports. This measure “also applies to passengers who have already purchased the ticket”, adds the source: “For the return of the price, they must contact our offices”.

The Belarusian airline Belavia has also announced that at the request of Ankara, it will stop accepting from this Friday Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens on the Istanbul-Minsk route. However, there is still the possibility of flying with a stopover in Moscow or in Persian Gulf countries such as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.

On Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lashed out at Turkey, accusing the country and its national airline, Turkish Airlines, of acting “in perfect synchronization with Belarus and Russia”. “A month or two ago, Turkey seemed to want to work with us. Our collaboration to help them put out the fires and our help to promote the Turkish tourism industry unfortunately turned out to be a one-sided favor. And we don’t like that,” Morawiecki criticized. Turkey and Poland have also strengthened their cooperation in the field of defense, with the sale of 24 Turkish armed drones.

Turkish Airlines and Belavia maintain 20 weekly codeshare flights directly connecting Istanbul and Minsk. Lately, they are traveling full and there are hardly any free places left for the coming weeks, proof that they are used by migrants and refugees from the Middle East to reach Belarus, which several citizens confirm Iraqis consulted by this newspaper.

The words of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in which she warned on Thursday that sanctions could be approved against airlines “from third countries” involved in this new migratory route, including Turkish Airlines – l one of the airlines that covers more destinations around the world and whose half of the shares are still owned by the Turkish state – has set off alarm bells.

Turkey went on the defensive in the face of Polish accusations and flatly dismissed them on Wednesday. “Our company makes sure to respect all security measures and sensitivities in cooperation with international authorities on all its flights in all regions of the world,” the Turkish airline replied in a statement. “These are baseless allegations,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu, who also phoned his Polish counterpart, Zbigniew Rau, and invited him to send technicians to Istanbul airport to assess whether it is following all protocols.

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