Live Updates: Airlines Limit Flights to Belarus to Slow Flow of Migrants to E.U. Borders
With thousands stranded on the border between Poland and Belarus, Russia sent conflicting signals. The Kremlin says it will not allow Belarus to disrupt the flow of natural gas to Europe. At the same time, Moscow flexed its military might in a show of support for its ally.
Migrants gathered in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Thursday.Credit…The New York Times
With thousands of migrants stranded on the Polish-Belarusian border and international pressure mounting to end the volatile standoff on the doorstep of the European Union, several airlines took steps on Friday to limit people from the Middle East from flying to Belarus.
The goal was to prevent migrants from making their way to the border of Poland, an E.U. country, where they are stranded in freezing conditions in what aid groups say is a deepening humanitarian crisis.
Western European officials have accused Belarus’s autocratic leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of orchestrating the passage of migrants into his country and then to the border. The officials say he is essentially using the migrants as weapons to retaliate against the E.U. for imposing sanctions after he claimed victory in a disputed 2020 election.
At the same time, Russia, a crucial ally for Mr. Lukashenko, sent mixed signals regarding its stance on Belarus’s actions. The Kremlin undermined Mr. Lukashenko’s threat to cut off the flow of natural gas through the country to Western Europe, saying it would fulfill its commitment to provide gas to the E.U.
“Russia was, is and will remain a country that fulfills all of its obligations in supplying European customers with gas,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, said on Friday. “The reliability of Russia as a supplier and a partner on current and future contracts is not in doubt.”
But it also flexed its military might in a show of continuing solidarity with a country it has steadfastly backed since the migrant crisis intensified this week. On Friday, a subdivision of Russian paratroopers flew to Belarus from Russia aboard military transport planes and landed in the Grodno region, near the Polish border, for exercises with Belarusian troops, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The ministry said the “surprise combat readiness check” came on the heels of two days of patrols of the Polish border region by nuclear-capable Russian bombers.
One of the more striking aspects of the crisis is the way migrants have made their way to the border — flying to Belarus, often with the assistance of travel agents, and then moving to the border in large groups under the watch of the Belarusian security apparatus.
But on Friday the European Commission announced that Turkish Airlines suspended sales of one-way tickets to Minsk and that Iraqi airlines would not resume their flights to Belarus. The suspensions are potentially significant because relatively few airlines serve Minsk and those are two of the largest.
The Belarusian airline, Belavia — which operates joint flights with Turkish airlines from Istanbul — also announced that Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens would no longer be allowed to board flights to Belarus.
But with tens of thousands of soldiers from Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia dispatched to the border, there was no indication that the plight of the migrants trapped in the middle would ease anytime soon.
The escalating standoff over the migrants bivouacked in Belarus and blocked from entering Poland and Lithuania spilled into the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, as the council’s Western members accused Belarus of concocting the crisis and Russia dismissed their move as cynical politics.
Britain, Estonia, France, Norway, the United States and an incoming member of the council, Albania, issued a statement at the conclusion of a council meeting, condemning what they called “the orchestrated instrumentalization of human beings whose lives and well-being have been put in danger for political purposes by Belarus.”
They said the objective of Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, was “destabilizing neighboring countries and the European Union’s external border and diverting attention away from its own increasing human rights violations.”
The statement, read outside the Security Council chambers by Estonia’s ambassador, Sven Jurgenson, described Mr. Lukashenko’s behavior as unacceptable and said it warranted “a strong international reaction and cooperation in order to hold Belarus accountable.”
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have traveled recently to Belarus in hopes of reaching the European Union, but have been prevented by Poland and Lithuania, E.U. member countries, from entering. Thousands are camped along the border with Poland.
No action was announced by the Security Council on Thursday, and given the strong alliance between Belarus and Russia — a veto-wielding permanent member of the council — prospects for any punitive steps by the United Nation’s most powerful body seemed remote.
Anticipating the criticism, Russia’s deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told reporters before the Security Council session began that the European Union’s portrayal of Belarus as the evildoer was an attempt to mask the bloc’s own cruelty in illegally keeping the migrants out.
“The narrative they will be promoting to you is that Belarus is responsible for this crisis, that Belarus is using migrants as a tool of war,” Mr. Polyanskiy said.
“We are very aware of what’s happening on the border,” he said. “It’s very disturbing. There are people who came, legally, to Belarus, and who want to enter the European Union countries. They are not being allowed to cross the border, they are being pushed from the border, they are being prosecuted, they are being beaten.”
Mr. Polyanskiy said the position of the European Union on the migrants was “a total shame and a total violation of any possible international convention.”
Asked if Russia and Belarus were cooperating to bring migrants in Belarus to the European Union’s eastern border, he said, “Absolutely not.”
The confrontation over migrants trying to reach the European Union has a long and growing list of players: Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Germany, the European Union, the United Nations, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Belarus has granted visas to thousands of people, many of them from Iraq and Syria, to fly to its capital, Minsk, and then escorted them to its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, E.U. countries that refuse to admit them. Visas in hand, Iraqis have been boarding flights in Istanbul and Moscow to reach Belarus.
On Friday those routes appeared to be closing for citizens of some countries under pressure from the European Union on the airlines involved. The Turkish Civil Aviation and the Belarusian airline, Belavia, both announced Friday morning that Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens would no longer be allowed to board flights to Belarus.
“Due to the problem of illegal border crossings between the European Union and Belarus, it has been decided that the citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen who want to travel to Belarus from Turkish airports will not be allowed to buy tickets and boarding until further notice,” the Turkish statement, released on Twitter, said.
Belavia, which operates joint flights with Turkish airlines from Istanbul, warned passengers from Iraq, Syrian and Yemen that they would not be allowed to board flights to Belarus from Turkey and offered them a full refund in a message on its website.
This week, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the E.U. would “explore how to sanction, including through blacklisting, third country airlines that are active in human trafficking.”
Relatively few airlines serve Minsk, and fewer still have direct flights there from countries neighboring Syria or Iraq. The European Commission announced on Friday that Turkish Airlines suspended sales of one-way tickets to Minsk, and that Iraqi airlines would not resume their flights to Belarus.
It is not clear how the E.U. would define “human trafficking,” or how many of the people huddled at the Belarus-Poland border, if any, flew on Turkish Airlines — or, for that matter, how an airline is supposed to distinguish between a tourist and a migrant. Iraqis, who have made up the bulk of the passengers traveling from Istanbul, have traveled with visas for Belarus.
The Turkish government, which has been criticized in the past for pushing refugees toward Europe to further its own political agenda, but has also struggled to host nearly four million refugees, on this occasion sided with European and fellow NATO members.
But Ankara also took affront at any threat of European sanctions. On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry released a vehement statement in response to speculation that the airline could be penalized.
“We reject the efforts to portray Turkey as part of a problem that it is not party to. Moreover, we find it deliberate that Turkish Airlines, one of our globally respected companies, is being targeted, despite sharing information on the matter transparently,” the ministry said.
The statement made clear where Turkish government sympathies lie, referring to people “illegally crossing into our allies Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.”
Many of the migrants boarding flights from Turkey have expressed no interest in staying in Belarus, an economically troubled, repressive country that is under Western sanctions, and openly told reporters that they wanted to reach the European Union, where they hoped to find asylum and work.
As a result, many of them are camped at the border in unsafe conditions, unable to go in either direction — a humanitarian crisis that the West accuses the Belarusian leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of creating intentionally to pressure the E.U. to lift its sanctions.
The largest number of migrants reaching Minsk have flown on Belavia, Belarus’s national airline, and many others have taken Cham Wings, a Syrian carrier. But they are already barred from operating in the E.U.
Thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have traveled to Belarus in hopes of reaching the European Union, but have been prevented by Poland and Lithuania, E.U. member countries, from entering. They are camped along the border with Poland, stranded in the bitter cold.
Exhausted, freezing and exposed to the elements, Bayar Awat, his wife and infant daughter have been stuck on the Belarusian side of the Polish border for more than a week after leaving their homes in a desperate gambit to reach the European Union.
One of several thousand migrants from Iraq’s Kurdistan region at the Belarus border, Mr. Awat said that he knew Belarus was using migrants like him and his family as pawns in its own political battles, but that he was determined not to return to Iraq. He and others like him are hoping instead that the European Union will strike a deal for Poland to admit them.
“We became like a chicken in a cage in the hands of Belarusian and Polish police,” he said in a telephone interview, as children cried in the background. “One of them won’t let us go back to Minsk and the other won’t let us in. Belarus is playing with us any way they want.”
Western leaders have accused Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus, of orchestrating a migrant crisis on the European Union’s border out of anger at the bloc for imposing economic sanctions on his country.
They say that the manufactured crisis has turned Mr. Awat and the other migrants into human weapons in a political fight that has nothing to do with them.
“We are exhausted,” Mr. Awat said. “We don’t have sleeping bags or tents.”
He said he and his wife had taken off their winter coats to wrap their daughter, Katu, to shield her from the bitter cold and rain. As they trekked for two days through a deep forest to the Polish border, they abandoned their small tent and sleeping bags because of the weight, he said.
Mr. Awat, a laborer, said he had paid $3,400 for each family member to get there. That covered the costs of visas to Belarus obtained in the United Arab Emirates, airfare through Dubai and 14 nights accommodation in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. He said he was hoping to give his family a better life.
Minsk is the staging point for the trek by thousands of migrants, most of them Iraqi Kurds, to the borders with Poland and Lithuania, gateways to the European Union.
Mr. Awat and the five other Kurds the family traveled with paid thousands of dollars more to an agency in their hometown Sulaimaniya as a deposit to smugglers, who had promised to lead them across the Belarus border into Poland.
Now he and other migrants are sheltering at the edge of what they call “the jungle” — a deep forest where Mr. Awat said almost every step is hampered by undergrowth and fallen logs.
He said aid organizations were providing food and water and, aside from the cold, one of their biggest problems was charging phones. With only one battery-pack left in his small group, they were trying to conserve battery power.
“We make only one call a day to our families in Kurdistan,” he said. “We tell them we are OK. We are not dead yet.”
He said he could not return to Iraq because he feared that his life was in danger there because of a personal dispute.
Mr. Awat said Belarusian guards helped them reach the border with Poland by pointing out a path that bypassed the official Polish border crossing and emerged near a gap cut in the border fence.
But when his small group was caught alone, he said the Belarus police beat him and the other men with sticks and cables and insulted the women.
At the Polish border, Polish security forces pushed back what he said estimated to be about 2,000 people with tear gas and water cannons in the near-freezing temperatures.
He said he had hung back to protect his daughter. Now that they were at the Polish border, he said he believed Belarusian authorities would stop them from returning to Minsk.
Barzan Jabar and Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting.
It was pitch black before dawn on Thursday, and only the howling winter wind pierced the silence in the primeval forest near Poland’s border with Belarus. Guided to this location by a pin on a Google map, a group of humanitarian workers was supposed to meet migrants in desperate need of assistance.
But nothing. Only darkness and silence. Someone in the group put on night vision goggles.
“They are here,” he said. Just a few feet away, a group of eight people sat huddled and still.
This is what the coalition of humanitarian organizations working together on the Polish side of the border calls an “intervention.”
A group of about 14 organizations monitoring the situation on the border, Grupa Granica, has banded together to help.
“We have a duty as a state to provide assistance to people exploited by the Lukashenka regime,” the groups said in a statement. “In the face of the real threat of an escalation of the situation on the border,” they appealed to all parties to respect the basic principles of humanitarianism.
For months, as the crisis has escalated, this network of nongovernmental organizations has been doing what it can to bring food, shelter, medicine and clothes to those in need.
While much of the international focus in recent days has been on the area around Kuznica — a border crossing where thousands of migrants hoping to make it to the European Union have been camped and in limbo — the Belarus-Poland border is a vast one that stretches more than 250 miles.
The Polish authorities have restricted access to all but local residents living within two miles of the border. But the forests stretch well past that zone, and it is in those woods that many who have made it past the guards and the razor wire are hiding and waiting for an opportunity to move on.
The group of eight waiting in the predawn hours on Thursday included people from Syria and Yemen. They had been in the forest for months. Both the migrants and the aid workers asked that their names not be used for fear of coming under scrutiny of the authorities.
The path for migrants who make it across the border is a fraught one. While the rolling farmlands and dense forests are not very populated, eluding detection on foot for miles is unlikely.
So they hide and wait for people paid to take them further west, outside Poland, where they can then seek asylum, according to migrants and those familiar with their situation.
Along mostly empty streets, Polish police cars sit parked, waiting to pull over vans and other vehicles. If they find people who have crossed illegally, they send them back to Belarus, where many will wait and then try again.